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Invasion, The (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 August 2007
Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” was first published as a serial in Collier’s magazine in 1954, and quickly bought for filming. The first movie, in 1956, was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and so was the first remake in 1978, one of the few times a remake equaled or (some feel) even topped the original. It was made less satisfactorily yet again in 1994 as just plain “Body Snatchers.” And now here’s a fourth version, making Finney’s unprepossessing book probably the most-filmed post-WW2 American novel.

The setup is different here. It opens with Nicole Kidman frantically rummaging through the shelves of a pharmacy, trying to find drugs that will keep her awake. Most of the rest of the movie is an extended flashback from this scene (too much time is spent in that pharmacy). The space shuttle Patriot crashes to Earth, its debris spread from Dallas to Washington D.C., cutting a swath 200 miles wide. The government tries to gather up the debris, which they realize is covered with a growth containing spores of some kind. But it’s too big to completely hide; someone sourly notes that fragments are almost immediately for sale on eBay.

One of those investigating the wreck is Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), who cut his finger on a piece of debris; that night, something strange happens to him while he sleeps. The next day, his psychiatrist ex-wife, Dr. Carol Bennell (Kidman) meets with a patient, Wendy Lenk (Veronica Cartwright, a veteran of the 1978 “Invasion”), who claims her husband isn’t her husband. Carol lives with her young son Oliver (Jackson Bond), and isn’t pleased to learn that after years of indifference, Tucker wants Oliver to spend some time with him. She complains about this to her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), who works with colleague Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright). Meanwhile, the government announces a flu epidemic, immediately setting up inoculation centers—under the direction of Tucker Kaufman. That’s not flu vaccine being injected into all those people.

That’s about it for setup. The story almost immediately begins including frozen-faced “snatchers” stalking the streets of Washington, DC. There’s no sense of a gradual onset of the horror, so effective in the first two movies. One night, a bogus census taker tries to force his way into Carol’s home. On and on the “snatchers” come, while the few remaining normal people quickly learn that they can pass themselves off as post-infection snatchers by pretending not to have emotions. There are some good scenes scattered among what looks like movie fragments, but it doesn’t hang together.
It’s obvious why Hollywood has come back to “The Body Snatchers” time and again. The basic story is founded on a kind of nightmarish paranoia that almost all of us have been subject to at one time or another: what if everyone around us was an impostor—and working against us? Finney’s story, and the first two movies, present this theme so powerfully, so compellingly, that it has literally become the stuff of nightmare for many people. There’s something almost graceful, nearly sinuous, about how the idea wraps around our lives, sends tendrils into our subconscious.

In the first three films, spores arrive from outer space that grow into plants that bear large, melon-like pods. These pods duplicate almost anything nearby (in the novel, one copies a can of peaches; in the second movie, a dog is duplicated—almost), then the duplicates replace the originals. But the duplicated people lack something indefinable that makes them human; it’s partly that while they have all the memories and personality traits of the originals, they only pretend to have emotions—people initially make complaints along the lines of “my father isn’t my father”—and they want everyone to undergo the duplication process. In the novel, the duplicates simply crumble into nothingness after about six years; Finney never did link his duplicates into the life cycle of the alien plants—at what point do those spores appear? But the idea’s power was based on fears of alienation, not on scientific logic.

In 1956, some critics took the pod people as metaphors for the dominating tendency of Communist society, some saw them as stand-ins for the proponents of the “Red Scare” of the period. Director Don Siegel never claimed that his movie was founded on metaphors, but did say that insofar as he DID think of the pod people that way, he saw them as the embodiment of “conformity,” another 1950s bugaboo. In a limited sense, the 1978 version (just out in a spiffy new DVD edition) was about psychobabble—you can’t tell the point at which Leonard Nimoy’s psychiatrist’s body was snatched; he talks in the same jargon before and after—but also was in favor of individuality, even the wacky sort embodied by Jeff Goldblum’s post-hippie character. (The movie is set in San Francisco.) The third was on a military base, where everyone is supposed to act pretty much the same—which undercuts the sense of growing paranoia.

The new version isn’t quite as focused as the first two, but does make a disquieting point: the possessed humans (they’re not duplicates this time) around the world end all wars, everywhere. The conflicts that lead to war are part of the price we pay for the right to be human. This is unexpected and eerily convincing; the movie does have something to say—but it’s not something we necessarily want to hear.

But this is only subtext, news reports from the edges of the screen. The movie initially wrapped production in 2005—it was while he was making this movie that Daniel Craig learned he’d been cast as James Bond—but producer Joel Silver wanted changes made. He’d produced the “Matrix” movies, so called in Andy and Larry Wachowski for some rewrites, replacing debuting screenwriter Dave Kajganich, then replaced Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall”) as director with “V for Vendetta”’s James McTeigue. The reshoots were still going on early this year.

Evidently, Silver decided to turn “The Invasion” into an action movie; scattered throughout the film, but largely at the end, there are car chases and other violent activity, which clash with the low-key, cerebral nature of much of the rest of the movie. Granted, some of the action is pretty intense—Kidman and son roar through the streets of Washington in a police car covered with determined “snatchers” while the hood is ablaze from a Molotov cocktail. And also granted that some of the original material is pretty silly: inasmuch as this time, the horror is spread by microorganisms rather than pods, the “snatchers” pass along the infection by vomiting on their targets. The first time this happens is unexpected and somewhat creepy, but it turns pretty damned funny pretty damned fast.

Sometimes, that underlying theme—our very humanity is what causes wars and other conflicts—is crudely laid out before us. A wry Russian diplomat (a nearly unrecognizable Roger Rees) observes that trying to picture the world without war is “to imagine a world in which human beings have ceased to be human.” This is a bit more baldly didactic than the movie can support—and nowhere in the film is there a suggestion as to how we can still be human and avoid these clashes. Kidman’s claim that things are getting “better” is weak and not emphasized.

Dave Kajganich has been quoted claiming the pods were “campy,” and his bacterial notion is more modern, or something. But he hasn’t worked out the kinks satisfactorily, including the elementary question of just why the victims want to pass along this infection. The pods, at least, were living out their life cycle; they were driven by a biological imperative. But bacteria? Jeffrey Wright is handed a jaw-breaking speech intended to scientifically explain how this works, but it’s hard to follow—and hard to want to follow. It has something to do with REM (rapid eye movement) during sleep, and the reshaping of the victims’ DNA. But then why do they get covered with a kind of second skin during transformation?

Maybe some consider the pods campy, but in the first two films, they were also eerie and unnerving. There are a few scary sequences in “The Invasion,” but overall it’s nowhere near as compelling as the first two, and certainly won’t fit into society’s consciousness the way those two did.

The efforts at turning this into an action movie are not only sporadic, they take very strange forms. Occasionally, there are shock cuts to bloodstreams—usually Kidman’s—with the cells THUNDERING along the veins, followed by a looping, swirling camera. I don’t think the movie needed noisy blood vessels—or car chases and wrecks, explosions, bodies flung through the air, a pursuing helicopter—but it gets them anyway.

It has a good cast, but everyone is limited. Kidman spends most of the film either looking worried, or behind the wheel of a car. Craig gets to be momentarily charming, but there isn’t much to his character. We see Northam more after snatching than before—and after snatching, he’s the most interesting character in the movie. If the snatchers are supposed to be emotionless, Northam didn’t get the memo: he seems almost gleeful to be so evial and mean, especially when he’s trying to puke into Kidman’s mouth. Josef Sommer and Celia Weston do well in their brief scenes, and Jackson Bond is a tough little trouper, very convincing as Kidman’s son.

The first and third versions had semi-upbeat endings, but (memorably) not the second. I won’t reveal the ending of “The Invasion,” but my expectations plummeted when Wright said three little words—which, in fairness, I should not reveal here. I can say that the ending is unsatisfying—matching the rest of the movie.

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