Sunday, March 2, 2008

"The Invasion"

2007; directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel; written by Dave Kajganich, based on the novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- starring Donald Sutherland as a San Francisco health inspector who finds himself caught up in a hippies-turned-yuppies nightmare -- is one of my favorite films.

So it was only natural that I looked forward to seeing the 2007 version. At least until the reviews came out and The Invasion disappeared from theaters faster than aliens can colonize earth. Consequently, I had to wait until it showed up on Pay-per-View this Friday to see it.

Jack Finney's novel has enjoyed -- and survived -- four screen adaptations. In addition to the 1956 original and 1978 remake, it was also loosely adapted as Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers. I love this kind of story, probably for the same reason that filmmakers do: because the central metaphor is so strong and flexible.

At the height of the Red Scare in 1956, the body snatchers served as stand-ins for the fear of communism. In 1978, as the Baby Boomers were losing the last of their faith in flowers and free-love, the invading aliens presaged that generation's move toward the greed-is-good ethos of the 1980s. (And it was no mistake, I think, that this was set in San Francisco, the birthplace of hippiedom.) Ferrara's version -- probably the least well-known -- is remarkable for setting the story in an anonymous military base and making the aliens an uber-army intent on conquest and conformity. (Shades of early 21st-century patriotism and foreign policy, anyone?)

The Invasion turns Ferrara's version upside down, setting the story in Washington, D.C. and casting the pods as space shuttle hijackers who only want to create a world of peace and unity. A fair enough reflection of our times, but one I wish the script had taken more advantage of. The film's D.C. setting presents all kinds of nasty tie-ins with government and the media, but this seems to be something the film only plays with tangentially. (On the other hand, the film does do a nice job with peppering small bits of news reports throughout to let us know how far along the alien invasion has come.)

Nicole Kidman plays psychiatrist Dr. Carol Bennell (named after Sutherland's character in the 1978 version). Dr. Bennell's first sign of trouble is a patient claiming that her husband has changed, one Kidman quickly deals with by prescribing an anti-psychotic and some additional sessions. But as she takes her son trick-or-treating and interacts with an ex-husband who suddenly reappears, things begin adding up pretty quickly and before we know it Kidman is plunged into the classic paranoiac's fantasy. (Again, The Invasion doesn't make enough of the similarity between what the aliens want and what Kidman does every time she writes a prescription. Another near-miss in my book.)

The Invasion does have some great moments. Just as in the 1956 and 1978 versions, there's an early scene in which an hysterical stranger runs up to Kidman's car, desperate for help and screaming that "they're coming." This iconic moment shows up again when Kidman finds herself doing the same thing on a crowded Washington, D.C. street, a smart and chilling take on the source material.

In another early scene, Kidman's character Googles phrases like "my son is not my son" and finds millions of blog posts repeating her and her client's worst fears. In fact, it's those moments when the terror isn't yet full throttle and Kidman is still catching on that hold the film's most scares and enjoyment.

But once things get going, annoyances start to take a toll. The film's editing has a tendency to jump back-and-forth during major scene transitions, something the audience doesn't need and that only ends up calling attention to itself. The casting of Kidman's son's best friend seems off-kilter at exactly the most crucial moment, when he's supposed to be menacing her in the bathroom of a train and instead seems more like the most annoying kid in class. And Daniel Craig looks much older than he did in that Bond film.

Another gripe: It seems like Hollywood serves up two types of endings these days, happy and with a twist, with rare exceptions like The Mist, which seem to cause panic in the streets and box-office rejection. The Invasion has the former, with everything returning to normal thanks to a miracle vaccine. Instead of Sutherland's chilling identification of Veronica Cartwright, all we get is Kidman haunted by the echoey repeat of a character's dinner-party speech about the necessity of evil in humankind. Meh.

And yet, there are things to relish. The aliens are faster, and attack by projectile vomiting into their victims' faces. (As he's stalking her through a large house, Kidman's ex-husband describes being on the receiving end as "like catching a cold.") Veronica Carthwright plays Kidman's client, and I'm always happy to see her and her barely restrained hysteria. And Kidman is as smooth and beautiful and vulnerable as she was in The Others.

The Invasion could be a little shorter -- at 99 minutes it seems too long by ten. This could be due to script, direction and editing not not taking advantage of the story's underlying simplicity and clarity, as well as most audiences' familiarity with it. But if you're looking for the story about what happens as zombies/aliens/whatever are taking over the world, The Invasion isn't a bad version of it.

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