Invasion’s big season 2 alien needed to be both blobby and emotionally grounded

The world as we know it is on the brink of collapse in Invasion season 2 — but fortunately for humanity, Mitsuki Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna) isn’t going down without a fight.

The Japanese space engineer has taken center stage in Invasion’s second season, repeatedly going head-to-head with a hive-mind creature aboard the spaceship downed in season 1. These intense encounters between Mitsuki and the alien intelligence add a new, personal dimension to Invasion’s invasion (sorry), even as they dramatically expand the Apple TV Plus series’ existing lore.

With this in mind, Polygon caught up with director Alik Sakharov and VFX supervisor Erik Henry over Zoom to talk through how Mitsuki’s season 2 arc came together — and how the hive mind’s potential impact on Invasion’s wider narrative heading into season 3 might lead to previously unseen otherworldly life forms cropping up in the future.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Invasion season 2.]

So why was now the right time in Mitsuki’s journey — not to mention the overarching Invasion story — to introduce an adversary capable of communicating with her via the voice and memories of her dead girlfriend, Hinata (Rinko Kikuchi)? According to Sakharov and Henry, Mitsuki confronting such a foe (which the cast and the crew dubbed “the Entity”) was simply a logical extension of where her story left off in season 1.

“We thought that Mitsuki was over her mourning for her partner, Hinata, but very early on in episode 1 we realize that she’s far from over [her],” Sakharov says. “She’s very much under the effect of that loss. And I think she’s carrying that personal agenda […] to find out what really happened. So, when she partially succeeds in getting into the ‘mind’ of the Entity, when she establishes communication in episode 5 when she utters the word ‘Hinata,’ and she’s stunned when she hears that and then she hears her voice, which evaporates from the little girl into this entity that’s just dancing all around her […] she reaches out towards that voice and when she hears Hinata telling her, I wanna feel you. I want you to remove your glove. […] When she does, then she’s in trouble.”

Mitsuki Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna) in a space suit holding her hands up, with the Entity reflected in her visor and a window behind her Image: Apple TV Plus

Henry also notes that the mind games between Mitsuki and the Entity were always vital to the next stage of the invasion in co-creator and showrunner Simon Kinberg’s mind. “I believe that the arc of the seasons is something that Simon had always planned,” the VFX supervisor explains, noting that Kinberg’s roadmap for the Apple TV Plus show extends beyond the second season.

But regardless of exactly how long Kinberg was kicking around the Entity concept when he finally pitched it to the crew, he was very specific about what the creature’s design needed to convey. The showrunner insisted that the Entity should register as a “higher life form” than either season 1’s drones or their upgraded Hunter Killer incarnations, which are “essentially robots.” This meant moving away from Invasion’s established alien aesthetic to something “more pure in its substance.” The size of the Entity enclosure set and how Sakharov and Kutsuna might conceivably block out the latter’s performance were early design considerations, too.

“It came down to: Well, do you want the higher life form to be able to have […] an emotional arc? Then what do we do for that?” Henry says. “We loved the idea of being able to have a color palette that would help an audience member understand pain or an emotion.

“It may seem too on the nose, but when you have something that [doesn’t] have a face, you have to kind of come up with the best that you can. The other thing we did is made sure that there were times when the shape would change and when it would reach out to her, when it would shiver in pain, and actually you’d see the kind of contortions that this otherwise shapeless mass takes on when it’s being hurt.”

Mitsuki Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna) standing in a space suit in a room with a glob-like Entity glowing and moving closer to her Image: Apple TV Plus

Henry admits that the Invasion team had to mull over more than just season 2’s scripts when designing the Entity, though. Specifically, he acknowledges that he and Kinberg were mindful of potential overlap with James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi classic The Abyss, whose most iconic scene revolves around the pseudopod: a shape-shifting extraterrestrial.

“I worked on The Abyss. It’s the first show I ever worked on […] and I did mention it to Simon [like], ‘Well, what do you think? I’m trying not to make it too much like The Abyss,’” Henry says. “And he [said] that, ‘You know what? I understand that there’s some nods to it there, unintentional or intentional. […] If that comparison is there, great.’

But none of that was intentional. […] You’re answering what’s on the script, and what Simon would like the general shape to be, and we come up with something that I like to call moving blown glass, and I think it’s quite beautiful.”

Once the Entity’s design was locked down, it was time to bring the drones’ blobby boss to life on screen. The finished shots involve a blend of practical lighting effects and CGI, and Sakharov and Henry are quick to credit each other’s departments for the largely seamless results. Henry praised Sakharov and director of photography Gavin Struthers for devising a special light rig that amounted to a portable “box of light” filled with colored bulbs. By moving the rig toward and away from Kutsuna, the pair was able to choreograph on-set interactive lighting that synced up with the predetermined behavior of the VFX team’s Entity character model.

“We would vary the intensity of the light as needed so that when the Entity gets closer to Mitsuki, the intensity of the light and its color shift and its whole chromatic aberration would change its hue and shape and intensity,” Sakharov says. “And so we were able to sell it like that, and then special visual effects erased all that stuff and put the actual Entity in place.”

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Of course, the technical aspects of the Entity scenes only represent one half of the equation. Kutsuna’s performance would ultimately play a major part in selling the illusion that she was truly sharing scenes with her CGI co-star. Fortunately, Kutsuna proved more than up to the challenge.

“She’s amazing in that she’s very, very subtle. She does not overdo anything,” Sakharov says. “She has a tremendous capacity to imagine at what point within the timeline of the scene she should elicit a particular reaction, although she’s basically just reacting to an empty space because then that empty space was replaced by the Entity, which the visual effects will beautifully put in.

“And so, it was basically just finessing little bits here and there in the timeline and then she would address it in different takes. And then I would splice it all together and it would work nice.”

“Nice” is an understatement — the Mitsuki/Entity dynamic has arguably made for the most compelling moments of Invasion season 2 aired to date. This is especially true of the most recent showdown between the pair in episode 8, “Cosmic Ocean,” which hints that we’ve only scratched the surface of the show’s mythology. Not only does Mitsuki seemingly deal a seemingly fatal blow to the Entity in “Cosmic Ocean,” but she also discovers that the creature doubles as a portal to the aliens’ lair — and whatever as-yet-unseen beings reside there.

So, does this mean Kinberg and co. have other new, potentially even more formidable cosmic critters lined-up for Invasion season 3, in the event Apple gives it the green light?

“As a science fiction lover, I would say I would certainly hope so, but I couldn’t possibly tell you in any way, shape, or form what’s coming up,” Henry says. “I will say: Things get real interesting as [the show] moves on. You will not be disappointed.”