Invasion, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/17/07 01:00:59
(Worth A Look)
Although the idea of remaking a classic bit of genre entertainment usually smacks of nothing more than creative bankruptcy and the desire to make some quick bucks off of the audience goodwill towards a familiar title, the old warhorse “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has proven over time to be the exception to the rule. The notion of ordinary people being quietly replaced by alien intruders that mimic them to the smallest physical detail but lack the basic emotions that makes a person human, a tale first conceived by Jack Finney in his 1955 novel “The Body Snatchers,” is a story that touches on the kind of primal fears regarding paranoia, isolation and questions of identity that will always resonate with people no matter how radically society continues to change and evolve. In 1956, Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” used it as a forum to delve into, depending on how you interpreted it, either the anti-communist hysteria of the time or the witch-hunt atmosphere created by people like Joe McCarthy in response to said hysteria. In 1978, Philip Kaufman transplanted the material from small-town America to the hustle and bustle of contemporary San Francisco and transformed the material into a sardonic take on urban alienation, the rise of the self-help movement that offers only glib double-talk responses to the most basic and unanswerable of questions and the death of the 1960's counterculture in response to the materialism and self-help movements that blossomed in the 1970's and would achieve full flowering in the following decade. In 1993, just after the end of Desert Storm, indie wildman Abel Ferrara’s sadly little-seen and terribly underrated “Body Snatchers” relocated the story to an isolated military base and offered a take in which the very people that we would like to think would protect us from an attack on our very humanity–the government and the military establishment–wind up being the first to cave and only those willing to take up the fight for themselves are the ones who stand a chance of surviving.Partly because of the familiarity of the basic material, which has become so ingrained into the pop-culture mindset through the book, the three previous films and the countless spoofs, homages and out-and-out rip-offs, and partly because we are living in a culture in which conformity has increasingly become the norm, personal responsibility is largely a thing of the past and such concepts as individuality and independent thought are increasingly frowned upon, “The Invasion,” the latest screen adaptation of Finney’s resilient warhorse, would seem to be facing an uphill battle to achieve the same kind of cultural impact as the previous versions–how can you possibly sell a film warning against the possibility of mankind devolving into a race of unthinking, unfeeling consumers when a simple glance at the news or a visit to the mall will confirm that it has already happened? In response, the filmmakers have decided to largely transform the material into a high-octane thriller in order to attract thrill-seeking audiences and then slowly begins to slip in the deeper and more ironic material to take root while their defenses are down. While the end result is somewhat uneven at times and easily the least of the various screen adaptations, it is nevertheless a smart and sturdy take on the material that is nowhere near as bad as the advance word might have you believe.
This time around, the film kicks off with the crash-landing of a space shuttle mission (gulp!) that spreads all over the eastern seaboard. One of the first responders to the scene is CDC investigator Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) and he soon discovers that the debris is infected with a mysterious organism seemingly impervious to both the cold of deep space and the heat of re-entry into our atmosphere. (“It ain’t from around here.”) Inevitably, Tucker gets pricked with a tile carrying some of the organism and while he sleeps, he undergoes some kind of bizarre and icky transformation. The next morning, however, he seems fit and fine and now has a burning desire to see his young son, Oliver (Jackson Bond) after years of disinterest. This doesn’t sound right to his psychiatrist ex-wife, Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), but she is soon distracted by a series of strange events to take much notice of his sudden change of heart. A terrified patient (Veronica Cartwright, who previously co-starred in the Kaufman remake) comes into her session insisting “My husband is not my husband”–her once-violent and volatile mate has now become disquietingly calm and emotionless, even while killing the family dog as it inexplicably attacked him. That night, on Halloween, Carol takes Oliver trick-or-treating and watches in horror as another dog attacks one of the kids in their group and later on, Carol finds a weird strip of a skin-like substance in the child’s house. She takes the sample to sort-of boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and when they work it up with lab technician Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), it turns out to be (all together now) like nothing they have ever seen before.
Clearly, something strange is going on but while the other nations of the world are exploring the possibilities raised by the results of their scientific testing, the U.S. insists that it is nothing more than a flu epidemic and luckily, the C.D.C, in a program spearheaded by Tucker, just happens to have enough vaccine for everybody. Of course, this is merely a method to spread the organism as quickly as possible and before long, the streets are teeming with placid masses walking quietly and without emotion while the remaining uninfected people, recognized by their overt emotions, are rounded up on the streets and transformed. Among those yet to succumb is Carol but when she goes to Tucker’s house to retrieve Oliver, her ex-husband personally infects her himself. The trick is that the transformation does not occur until the victim falls asleep and so Carol must cover up all her emotions (at this point, Kidman’s often-chilly screen persona comes in quite handy) and infiltrate the ever-growing masses in order find her son, who appears to be strangely resistant to the organism, and make it to the safety of a lab where scientists are desperately trying to come up with a cure, all while trying to stave off her impending drowsiness with a diet of pills, adrenaline shots and Mountain Dew.
Although the basic material of “The Invasion” is the same as before, the difference comes from the way that the film has expanded and further articulated the position of the invaders. Early on in the film, Carol gets into a discussion at a dinner party with a gregarious Russian diplomat (Roger Rees) and states that while the world is a screwed-up place, it is better than it once was and that the continuous evolution of mankind suggests that we may one day achieve blissful perfection if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Now these aliens have come offering just that–a jump-start to a world of peace and prosperity where war and cruelty will be a thing of the past since they would go against the collective good. Yes, they have come to assume our bodies and dispense with our emotions but if you want to get to paradise, sometimes you have to break a few eggs. (One of the funniest bits in the film is a series of news reports illustrating just how greatly the invasion has changed things throughout the world.) Sounds great, but what good is it if we have lose our humanity–the very thing that makes us individuals–in the process? As Tucker coldly and efficiently points out to Carol, she does that very same thing to her patients on a daily basis with the various mood-altering prescriptions that she hands out in order to make them feel “normal.” Granted, this isn’t exactly an earth-shatteringly profound notion–it essentially serves as an amplification of some of the themes in the 1978 Philip Kaufman version–but it does provide some food for thought for viewers to contemplate. (At the same time, it is amusing to note that a film dealing with a potential takeover of America by people who look and sound like Americans but who are anything but has been made with an Australian and two Brits in the lead roles.)
At the same time that “The Invasion” more or less works as a thought-provoking mind game, it also succeeds at being a reasonably gripping thriller. Since there will hardly be a person going to see this film that won’t already have a working knowledge of the material, it wisely jettisons the “surprise” regarding the invasion by showing us the details of a transformation roughly ten minutes into the film. With that out of the way, it is now free to generate tension and suspense in other ways and succeeds for the most part. A scene in which Carol is set upon by a “census taker” is a nicely creepy bit (though one that ends too abruptly) and scenes showing the now-transformed city in all its well-mannered and bloodless glory as she tries to blandly navigate the streets also offer up a few queasy chills. Towards the end, the film moves into a more straightforward action mode and while I have grown tired of films that begin with thoughtful philosophical questions and end with car chases, I must admit that the chase seen here is a pretty nifty one indeed.
Part of the problem in writing about “The Invasion” is that while it has been easy with the past films to see how the various directors have filtered Finney’s original work through their own idiosyncratic viewpoints, it is difficult to do that here because, as you may have heard, the parentage of much of the film is in doubt. Originally, “The Invasion” was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (who still retains final credit), who was hired on the strength of “Downfall,” an electrifying look at the last few days of the Third Reich that dared to present Hitler not as a one-dimensional monster but as a human being. He made his version but when he turned it in to Warner Brothers, the studio did not like it and took the extraordinary step of removing Hirschbiegel from the project and handing it over to the Wachowski Brothers, who rewrote about 30% of the script and then brought in protégée James McTeigue (who previously directed their adaptation of “V For Vendetta”) to supervise the reshoots. (Most of this probably would have occurred under the radar if it weren’t for a highly publicized stunt car mishap involving Kidman that alerted the media about the heretofore unknown reshoots.) While I have no way of knowing for certain which of the material belongs to Hirschbiegel and which belongs to the Wachowskis, I would venture to guess that the early scenes of quiet tension and the conceit of the aliens as strange benefactors comes from the earlier version while the action set-pieces and various philosophical discussions were introduced later. Although there are some hiccups here and there, especially during a final speech that explains all the underlying metaphors for the few people who weren’t able to pick them up for themselves,, the resulting film is surprisingly smooth and more or less lacking in the obvious signs of late-inning revisions.As I said, “The Invasion” is easily the weakest of the various adaptations of “The Body Snatchers” (the best one being the 1978 version) and there are too many moments when it either loses the nerve to be as dark and uncompromising as it could have been (the ending seems to be leading to a climax reminiscent of the most shocking element of the Abel Ferrara version and then tiptoes away to a more conventional and less memorable ending) or just becomes kind of silly. (The method that the possessed utilize to infect those that haven’t yet been changed seems less like the kind of thing you’d find in a serious horror film and more like the kind of thing you’d find in a late-inning “SNL” sketch.) That said, it is still a better-than-average genre exercise whose best moments will simultaneously get your blood pumping and your neurons firing. And if they don’t, who knows–maybe you are already one of them. Just kidding, but if you don’t like it, all you have to do is wait another fifteen years or so and another version will no doubt come along.
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