Looking for something different in this summer of second sequels? How about a third remake? The Invasion is the fourth adaptation of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers to come out since 1956, and while it strives to be the most topical and "relevant" version to date, it is also the least engaging—and, one, suspects, the least enduring. Watching and reading about the film, one also gets a strong sense of déjà vu, and not simply because this movie is the latest in a series of remakes.
The Invasion stars Nicole Kidman as Carol Bennell, a psychiatrist who discovers that everyone around her is being possessed, one by one, by a virus from space. In Finney's novel and all three of the previous films, the human victims were actually killed by pods from space after duplicates of their bodies had been created—but the effect is the same: where people once had emotions and personality, they, or entities that look and sound just like them, now go about their affairs stripped of their humanity. The strange thing is, Kidman starred in another remake of a classic sci-fi flick about people being killed and replaced by emotionless duplicates a few years ago—The Stepford Wives—and just as that film was plagued by production problems, so too The Invasion was sent back for substantial re-shoots.
The film was originally assigned to Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German director best known for such disturbing, visceral films as Das Experiment, which was inspired by the Stanford prison experiments, and the Oscar-nominated Downfall, which concerned the last days of Adolf Hitler. However, the studio didn't like Hirschbiegel's first cut—apparently because it didn't have enough action—so it hired the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) to rewrite as much as half of the movie and they, in turn, hired James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. And so a movie about body snatchers who steal people's individuality has, itself, been snatched.
It is therefore impossible to say who is responsible for what, but here is what ended up on screen: Instead of spores and pods, the "body snatchers" come this time in the form of a virus-like organism that comes crashing to Earth in the wreckage of a space shuttle. One of the first people to be infected is Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), an official at the Centers for Disease Control who immediately orders a nation-wide program of inoculation—through which, of course, he plans to infect many, many more people. He also re-establishes contact with his ex-wife Carol Bennell (Kidman), hoping to infect both her and their son Oliver (Jackson Bond).
Meanwhile, Carol begins to notice strange things. One of her patients, Wendy Lenk (Veronica Cartwright, who also co-starred in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), says her husband is no longer her husband: he no longer flies into fits of rage, but there is also no feeling behind his kisses any more. A paranoid woman runs into the middle of the road and is killed by a passing car, and the police who arrive on the scene don't want to take any statements. And then there's that census enumerator who tries to break into Carol's house late at night.
By the time Carol figures out what is happening, she has already dropped her son off at her ex-husband's place, so a fair chunk of the film concerns her efforts to find and, if possible, rescue Oliver—and in this, she is aided by her best friend and possible love interest, a doctor named Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Meanwhile, Ben's colleague, a lab technician named Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), studies the tissue samples that come their way—and when these characters aren't being made to speak overly technical dialogue, they do have a nice low-key rapport.
The bigger problem with this film is that it simply isn't very scary. Earlier versions of this story took place on a relatively small scale—a small town in the 1956 version, an army base in the 1993 version—and while they may have alluded to larger political issues, they allowed the viewer to make those connections on their own. The new film, however, loses the intimate focus, by reminding us constantly, in news reports and so on, of how the virus has affected the entire world at once—and of how various bases have been set up to protect those who are not yet infected. This drains the film of some of its paranoia, since we don't get any scenes in which our heroes worry that no one will believe them if they escape from the pod people, and we are always aware that there are places out there to which one can escape.
The movie further drains itself of tension and suspense by introducing the possibility that some people might be immune to the virus—and that their genes might hold the key to a cure. (The zombie sequel 28 Weeks Later explored a similar theme earlier this year.) Part of the terror of the previous films stemmed from the fact that body-snatching was irrevocable; you needed to resist the pod people at all costs, because once you were assimilated by them, there was no going back. The previous films also tended to underscore the fact that we humans, no matter how highly we think of ourselves, really are vulnerable to larger forces beyond our control—and while it might be going too far to say that such films provoke a sense of religious awe, there is still some overlap there, in the way such films put us in our place. The new film, however, suggests that we humans may still be able to save ourselves.
The Invasion does have its interesting points, though they tend to get lost behind the filmmakers' tendency to make literal what was only implicit and suggestive in the earlier films. The first two film versions of this story emphasized that a world without emotion is a world without love, but the new film, like the third film before it, makes the more challenging point that a world without emotion is a world without conflict. But where the third film kept the stakes personal—most of the conflict that we saw in that film took place within a dysfunctional family—the new film makes explicit references to Iraq, Darfur, New Orleans, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-Il and various other topical subjects that will forever date this film to a very narrow point in time.
The result, combined with some distracting editing choices and a few other problems, is a movie that is so focused on the here and now that it won't resonate for future viewers the way its predecessors still do, and a movie that is so preoccupied with humanity in the abstract that it forgets to be all that interested in actual people.Discussion starters
- A Russian diplomat tells Carol that civilization is just "a veneer of civility" on what he calls the natural animal instincts of human beings. Are humans primarily animal? Spiritual? Both? Is civility necessarily a bad thing, even if it hides our animal instincts?
- What about the scene where Ben recalls how Carol once wondered what it would be like if humans could exist peacefully like trees? What makes humans different from trees, or from animals? Can we learn anything from them?
- One of the "snatched" people says people who have been "snatched" get along with each other because there is no more "other." How essential is it that we humans retain our sense of "otherness"?
- Is conflict a good thing? How can we avoid it while retaining our individuality and otherness?
- Carol says that when people claim to tell her "the truth," they are really revealing something about themselves to her. How does this tie into the film's themes of individuality? Is there an objective "truth" that is "other" to us and which we can point toward? If so, how do we distinguish between it and our view of it?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Invasion is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror. People are shot, hit with hammers, and run over by cars, and several people are seen transforming as the virus overpowers their bodies. One or two four-letter words are spoken, too, and a couple of women are seen in their underwear at home.
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