A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE INVASION jjj

2007, PG-13, 96 mins.

Carol: Nicole Kidman / Ben: Daniel Craig / Tucker: Jeremy Northam / Oliver: Jackson Bond / Dr. Galeano: Jeffrey Wright / Wendy: Veronica Cartwright

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel / Written by David Kajganich /  Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

Has there been a classic science fiction novel that has seen more cinematic permutations than Jack Finney’s THE BODY SNATCHERS? 

I doubt it.  The work first saw the light of day in 1956 as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, directed by Don Siegel, and was recently selected for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry.  Then came a remake in 1978, written and directed by Phillip Kauffman, and it marked one of the first instances were both filmgoers and critics alike admired the remake almost as mush as its predecessor.  Criminally forgotten by most filmgoers is Abel Ferrera’s 1993 version, BODY SNATCHERS, which arguably was as effective, if not more, than the two previous versions.

Now comes remake number four in the form of THE INVASION, which severely challenges my own preconceived notions about how to critique remakes.  For me, a remake is only a worthwhile endeavor if (a) it remains faithful – at least in tone – to the original that inspired it and (b) it finds a fresh and revitalizing way to tell the original story for contemporary consumption.  On those two levels, I think that THE INVASION works.  It retains the essence of Finney’s original premise – that of alien life forms that come earth, infect humans, and unalterably changes them for the worse.  It also wisely recounts what made the previous three films so efficient: it’s a horror story that works less on the visceral impact of its visuals and special effects, but more on a level of creating an undeniably creepy and haunting mood to the proceedings.

Of course, all of the BODY SNATCHERS films were also compelling because they did what all great sci-fi works should do: they were intriguing socio-political parables of their respective times.  For Siegel’s 1956 original (as was the case with Finney’s book), film scholars rightfully assert that the film’s themes were an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy in the former USSR and a shameful indictment of McCarthyism paranoia that swept through America.  Kauffman’s remake also dealt with paranoia, albeit on different levels.  His film has been said to evoke the general malaise that America felt during the Vietnam/Watergate era of their history, reflecting the persuasive mistrust that swept through the cultural mindset.  Ferrera’s 1993 film could be aptly described as a scary mirror into the social calamities that were striking fear into the hearts of people around the world, like the AIDS epidemic.

Now comes the 2007 film version, which was directed by the more-than-competent Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made 2004’s DOWNFALL, a strong-headed and bold masterpiece about the final hours of Adolf Hitler.  Like the previous versions of the story, Hirschbiegel’s THE INVASION also deals with paranoia, but on a much more discrete level.  His film centers on the social, isolationist doctrine that has paralyzed many nations in the wake of 9/11.  It comments on the systemic mistrust of everything foreign that embeds our modern culture.  There are also some subtle philosophical points that it makes about the devastating impact that the recent flu epidemics have had, not to mention some commentary about the war in Iraq and our distrust of the current Bush administration.  As one of the alien infected humans explains to the film’s heroine at one point, would there be a war in Iraq if everyone was infected and living in cohabitation with one another? 

Hmmm…good point.

THE INVASION marginally succeeds as a cerebral and provocative scarefest that does an effective job of being taut and creepy, the latter two elements being absolutely necessary to adapting Finney’s novel.  By direct comparisons to the previous three remakes, THE INVASION is easily weakest of the lot, but if one overlooks relative comparisons to the other adaptations and views it as a stand-alone work, then Hirschbiegel has done a good job of crafting a fairly suspenseful, involving, and haunting thriller that creates a surprisingly level of forward momentum despite one’s overt familiarity with the underlining material.  It also succeeds on a performance level, and Nicole Kidman has the utterly thankless job of playing a very convincing victim amidst all of the chaos that ensues around her.  A lesser actress would have sank the story.  If anything, Kidman’s commanding performance brings a level of believability to the film.

The new film offers up a neat - if not bold - twist to how the aliens land on earth.  It appears that the space shuttle, while crash landing to earth, contained many alien spores than attached themselves to the ship.  As the ship’s remains blasted their way from Washington to Dallas, people that came in contact with pieces of the shuttle debris become immediately infected.  The fact that the film uses a real-life catastrophe, like the recent space shuttle disaster, may initially appear to be in poor taste, but it's never dwelled on, nor exploited to nasty effect.

Tucker (Jermey Northam) works for the government in disease control and while inspecting part of the shuttle crash site, he becomes infected.  It seems that after the spores find a place in you, they really go to work on your system while you sleep.  As Tucker sleeps the night away, his visage metamorphoses into some sort of humanoid algae figure right out of an X-Men film.  When he awakens, he physically returns to normal, but something is definitely not normal about his personality.  He walks and talks like one of those soft spoken agents from THE MATRIX films.  In short, the aliens have remade humans to be oddly complacent, that is until they attempt to infect other humans to convert them.  The manner with which they do this is very, very icky: it’s all done through bodily fluids.  One gross moment shows alien infected waiters vomiting into coffee pots and then later serving the resulting liquid. 

I have now ripped up my frequent coffee card for Starbucks.

Dr. Carol Bennet (Nicole Kidman) is Tucker’s estranged wife that lives with her son, Oliver (Jackson Bond).  One day she discovers that one of her patient’s husband is displaying atypical behaviour, like killing the family dog without a care in the world.  Carol sees this as fishy too.  She has her own concerns, seeing as young Oliver is set for a trip to spend time with dear, old dad.  She’s more than a bit frustrated with the prospect of her son seeing her former husband, but her semi-platonic “best friend”, Ben (Daniel Craig, quite solid despite his limited supporting role) tells her not to worry too much.  Unfortunately, after Oliver hooks up with the infected dad, he text messages his mother by saying that his father is acting very...weird.

Meanwhile, the nation has quickly grown infected by the space disease (the government curiously masks it as yet another dangerous form of the flu pandemic).  Carol herself manages to find a nasty little remnant of the alien infected skin off of a cute little neighborhood boy and takes it to her researcher friend, Dr. Galeano (Jeffrey Wright).  Of course, Galeano is one of those obligatory movie doctors that is able to uncover, within no time, that the sample is actual alien in nature and is able to infer vast amount of information as to how the alien spores work on the human body (this is the least plausible part of the film).  Carol takes his words to heart, especially when she becomes infected after attempting to rescue her son from her infected husband.  After being vomited on in the face (yuck) by her former soul mate, she narrowly escapes him and goes on a desperate search for Oliver, who holds a vital – if a bit too convenient - key to the survival of mankind.  Galeano and a company of uninfected have set up a vast military disease control compound outside of city limits, so it becomes a desperate race against time for Carol to find her son and escape to the facility…all before she falls asleep and turns into one of those nasty pod people.

What I found most interesting about THE INVASION is how the main lead is a woman.  There could have been an incredible temptation to have Daniel Craig play the lead, but there is a nifty bit of gender reversal in the film; he essentially plays the love interest which is usually reserved for female lead.  I think that this creates an even heightened sense of vulnerability with the main character, especially considering the indescribable bond that a mother has with her child, not to mention the innate fear of her baby being turned into a docile alien.  Kidman’s performance is so crucial to this, and she plays Carol with the right level of dialled-in, emotional confusion that later rightfully erupts into hysteria.  Hirschbiegel compliments the performance by using a lot of odd camera angles, embellishing the textural claustrophobia of the environment of the film.  THE INVASION is thoroughly atmospheric as a result.

The film has some loopholes.  It concludes not with an ending but more of an abrupt stoppage, which leaves viewers asking for more.  Also, there are some perfunctory plot elements, like the fact that you know – you just know – that the only man Carol can trust in the world, Ben, will eventually be infected and try to infect her.  Then there is the notable and highly publicized re-shoot that the film underwent as a result of the Warner Brothers brass disliking of most of Hirschbiegel footage.  They hired the Wachowski Brothers to re-write new footage and a new ending and got V FOR VENDETTA director James McTeigue to direct the footage with an extra budget of $10 million.  Originally supposed to be released in early 2006, the re-shoots pushed the film's release to this year.  How much of Hirschbiegel’s footage remains in this version is a regrettable mystery, but the odd inclusion of the stylistically opposite Wachowskis and McTeigue is not the red herring of the film that many critics have pained to point out.  Their inclusions are obvious (especially in the action scenes), but they more or less compliment what Hirschbiegel contributed and are not the overt distraction that I feared they would be.

THE INVASION is an odd cinematic creature: a forth in the line of movie remakes that cannibalizes some of the elements of the previous versions and, in turn, was directed by not one, but a  series of filmmakers, one of whom never received official credit.  Initial impulses would be the label THE INVASION, as a result of its divergent creative minds and its regurgitated story, as a misguided appropriation of a classic sci-fi novel and series of films.  Yet, cohesiveness is not what the film lacks, as it generates a genuine level of interest in its story and is able to forge a rooting interest in its main heroine.  As a scary sci-fi parable, it's not in the same league as the 1956 original, nor its 1979 remake, nor its 1993 remake, but THE INVASION still manages some allegorical commentary that reflects our current climate of geo-political uncertainty and confusion.  The direction is also fairly tight and tense, and Kidman gives, as described, a thanklessly believable performance.  Surely, THE INVASION seems like another unnecessary and redundant remake that has some decided faults.  Yet, as a whole, it holds together fairly well and creates a legitimate sensation of dread, which is what a good, passably entertaining thriller should do.

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