With three previous screen adaptations, Jack Finney’s venerable novel INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS would seem to have exhausted its cinematic potential – especially when the third version, 1993’s BODY SNATCHERS, turned out to be a disappointment – yet THE INVASION shows there is still potential life in the old pod people premise (even if that potential ultiamtely remains unrealized). This is not a great film – it fails to match the 1978 remake, let alone the classic 1956 original – but it updates the story in interesting ways. This is not an embalmed classic being dusted off for yet another viewing but a new, valid interpretation, relevant to the current social political situation. Unfortunately, engaging ideas are not enough to carry a film that fails to live up to its own aspirations, undermined by misguided attempts to enliven the action with car wrecks and explosions.
The new screenplay by Dave Kaiganich updates the setting and the science. Gone are the pods that duplicated human bodies, replaced by a virus that literally transforms its human host into a soulless, alien version of its former self. Our hero this time is a woman, Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) who neatly combines the roles of doctor and psychiatrist seen in Finney’s book. As before, the character is divorced, but there is less emphasis on new romance than on protecting her son from ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam, who submerges his usually charming English personality to play an officious American government official). This time, the alien invasion starts not in small town America or at the street level; it descends from the top down, starting with the government, which uses dire warning of plague to fool people into being inoculated.
The effect is unnervingly convincing. As the Iraq war rages in the background of the action, we see civilians being rounded up like something out of CHILDREN OF MEN, and the fictional depiction feels not too far removed from the truth of where the country is heading. However, one of the film’s clever jokes is that the alien invaders offer a panacea for such conflict: once everyone has been infected, all such violent conflict will become obsolete, leaving a world filled with peace.
THE INVASION is at its best when tackling this topic. After getting off to a slow start setting up the familiar storyline, the highlight comes at a fashionable dinner party when Kidman’s Dr. Bennell engages a cynical guest about the nature of humanity: in response to the assertion that the human species is essentially violent and motivated only be self-interest, hiding behind a veneer of civilization, Bennell points out that human consciousness is evolving, citing herself as an example: a post-modern feminist – something inconceivable five hundred years ago.
Unfortunately, having set up these interesting ideas, the film seems unsure of how to dramatize them, relying on generic action set-pieces and occasional gross-out moments. These aliens infect others by exchanging bodily fluids - literally vomiting on their victims (an image previously seen in the low-budget direct-to-video shocker ZOMBIE HONEYMOON). Combined with their penchant for swarming over cars like mindless automatons, they begin to resemble zombies more than emotionaless aliens, which undermines the central conflict – which is supposed to be how alluring is the temptation of succumbing to them.
Every pod film has to have a moment when the aliens make the case for their superiority. We know up front that the hero will not buy it, but it has to sound as if it almost might be convincing. THE INVASION does the best job yet, in a scene where Bennell’s friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) points to the change in world events, with peace replacing war because there is no more “us and them” when the aliens take over; there is only “us.” Driscoll also makes the excellent point that the alien virus’s tendancy to pacify people is not all that different from what Bennell does for a living, prescribing sedatives and other drugs to unhappy patients.
The question then becomes: Are Bennell and her allies willing to plunge the world back into warfare just to protect their precious personal identities and emotional states; of course, the answer is a highly enthusiastic – but morally questionable – yes. The film seems to cast a cynical eye on this “happy ending,” which sees normalcy restored at a terrible cost; however, it is not exactly clear what if any statement is being made.
One suspects we are seeing old-fashioned Hollywood irony – the sort of thing that great directors like Fritz Lang employed when their studio bosses decreed that they must deliver an upbeat finale. THE INVASION sat on the shelf for a while, and there have been stories about re-shoots and re-editing, presumably to add more excitement and supply an audience-pleasing denoument (not unlike what happened with the 1956 version). Perhaps director Oliver Hirshbliegel was trying to subvert an ending that was forced on him, but the attempt misfires, blurring the message. Presumably the idea is that the human race should be allowed to evolve at its own pace on the path to wisdom and world peace, but what we are left with is the uncomfortable suggestion that we should resign ourselves to unending decades of mass slaughter, because what seems to be better (world peace) is actually much worse.
Thus the film comes perilously close to embracing the paranoid delusions of right-wing conspiracy theorists, who are convinced that the United Nations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and other organizations dedicated to world peace are actually just a front for a despotic one-world government that would bring America to its knees. Maybe this is reading too much into the story, or perhaps the filmmakers are just trying to push every alarm bell they can think of in order to generate tension in the audience, but one would be remiss not to mention that producer Joel Silver peddled a similar kind of claptrap back in 1994’s DEMOLITION MAN, which took the then-current conservative bugaboo of “political correctness” and argued that it would lead to a fascist future. Apparently, peace, prosperity, and politeness are the most fearful things imaginable to Hollywood action producers. (One is reminded of the Lenny Bruce routine “Thank You, Masked Man,” in which the Lone Ranger worries that the coming of the Messiah - and the end of death, violence, and bloodshed – would put him out of work.)
Leaving aside the mangled message, the film works in a competent if not particularly inspired way during its early portions as a tense, paranoid thriller. That the story focuses on a mother protecting her child (instead of on two lovers) is perhaps symptomatic of Hollywood’s desperate attempt reach a broad audience (mother love plays well everywhere). Kidman plays it for all its worth, even if her character is a bit generic. Craig is good, too, as the man who wants to be more than just friends, but the frustrated romance is robbed of its tragic element that proved so memorable in the previous films, thanks to lame and unconvincing plot contortions that “cure” the infected people. It’s also nice to see Veronica Cartwright as one of Bennell’s patients, providing a connection to the 1978 remake, in which she co-starred. (In fact, with its modern, urban setting THE INVASION most closely resembles the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. That film, too, abandoned the idea in Finney’s novel that the pod people continued to act normally – laughing and joking just like always – while their friends and relatives grew to suspect that they were faking their emotional responses.)
Moments of greatness flash by, hinting at what the film could have been: for example, when a stressed out Dr. Bennell, trying to blend in with crowds of emotionless aliens, receives unrequested advice from a fellow humans who risks revealing themselves in order to aid her. These little grace notes offer up the most convincing hope that there may be something about humanity worth saving.
Unfortunately, the film goes out of tune with its third act action, which features a rather absurd scene of Kidman blindly driving a car while receiving radio instructions from a helicopter flying overhead (”Turn left now!”). All the interesting ideas in the world cannot save a scenario that lacks the courage of its convictions, resorting to such mindless action antics for fear of boring viewers with an appeal to their intellect. Even the ideas go off the rails, when the screenplay resorts to having Bennell reject the alien overtures because of the threat to her son (they will not tolerate him, because he is immune to their viral infection). As is too often the case in Hollywood films (see 2005’s WAR OF THE WORLDS), protecting your family’s DNA supersedes all other moral considerations; even if it means killing a bunch of other people, it is okay as long as you are protecting your children.
This is exactly the kind of self-centered attitude that George Romero skewered so effectively in 1968′S NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (in which tribalism trumped cooperation, to the detriment of everyone involved). We leave THE INVASION with little to salve the indignity of such an attitude, except the hope that, perhaps in another 500 years, the human race will have evolved beyond it.
INVASION was originally shot in 2005 for an intended 2006 release date. The film was delayed for a year to allow time for re-shooting after Warner Brothers was unhappy with the original version because it lacked action.
James McTeigue (V FOR VENDETTA) is listed on the Internet Movie Database as the uncredited director who filmed the additional footage for the revised version of the movie that was released to theatres. His work was allegedly supervised by the Wachowsky Brothers (who had previously made THE MATRIX trilogy for producer Joel Silver).
One interesting aspect that presumably derives from the re-shooting is a rather unconventional editing style intended to speed up the action: We occasionally see dialogue scenes, as they wind down, intercut with the action scenes that follow. The overlap allows the film to continue providing the exposition even while the audience is already getting glimpses of the action that will result from the discussion that is being visually interrupted.
Jack Finney’s novel THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ends with a happy ending. Therefore, one could argue that the new, happye ending remains more faithful to the source material.
THE INVASION (2007). Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Screenplay by Dave Kajganich, based on the novel (INVASION OF) THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, Jeffrey Wright, Veronica Cartwright.