The Inverse Interview
'Invasion' creator: How 'X-Men' inspired a new kind of alien sci-fi epic
“Science fiction is a Trojan horse”
Simon Kinberg didn’t want to blow up the White House.
In defiance of how alien invasion stories normally play out, from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the 1996 summer hit Independence Day, Kinberg — the writer and producer of Fox’s X-Men films — wanted to focus on Earthlings rather than extraterrestrials in Invasion, his Apple TV+ original series.
To understand Kinberg’s angle on the series, now streaming, consider life prior to March 2020. What problems did you have before a life of social distancing and masks? How much worse did those problems get? Though Invasion was in development before quarantine, filming only commenced earlier this year after long delays. By then, Kinberg saw how his original sci-fi story — about the panic and paranoia that accompanies the arrival of a mysterious entity — mirrors the existential dread of the moment.
“Unique to Invasion is that it is a global story,” Kinberg tells Inverse. “I focused on honing characters, making them nuanced and textured and real. The invasion is this microscope unto their problems. It’s not spaceships blowing up the White House. It’s, sadly, what we’ve experienced the last couple of years. It’s mysterious, changing our lives gradually.”
With a diverse cast of characters spread from London to Japan, Invasion chronicles people attempting to survive the hostile takeover of Earth by an alien species. Invasion’s human perspectives include that of a nearly-retired Oklahoma sheriff (Sam Neill); a lonely soldier stationed in the Middle East (Shamier Anderson); a Japanese aerospace engineer (Shioli Kutsuna) in love with a colleague; and a Muslim-American mother (Golshifteh Farahani) from New York who discovers her husband has a secret.
Kinberg’s biggest influences are the authentically humane stories of Steven Spielberg (Kinberg names E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Marvel’s X-Men comics, from which Kinberg produced nine films and two TV series for Fox.
“I learned from the X-Men movies that you need a unifying theme if you’re telling an ensemble story,” says Kinberg, who even got behind the director’s chair for Dark Phoenix. “The characters are connected [by that] even if they’re not literally connected.”
Invasion is Kinberg exploring alienation amidst alien arrival, a theme X-Men prepared him for. “Whether it’s broken marriages or someone who feels like, in their culture, they can’t be their true selves,” Kinberg says. “They’re outsiders.” The show also offered Kinberg a chance to fully come into his own as a storyteller, which he admits has been historically difficult for him operating within the shadow of a massive existing IP. “I [was] either a babysitter or a custodian as opposed to being the full originator of a world,” he says of his old day job at Fox.
Another lesson Kinberg took from X-Men was that it’s important to pick your protagonist carefully. “There’s infinite X-Men from the comics, so you really had to choose which [to] focus in the movies,” he recalls. “You can tell five or six different stories, but you still had to choose a protagonist.”
Kinberg brings up the 2014 sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is flung back in time to the 1970s. Despite Wolverine's central position in the plot, Kinberg believes Charles Xavier (played by both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy at different ages) is the movie’s center.
“In Days of Future Past, most people would say that Wolverine’s the protagonist. But for me, unquestionably, the protagonist is Charles, because he has the biggest evolution,” says Kinberg. “He goes from a cynic to someone who learns to hope. The protagonist is not the person on screen the most or has the most lines. It's the person that has the biggest arc.”
With Invasion, Kinberg applied that thinking to Farahani’s character, Aneesha. “She has the biggest arc, at least over the span of the first season,” he teases.
The characters of Invasion all feel like outsiders, Kinberg says, though he doesn’t think they’ll team up like Marvel’s mutants. “I have a plan for these characters to connect. But what’s important is that it doesn’t become Super Friends,” Kinberg explains. “That would betray reality to a world of eight billion people that our five characters end up in the same place, fighting together.”
But Kinberg does have a plan that, fingers crossed, he’ll get to execute. “There is a design to how these characters were built so they could connect, not just in the literal sense but perhaps through different dimensions, through communication that evolves through the actual aliens,” he says.
Speaking of those aliens, Invasion was built off “a really dense” history Kinberg came up with sources at NASA and other organizations.
“I worked with NASA, the Pentagon, and other experts in zoological and crypto-biology,” Kinberg says. “We needed to create not just lore but actual biology for these creatures so they have their own physics. They have an agenda being on Earth. It’s not as simple as blowing us up. I wanted a backstory for where they came from and, more importantly, a reason why they're here.”
Though X-Men influenced Invasion, Kinberg has otherwise accepted that his mutant days are behind him. “I have high hopes,” Kinberg says, for their new home at Disney-owned Marvel, adding that he’s known Marvel’s Kevin Feige since producing X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006.
“He and Avi Arad were the ones that hired me,” says Kinberg. “He’s a friend and we’ve remained in touch. The guy does not miss. The Marvel movies I've watched with my sons, and I’ve watched them to study them. I’m excited about what that could mean for the X-Men because they’re my favorite.”
For now, Kinberg is all in on sci-fi. He often works with his young daughter in mind; she’s currently convinced there’s someone living on the Moon.
“There’s something in our primal DNA,” he says, “Science fiction taps into [us] in a way no other genre can. Science fiction is an incredible Trojan horse for smuggling stories, whether emotional, political. It’s an opportunity to entertain and covertly enlighten at the same time.”
Invasion is streaming now on Apple TV+.