Judge Ben Saylor is wondering why it took until 2007 for a movie to be made in which Jeremy Northam pukes on Nicole Kidman's face.
Do not trust anyone. Do not show emotion. Do not fall asleep.
In 1956, Don Siegel's classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released. Adapted from a magazine serial by Jack Finney, the film depicted the takeover of a cozy California town by "pod people," emotionless replicas who replaced the townsfolk in their sleep one by one. In 1978, director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) made a new version of the story that retained the original's title but set the action in San Francisco. In 1993, Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) released his version, the economically titled Body Snatchers, which took place on a military base. In August 2007, Warner Bros. released The Invasion, whose reputation thus far centers largely on the film's reportedly troubled production history, which saw the movie taken away from director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), with rewrites and re-shooting by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix trilogy) and James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) respectively. Most people take this unfortunate aspect of the movie as an opportunity to jump all over it, although honestly, while it is the worst of the body snatcher films, it's not a terrible movie. It's not even the worst Nicole Kidman movie of 2007. (That distinction belongs to Margot at the Wedding.)
Facts of the Case
After a U.S. space shuttle breaks up during an unscheduled landing attempt, spores carried by the spacecraft begin infecting people in their sleep, turning them into emotionless copies of their former selves. One of the early victims is Center for Disease Control and Prevention suit Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam, The Tudors). The newly transformed Kaufman suddenly wants to see his young son Oliver (Jackson Bond), which raises the eyebrows of Kaufman's ex-wife, psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman, Fur). Around the same time, one of Carol's patients complains about her husband's disturbing behavior, and news reports of a "flu" begin airing. Together with pal/would-be love interest Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale) and scientist Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright, Syriana), Carol must find a way to save her son and herself until a cure can be found.
The Invasion is two-thirds of a decent movie and one-third Hollywood hack job, which on paper doesn't look that bad, except that the bad part happens at the end of the movie. The film lulls you into thinking, "Hey, this is all right," then it jacks you in the face with a patently ridiculous ending.
Still, even if it had a better ending, The Invasion suffers from more than its fair share of problems. Little effort is made in Dave Kajganich's screenplay to develop any of the characters. Daniel Craig's Ben Driscoll particularly fares poorly, as his character only seems present to provide unnecessary romantic tension and also make a case for a remake of Bullitt, as the actor rocks the turtleneck/sport coat look for much of the film. Most of the movie's other characters are also thinly sketched, although I don't suppose anyone goes to a pod people movie in the hopes of seeing an incisive character study.
In addition, Kajganich rather clumsily tries to shoehorn in the movie's "message," which, in a nutshell, is that human beings are intrinsically incapable of doing harm to another. This message is first delivered by Yorish (Roger Rees, The Prestige), the Russian ambassador to America, whose sole purpose in the film is to deliver this big idea. But in case you went to the bathroom during that speech, two other scenes occur later in the story (no fair telling when) that articulate exactly what you're supposed to take away from the movie. While I find Kajganich's ideas interesting (if not particularly original), he's hardly subtle about how he places them in the narrative.
Stylistically, while much of this movie is fine (if unspectacular), there are some weird touches here and there. When the spores begin to infect someone, the viewer is assaulted with silly, poorly rendered CGI of the person's body getting infected. In addition, there is some strange flash-forward editing that happens for no apparent reason.
Now, let's talk about that ending.
What was Warner Bros. thinking? How could they not realize how silly it would be for Nicole Kidman to drive around with a bunch of people on top of her car? And how did they not see how stupid the actual conclusion is? It's like the filmmakers pushed the "reset" button; how convenient it is that none of the infected can remember what happened to them. It doesn't even solve all their problems; how does Carol explain to Ben how he got shot in the knee? And what about Wendy and her husband; how will Bobo's absence be explained? Actually, I think it would have been much more interesting if the infected people could remember; just think about all the great awkward situations that would ensue: "Morning, honey. Say, remember the time I barfed in your face?" or, "Hi Hon, how about that time when I strangled the dog? What a week that was, huh?" Needless to say, the ending is awful and just leaves you with a feeling of, "What was the point of watching this?"
(END SPOILER ALERT)
Warner Bros. HD DVD of The Invasion (which has a standard DVD version of the film on its flip side) delivers the goods in the video and sound departments even if it fails miserably in the extras. Not only do we not get a director's cut from Hirschbiegel, but the special features make absolutely no mention of the re-shoots or anything related to them. All we get is a lame trio of promotional featurettes that last less than 10 minutes and an 18-minute piece called "We've Been Snatched Before: Invasion in Media History," which desperately tries to bring some intellectual credibility to this project. Even if some juicy material about the re-shoots was too much ask, would it have killed them to slap something together tying in all four body snatchers movies? I realize that there are probably rights issues there, but come on, people.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite The Invasion's lackluster work with character, there is fine work from both Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Northam. Kidman's screen persona has always struck me as rather frigid (although I will concede that she is a fine actress), which makes her an interesting choice for this movie, where the infected people are distinguished from the uninfected by their lack of emotion. Ultimately, Kidman works well in a role that at first glance seemed better for, say, Jodie Foster (no stranger to protective-mother roles) or Naomi Watts. She has the necessary warmth to be convincing as a caring mother as well as the grim determination needed to shoot people trying to get to her and her son.
Northam, who spends most of his screen time as one of the infected people, is very chilling in the role. The actor makes Kaufman just human enough to pass with most people, but also "off" enough to give one pause. He gets an especially creepy scene as he talks to Carol and Oliver while trying to locate them in a dark room.
Also, kudos to the filmmakers for giving a key supporting role to Veronica Cartwright, who was in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She's only in a handful of scenes, but her character is an important one, as she first brings to Carol's attention that something fishy is happening.
Hirschbiegel and Kajganich also deserve a lot of credit for doing a solid job establishing mood and suspense through much of the movie's first hour. Many of the scenes showing infected and uninfected people on the street (like when two people commit suicide and an uninfected human is picked out from the crowd by her reaction) are very effective, and rank up there with any of the scenes from the previous snatcher flicks. While I don't think that the whole vomiting-to-spread-the-illness tack was the best idea, the scene where Carol and some others are pursued through a Metro car is a genuine nail-biter. In addition, the movie has some great location work, particularly during its second half, and Rainer Klausmann's cinematography features great work with both warm and cool colors, generally giving the film's Washington, D.C. locations a chilling, remote feeling perfectly keeping with the mood and atmosphere Hirschbiegel creates.
Quite simply, The Invasion is a highly flawed movie that had the chance to be a lot better. Unfortunately, its HD DVD release, while technically solid, makes no effort to rectify the mangling this movie received en route to theaters.
Hirschbiegel and his cast are free to go, but Warner Bros. is sentenced to jail pending the release of a director's cut DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "The Invasion: A New Story"
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