[18 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the world of monsters, the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were nothing more than second class zombies. While the undead slaughtered thousands out of an instinctual and insatiable bloodlust, the amiable alien replicants simply wanted to take over the planet, one sleeping citizen at a time. Interesting enough, both fear franchises have provided ample political allegories and numerous sequels/remakes/revamps. The original version of Jack Finney’s novel was a mighty metaphor for McCarthyism. The 1978 adaptation illustrated the disaffection and distrust of a post-Watergate nation. Even Abel Ferrara’s 1993 take tried to argue for the corrupting and catastrophic affects of conformity. Apparently two and a half times through the ringer is all this premise could maintain. With 2007’s oft-delayed The Invasion, there is simply no more symbolic juice left.
Granted, not all of this is the movie’s fault. The rumor mill has been buzzing about this project for over two years, ever since the 45 day shoot completed in late 2005. Originally planned as a straight reworking, screenwriter Dave Kajganich eventually delivered his own reinterpretation on the story, and Warner Brothers was happy enough to start distancing itself from the source. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, hot off his controversial Hitler drama Downfall, vowed to keep the story as real as possible, and avoided any F/X spectacle, opting instead for good old fashioned tension and suspense. Naturally, preview audiences hated it, and focus groups eviscerated the subtle, serious approach. Enter script doctors Andy and Larry Wachowski, and new director James McTeague (who had just completed V for Vendetta together). Over a year after production wrapped, The Invasion was literally reconfigured, reshoots changing the premise and finale of the film.
No wonder the plot feels so piecemeal. After a major disaster involving NASA, the Centers for Disease Control discover an alien spore on some space wreckage. Within days, America is plunged into a “flu-like illness” pandemic. As the rest of the world reports a similar spreading disease, Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins to notice small changes around her Washington DC offices. Commuters become calmer and less rushed on their way to work, while patients complain of loved ones who no longer act like their “real” selves. She notices the same thing in her ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a top level Presidential advisor. After a night of Halloween trick or treating turns up a strange, sticky substance, Bennell asks her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) to work up the sample. Turns out, it’s some manner of foreign agent that replicates human DNA while merging it with some extraterrestrial entity. It is taking over the population, during the REM sleep phase, and it is up to Bennell to save her son if there is any hope for humanity to survive. Of course, he’s inconveniently been left with his odd acting father.
Playing like a mystery missing most of its first act, The Invasion hits the ground running (literally, since the first thing we see is a space shuttle disintegrating and plummeting to Earth) and refuses to let up from there. Now, if this was in service of some kind of slam bang action movie where such momentum needs to be maintained, we could understand the urgency. But after producing a premise, the story stumbles around, providing nothing we can use for future fear factors. Kidman, doing coy and confused for all its worth, spends a lot of the opening hour as an outside observer the action happening to everyone and everything around her. This creates a kind of distance between her character and the audience that doesn’t help with the crucial cinematic elements of empathy and identification. We don’t really understand Dr. Bennell. She’s hyper sensitive over her small boy Oliver, and yet she allows him to become a prop in a perplexing game of ex-spouse supremacy.
It doesn’t help that she’s stuck in “friend” mode with best beau Driscoll. Craig, looking worse than he has in any film in recent memory, makes a poor paramour, the kind of drawn out doormat whose willing to put up with a hot chick’s quirks because he still sees some sexual light at the end of the tunnel. He’s too passive to be a participant in a worldwide catastrophe, and the last act switch into pseudo savior mode doesn’t jibe either. There are several other throwaway roles here—Jeffrey Wright as a doctor specializing in exposition, Roger Rees who only gets a single scene to play a sour Russian diplomat, Veronica Cartwright (a bow to Phillip Kaufman’s ‘70s version) as a desperate and deluded housewife. None of them build to any sort of unified theme or idea. And as our primary villain, Northam is nominal. He’s like a weak willed version of an infomercial host—and the only thing he’s selling, sadly, is a total lack of bad guy believability.
Then there is the direction. It is clear from watching this cobbled together version of the narrative that Hirschbiegel intended to get his anti-American rant on. In the background of most initial sequences are news reports from Iraq, veiled condemnations of our failed foreign policy. Similarly, Rees’ only scene is a backhanded rebuke of the US as a solid superpower. If there was to be a parallel in this particular film, it was the ineffectual nature of the Red White and Blue response to crisis, versus the aggressive attack mode of the rest of the world. But since he was carted off the project, much of this material is buried, blurred from our vision and shuttled off to a scarce sonic backdrop. Add to this the preposterous stylistic decision to visualize events as the actors describe them, and then using an edited version of the images to represent reality. It’s awkward at first, and when you’re looking to build suspense, situation, or story, such a jagged concept kills all three.
Still, there is an inherent sci-fi fascination in this subject that stimulates our interest. We can practically write our own movie in our head, taking elements that either Hirschbiegel or McTeague thought worked well and reinventing our own version of them. The concept of conventionality, of running with the pack and braying with the sheep still has a lot of potential strength. America is more conformist now than it’s ever been, a nation numbed by a lack of external interests and a swelling arrogance. Riffing on that while providing some enticing alien F/X would have worked wonderfully. Even better, use the current War on Terror as a starting point and push the post-9/11 malaise directly into our faces. You can’t make a palpable parable without taking risks. The Invasion’s conceit is so laidback that it actually takes a while to realize the world is going to Hell. While this may have been the idea all along, it really does get lost in the translation here.
And so we are left with bits and pieces of two divergent movies. One film wants to find the horror in everyday life. The other looks at any incursion, alien or otherwise, as a means to some manufactured, manipulative ends. For its part, The Invasion does scoot along capably. You don’t care about the characters, but your natural curiosity as to how it will all end is definitely triggered. To call the conclusion anticlimactic would be giving it a value it fails to earn organically. It’s a series of setups missing a major league punchline. For fans of simplistic speculation that’s only capable of going through the motions, this movie will satisfy a basic need. But as past presentations of the subject have suggested, there is more to these particular human duplicates than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the fourth time was the harm, not the charm here.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-invasion/