So, in the midst of last week’s somber news, I followed my usual routine when needing to unwind and caught a double feature with a friend. The second film we saw was Superbad. The first was…well, super-bad. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion, the fourth movie version of Jack Finney’s science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, is, alas, a trainwreck. Apparently, somewhere along the line, the studio got the sense they had a stinker on their hands, and brought on the venerable brothers Wachowski to try to salvage the patient. Well, whoever’s to blame — and it’s probably all involved, since it feels so much like a movie-by-committee — the result is an ill-thought-out mishmash of stock tropes, bad ideas, and warmed-over elements from The Matrix. As filmed, The Invasion barely makes any sense, and it brims over with unnecessary car crashes, obligatory cute-kid scenes, and some of the clunkiest sci-fi exposition I’ve ever heard in a big-budget film. That being said, I have to admit I did sorta enjoy myself through the film in a so-bad-it’s-good kinda way, even if I felt sorry for otherwise-quality stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeffrey Wright for having to churn their way through this morass.
To be honest (and perhaps like other recent invasions that come to mind), The Invasion actually peaks at the very beginning. Trying to fend off a sleep-dep delirium amid a sea of fluorescent flat caffeine lights, a scared, haggard Nicole Kidman (inasmuch as she can seem haggard — she looks great in this movie, even for her) furiously scans the back room of a ransacked pharmacy for the remaining uppers, amphetamines, and assorted other go-pills. Before we know what’s going on, we then cut to convincing CNN coverage of a space shuttle tragedy, which occurred during an unplanned re-entry and which has strewn wreckage across the continental United States. Enter government fixer Jeremy Northam to inspect the scene, and the trouble begins. After cutting his hand on a piece of the aforementioned wreckage, Northam returns home to his live-in girlfriend (Malin Ackerman, soon of The Watchmen), establishes he has an ex-wife and child somewhere, and promptly falls asleep…and you can probably guess what that means. (Ack! Merchant-Ivory Pod Person!)
We then cut over to Kidman, who it seems, is a Washington D.C. psychologist with a relentlessly adorable kid, a hunky doctor boyfriend (Craig — sadly for The Golden Compass, the two don’t show much chemistry here), and an accent borrowed from Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer. Over the next few days, Kidman slowly discerns that her ex-husband, her patients (and their spouses), her neighbor’s kid, and varied other D.C. denizens are starting to act curiouser and curiouser — They’re calm, flat, level-headed, magnanimous…assuredly not the usual Inside-the-Beltway mentality. And, as this virus of clear thinking spreads (in a rather unseemly fashion — don’t drink the water), Kidman, Craig, cute-kid, Craig’s colleague Basil Exposition (Jeffrey Wright, slumming it), and the dwindling host of honest-to-goodness humanity must negotiate their way though a tightening noose of epidemic protocols and cordons sanitaire, all designed to catch those among us who would continue to display their emotional baggage in public. We’re coming to get you, Oprah…
More than even most sci-fi parables, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always been grist for keen cultural commentary, from the sinister spectre of Communist infiltration and/or McCarthyist paranoia haunting the 1956 version to the rising tide of Reaganism evident in the 1978 Donald Sutherland remake. (I never actually saw the 1993 Abel Ferrara one with Gabrielle Anwar, but I’m going to presume it’s there too.) And this version is no exception, although what it’s actually trying to get at is more confused. There’s a running gag throughout the movie — funny at first, overdone by the end — that the world as run by Pod People is a kindler, gentler one, where Iran and North Korea voluntarily disarm, Bush passes universal health care, and the Mideast Conflict just sorta settles itself. Or, put another way, the Others Nicole Kidman is facing this time around are exactly the sort of people she’s been trying to fashion as a psychiatrist — bland, innocuous entities that have been over-prescribed into a flat, emotionless stupor, with all their edges taken off. (I’d also like to think that Kidman fighting aliens from outer space who threaten to take over our brains and make psychiatry redundant is a wry parting shot at her ex-husband’s Scientology, but I’m probably reading into it.)
But that subtext, which could’ve made for a wry, subversive little flick, gets confused by all the other elements brought in (to say nothing of the interminable car crashes, “save the child!” pandering, and out-of-nowhere chase scenes thrown about.) Instead, The Invasion spends a lot of time dabbling in epidemic hysteria, an immune-carrier subplot done better in the far superior 28 Weeks Later, and what feels like leftover material from The Matrix. (Kidman finds that, while most authority figures seems to have lapsed into Pod Peopledom quite early, a few other citizens, usually African-American, are also managing to live “under the radar.” This would be quite a clever conceit, if we hadn’t so recently seen the exact same point made as the heart of The Matrix.)
But, most importantly, The Invasion is just terribly written. Different strokes for different folks, of course, but I’d beware anyone who doesn’t cringe at the Czech dinner party scene or the horrible telegraphing involved in the adrenaline needle sequence. And watch out for those who don’t restrain guffaws during Kidman and Craig’s discussion of a possible antidote, or, for that matter, anytime poor Jeffrey Wright has to open his mouth and spew forth another dubious “tachyon field”-type explanation for recent events. They may just be Pod People.