20 August 2007


The 1956 film was a product of its time; for it studied the stifling effects of conformity.

The 1978 film was a product of its time; for it wallowed in the paranoia of a culture that refused to trust anyone.

The 1993 film was a product of its time; for it thrashed about in the identity crisis of the post-slasher horror film, and the confusion of military America.

And now, we have The Invasion, an adaption of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers for 2007, and it is a product of its time; for it assumes that the audience has the intelligence and attention span of a 12-year-old jacked up on caffeine.

Before I begin, I want to reply to myself: yesterday I published a great long study of the first three versions of the film, and despite expending the most words on Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers, I had the fewest nice things to say about it, and the least sensible understanding of how it fit into its era. Something important happened to me between writing that review and now, and that is that I saw the new film, and seeing how badly the same themes could be mangled (for the 1993 and 2007 iterations of the story are much closer to each other than either is to the first two) made me freshly appreciate how delicately Ferrara et al worked in their study of how America deals with its military power in a post-Cold War world, especially when that military power gets used in the Middle East.

Because The Invasion, although it does some things awfully well, assumes that you are an idiot. You, personally, and you need to have everything spelled out for you in unmistakably precise detail. It certainly can't be accused of having no ideas, like some summer movies, but as things stand I'm quite confident in saying that this film takes the prize for the most condescending film of 2007 so far.

In this iteration of the story, we follow Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), a psychiatrist with a maddeningly adorable son,* Oliver (Jackson Bond). As the story opens, something has caused the Space Shuttle Patriot (remember that kids, it's the only time that the theme is expressed quietly) to crash land, and it doesn't take the Centers for Disease Control, as embodied by Carol's ex-husband and Oliver's father Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), whose last name I demand be an homage to Philip Kaufman, director of the 1978 film, to discover that some kind of virus has come down with the shuttle.

Although the target audience for this film probably isn't aware that other versions of the story exist, to say nothing of having seen those versions, it doesn't take an encyclopedic knowledge of the previous films to figure out that something is awfully wrong with that virus, when it seems to take over a bevy of people, including Tucker, but that's skipping ahead. First we need to see all sorts of business involving Carol and her son, Carol and her job (including a paranoid woman played by the cinema's great Paranoid Woman, Veronica Cartwright, a veteran of the 1978 iteration), and Carol and Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), her across-the-street neighbor and best friend and future lover. One particular scene that eats up a great deal of running time, or at least feels like it does, involves Ben taking Carol to a state dinner at the home of the Bellicecs, two delightful old Czech people, where Carol has a conversation with Andrei Cartoonisk-Rooshian (Rogers Rees, who is better than this. And the character's real name is Yorish). What follows is one of the most ham-handed, artlessly literal moments of thematic exposition of the year, if not the decade, although it would be hyperbole to go further than that. Anyway, here's the gist of their endless conversation: the Russian says that people are mostly nasty. Carol demures. The Russian suggests that the only way that peace will ever be achieved is if humans stop being human - if they lose their emotions and passions. Carol pouts. The Russian says, "Get it? When the alien virus replaces us all with emotionless clones, we'll achieve world harmony, but is it worth the cost? Isn't it better to be awful animals that kill each other but are honest about it?" Carol tosses her hair and giggles.

You know, the earlier films weren't exactly "subtle," but they had nothing on this. This is just obscene. And the film keeps! coming! back! to the same idea, always presented as clumsily: whether the lengthy scene in which CNN and Fox News report on how everywhere from North Korea to Gaza to Baghdad is laying down arms and singing "Kumbaya." And the ending - MY GOD, the ending - but I'll get there.

The sad thing is that this could have been a kind of okay film, and maybe even a good one, although it's pretty much impossible to tell. The original director, Oliver Hirschbiegel apparently turned in such a bummer of a movie (if you can believe such a thing of the director of that effervescent, Hitler-themed crowd pleaser Downfall) and so Warner Bros. hired the Wachowskis to "fix" it, and they tossed it at their protégé James McTeigue, and what's left is a complete mishmash of bland action mixed with effectively scary action mixed with decent character moments mixed with cloying character moments.

And a happy ending. You expect it, and indeed the original novel had a happy ending, but you don't have to like it, and you surely don't have to think that it fits (for one thing, it absolutely ruins Nicole Kidman's very best scene by showing that her actions in that moment don't matter).

Every generation gets the Body Snatchers it deserves, I said yesterday, and ours not only treats us like idiots, it assumes we don't want to be scared. Or rather, it makes one colossally awful change to the basic framework of the story that completely torpedoes the uncanny effect of the original(s). Virus, remember? The "pod people" in this film are just sick, in an illness that is compared to both the flu and the cold. And more importantly, they aren't clones. Previously, the story worked because if you fell asleep and turned into one of Them, it wasn't "you" turning into "them" at all - it was a precise replica of your body and your memories, but it wasn't you. You were dead and gone. I assume at least part of this change was made as a sop to less-inane bad science, and perhaps to avoid plot holes like the giant one at the climax of the 1956 film, where a character is "snatched" in complete defiance of that film's rules. But it cheapens this film awfully. You never feel the raw terror of annihilation here, only the inconvenience of a malevolent fit of the sniffles.

There are plenty of well-constructed scenes throughout, with a genuinely threatening tone; one of the directors (I want it to be Hirschbiegel) hit upon a series of jarring flash-forwards to keep us disoriented and off-balance; and the overqualified cast is pretty convincing even if they're not playing recognisable humans (in particular, Kidman hasn't been this interesting to watch in years. Make your own joke). But it all adds up to an insulting movie, a boring movie, a bad movie, and I find myself thinking that by the fourth trip, the well has run dry. Time to rape a different classic sci-fi corpse, boys.



Joe Valdez said...

Discussing Jack Finney's original novel and the differences and themes among all the film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is great, a topic ready made for college term papers across many different majors.

I liked your review, Tim, and agree with a lot of your cynicism. This is an era of the corporate film industry if there ever was one, with decisions at every level seemingly made by pod people to crank out movies that appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Why Joel Silver was put in charge of this project baffles me. Nothing in his resume really says dark, eerie, thought provoking science fiction. I haven't seen the movie, but it seems like they're going for a crowd pleaser here.

And what happened to Nicole Kidman? She hasn't appeared in a decent, watchable movie since The Others. Ugh.

Rebecca said...

Aw, I thought you were going to include The Faculty in your history lesson.

Cameron said...

there is a great review on Slate.com that wonders why anyone would cast Nicole Kidman as the last human on earth with whom we are supposed to identify. a valid point.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this movie, but that's probably because I'm a heterosexual Republican. I can see how liberals might be put off by it, as the aliens are essentially Space Marxists, but getting petulant about it won't do anyone any good. I suspect more 12-year-olds will buy into the wacky pseudo-logic that governs what passes for "liberalism" in the West, rather than pick up on all the subtle digs on that particular political faction and what it stands for (that is, assuming most American 12-year-olds aren't especially aware of the interplay between Czechs and Russians during the latter part of the 20th century, which given the brain-numbing nature of liberal-run schools today is highly unlikely).

Great movie. If you voted for Bush in the last two elections, as I did, I'd highly recommend you go see it. It's a real hoot.

Chris said...

This film is indeed a product of its time- a personification of our increasingly desensitized society that longs to distance themselves rather than face head-on, the horrors and atrocities that our rampant human emotion causes.

I really enjoyed this film. Haven't seen the other versions but it kept me sufficiently teetering on the edge of my seat and gave me plenty to think about.

I read one review which basically said that The Invasion doesn't leave you feeling too much pity for the "uninfected" humans and when Craig gives his speech in support of the transformation, it almost sounds like a good idea.

The reviewer saw this as a flaw but... wasn't that the point?

javi75 said...

Releasing director's cuts on dvd is so popular nowadays that I hope we'll see this one soon. They did something like that with the Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin versions of that exorcist movie, didn't they?
After all, there must have been some trade off for Hirschbiegel to not pull off his credit. Like, "Don't worry, we'll release your cut on dvd and you'll vindicate yourself". Or maybe it was more like "Walk out on us and you'll neve work in Hollywood again!". Oh, this movie would have been so perfect with an Alan Smithee credit...
By the way, how do they get all the people who worked on the reshoots to not appear in the credits? Shouldn't that go against some union rule? At least people like McTeigue. There was a very early credit (in the final ones) to "Additional photography Michael Barrett", whom I assume was the DP of the reshoots. And in the end there was the "shot with Arriflex equipment" credit, followed by "shot with Panavision equipment" one, which is unusual, I think. I believe European DP-s tend to use Arriflex more, and maybe they used Panavision in the reshoots.
The funnyest thing about production troubled movies like this one is trying to find out when was shot each scene. I should have paid more attention to Daniel Craig's hairstyle, I think that fringe was a good giveaway...

Will said...

I don't even usually like this type of film.... but it is nowhere near as bad as most reviews will have you believe.

Some sort of strange Kidman hate?

It's a silly sci-fi horror. Go with it and it is creepy, exciting, and interesting (usually)