This is the oddest thing I’ve ever heard of. Let’s hope we don’t catch it. I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out that you weren’t you.
— Dr. Miles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy), Invasion of the Body Snatchers
“Somebody finally realized there’s a war going on and the only way we’re gonna win it is in a lab!” Bent over his microscope, Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) is not your likely action movie hero. His white lab coat and dark-rimmed glasses mark him as the guy who does the grunty lab work so that he can brief the square-jawed hero on how exactly to defeat the implacable enemy. Stephen, however, is less fusty than the usual tech, wielding The Invasion‘s fervent medico-speak like a slice-and-dicey weapon.
He does most of his talking with his cohorts, Washington DC psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her neighbor Ben (Daniel Craig). The three doctors are the first to discover the source of the mysterious “flu” that’s afflicting the world, and watch in wonder as Europe and Japan initiate emergency epidemic protocols, while the U.S. languishes, urging citizens to be “inoculated” at neighborhood centers run by impassive proles in suits. As they see through this peculiarly national response, the doctors embody an outsider’s position. If the doctors don’t crash cars with panache, they do suggest the thematic shift in this fourth film version of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel (including the Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake). That is, the alien-engineered change that threatens humans is no longer a matter of pods that enclose victims while they sleep, but a virus-like “highly resilient organism,” transmitted through body fluids — most grotesquely, glutinous, sticky phlegm.
The change suits our current times. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (who made the impressive Downfall, based on Hitler’s last days), the movie begins with an allusion to recent U.S. history, a space shuttle disaster that leaves fiery debris and ominous goo all over the crash site. The Center for Disease Control sends in Tucker (Jeremy Northam), who happens to be Carol’s angry ex. Almost as soon as he enters the scene, he’s got yucky stuff on his fingers and an attitude (when he gets home, he’s mean to his girlfriend and his dog growls at him). With Tucker set up as the most perfidious alien — a government official and father of carol’s young son Oliver (Jackson Bond) — the film has set in motion a most mundane formula: the global invasion threat overlaid on a tale of domestic discord. (“Something’s wrong with my dad,” complains Oliver’s friend Gene [Eric Benjamin]. “Mine too,” comes the answer, their eyes fixed on their GameBoys.)
Carol provides the film’s most insistent point of view (it opens on her panicked effort to find stimulants in a pharmacy, then cuts back in time to show how she got there). Her commitment to Oliver, attraction to Ben, and distraction when it comes to her patients all make her trajectory complicated. The film represents her confusion — as it mirrors the increasing mayhem in the streets — through a fractured storyline, with frantic handheld camerawork and edits suggesting her sense of chaos and fear. This is exacerbated when she lets Tucker take Oliver for the weekend, not knowing that his sudden reappearance after a four-year absence is a function of his now alien determination to infect his erstwhile family, to make them like him. The film’s other, less effective means of conveying Carol’s turmoil is repeated shots of pulsing blood corpuscles, thrown into turmoil whenever she begins to fall asleep. For of course, Tucker spews goo in her face, infecting her with the “highly resilient organism” that will change her into one of them as soon as she falls asleep.
As colorful as these visual variations on Carol’s subjective experience may be, they don’t do much for the problem at The Invasion‘s center. This is made clear in a contentious, intellectual discussion at a diplomats’ dinner she attends with Ben (he knows the hosts, Henryk [Josef Sommer] and Ludmilla [Celia Weston], who look over Carol as if she’s a potential wife). Here Carol argues with a cynical Russian ambassador, Yorish (Roger Rees), who insists all people are self-interested, that “Civilization is a game of illusion.” He namedrops recent crises (“Help me understand Iraq or Darfur or New Orleans”) in order to provoke Carol, who believes in cultural evolution and ethical progress (being a “postmodern feminist,” she thinks she’s come a long way…). Still, Yorish asserts, “In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crime.” No surprise, Carol will find herself so capable, committing startling acts of violence in order to save her child.
The film’s insistence on Carol’s maternal motivations is a little tedious, ensuring that she’s sympathetic even when she attacks another child (an alien-infected child, but still). Still, her dilemmas resemble those facing the rest of us. For one thing, Carol makes a living by helping people fit in. Tucker asks her, “You give people pills to make their lives better. How is that different from what we’re doing?” For another thing, conformity and security, however appealing, are costly. “In our world,” proposes one convert, “No one hurts each other, because in our world, there is no other.” Indeed, CNN and Fox News reports on background TVs reveal the rest of the world is changing too: Darfur declares a ceasefire, Iraqi President Al-Sadr calls off suicide bombings, and Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush appear together, all smiles and agreements.
The hitch is that the new world cannot brook difference, so anyone who’s immune from or resists the transition is eliminated — brutally. And so the film undergoes its own change, from sharp paranoid thriller to noisy action flick, with lots of shooting and cars crashing, a chase in DC’s metro system (“You’re sweating,” a still-human cop warns Carol, “They don’t do that. They’ll know”), and a by-the-numbers helicopter rescue. It’s a disappointment that all this physical commotion eventually prevails over the film’s more complicated ideas about fear, independence, and social order. Where Steven imagines the war in its most insidious, convoluted, and intimidating terms, the movie finds its end in a more familiar world.