Simon Kinberg is a British-American filmmaker who has been involved in some of the most notable films of the 21st century including The Martian and the X-Men film franchise. Now, he has turned his talents to the small screen in creating, writing and producing Invasion for AppleTV+. The show tells the story of an alien attack through the eyes of various people around the world.
Simon took some time to discuss Invasion, science fiction, and what really keeps him up at night...
STARBURST: Throughout your career, you’ve worked largely in science fiction. What do you think it is about the genre that keeps audiences engaged, and also keeps you coming back for more?
Simon Kinberg: For me, I know that it's two things. Firstly, science fiction offers an opportunity to explore really deep, complex characters, themes and issues within the delivery mechanism of something incredibly entertaining. There’s a Trojan Horse aspect of science fiction where you get to smuggle in these really interesting and nuanced characters, or maybe political issues while the audience is being entertained. The other aspect of science fiction for me, and this is true for almost everyone, is the question of what do we not know? It's something that obsesses me, and at least interests everyone. What do we not know about the afterlife? What do we not know about space? What do we not know about other lifeforms? What do we not know about other dimensions we can’t see yet? What do we not know about the 90% of our brains that we’re not yet using, but maybe will evolve into using? How is it that only a few hundred years ago we thought Earth was the centre of the universe or galaxy? How is it that we thought the Earth itself was flat? All of the leaps in science that have happened over a short expanse of time, and even shorter when you think about what’s happened in the last year or two in terms of our DNA, or iPhones, or the Internet. I just think that ‘what’s next?’ and ‘what do we not know?’ are the types of questions that keep me up at night and keep people thinking, and I think to create the need for faith and religion, and all that keeps us safe in an unknowable universe and existence.
Given what you’re talking about there, about the unknowable, how much of a challenge is it to base a show like Invasion in reality?
It’s always a challenge to maintain realism in science fiction, whether it was when making The Martian or The X-Men movies. And it is a challenge with Invasion. The way to do it is to make it feel that its happening to real people, to create characters that are nuanced and flawed and vulnerable the way we all are. And to maintain the personal crises that are going on in their lives throughout the story; to not veer the story into becoming about the aliens. The story is about real people dealing with something unknowable in a relatable way. When you do that, I think you draw the audience in, caring about characters and have them thinking ‘that’s what I would do’ if this was happening to them. And watching what happened tragically over the past year and a half made me feel that is true to humanity, that we do struggle with the unknown and it is a magnifying glass on what is the best and the worst in our natures.
It’s interesting you mention The Martian as with that film there is the constant threat that he’s on an ‘alien world’ and at any time, anything could be disastrous. With Invasion, Earth should be safer, and yet there is a real sense of dread and terror building. How do you balance the horror and sci-fi elements across a whole series without fully tipping over into one or the other?
It’s a very tricky balance to not tip over into science fiction and alien genre horror, but to maintain the sense that the terror is out there, and its building, and that there are mysterious, unknowable things that slowly become more knowable. And yet maintaining new mysteries; as you discover one thing something new pops up. That’s part of the fun of writing in a genre and in science fiction specifically. You want to constantly draw the audience in to try and figure out what the mystery is, and once they figure it out it leads to a deeper and more complex mystery. And so, when I look at the television shows that were inspiring to me, it's shows like Lost that ran extremely well for many episodes and many seasons. You cared about the characters, and you were drawn into the mystery. That’s what I’ve really tried to do with Invasion, to have characters you’re drawn in by and to have the terror and the mystery of what’s happening to the world be experienced in the first person through these characters. As opposed to the third-person perspective where there’s a huge mega-shot of an alien ship blowing up global landmarks. And if it was to be a huge alien ship blowing up a global landmark it would be experienced how you or I would experience it. Which is likely we wouldn’t be there. We would be seeing it on television.
To conclude, we wanted to ask you about H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and that you were inspired by the Orson Welles radio play. Given that there have been two recent television versions of the book, and while this isn’t directly one there are obvious nods, what did you want to bring to Invasion that was distinct and different?
I love H. G. Wells’ novel, and I was inspired by the radio play, but more from the effect of the radio play. The realism that he created with that, the reality he created with that, was so effective that many, many people believed it was an actual newscast. I know people watching the show will know that it's fiction, but I wanted to create that same sense of reality as much as I could. For me, from any iteration of War of the Worlds, that was the biggest inspiration. That way that Orson Welles was able to create a sense of real terror and real truth at the same time, and that it moved people in a way that was more than watching at arm’s length. I wanted to draw people into this show in the same way he did with that play.
Invasion starts on AppleTV+ on October 22nd.