Dir. Oliver HirschbiegelPremiered August 17, 2007
If you went back to 1955 and told people that Jack Finney’s pulp novel The Body Snatchers would end up having the legacy it did, they probably wouldn’t believe it. But it’s not hard in retrospect to see why it did: pod people, the idea of being replaced by a perfectly soulless facsimile, is both universally scary and incredibly versatile.
The 1956 film adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, is easily my favorite, as it uses that versatility to its fullest; it’s probably about Communism, but by no means does it have to be. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, by contrast, is uncomfortably dated; while it has fun contrasting the original’s small-town setting with big-city alienation, its antipathy towards psychoanalysis is too reminiscent of Scientology for my tastes.
In 1993, a newly respectable Abel Ferrara remade the film again, this time as a more character-focused story with environmental themes. It was critically praised, but barely got a limited release, and few people have seen it even now. I would have watched it before this review, but Netflix blew me off. Also, in 2005, former teen idol Shaun Cassidy produced a short-lived television update of the story called Invasion, hoping unsuccessfully to capitalize on the popularity of Lost.
2007’s The Invasion, meanwhile, does try to seize on a paranoia of the day, but one you might not expect, and may not even have remembered: the then-widespread fear of global pandemics.
I should’ve seen this coming. Anthrax and SARS were big deals in their time. Two television series, 24 and Heroes, featured season-long plots revolving around weaponized diseases. And at the end of 2005, my aunt, a retired scientist, visited us from Florida in the sincere belief that I would likely be dead soon from the H1N1 virus commonly known as bird flu, an allegedly imminent pandemic expected to kill between a third and half of the global population within the following two years. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same speed and mortality rate as the Black Death, so if bird flu didn’t kill me, the ensuing antisemitic pogroms probably would.
This is more or less how The Invasion is framed– at first. The film opens with a space shuttle disintegrating upon re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere (the film uses actual footage from the Columbia disaster, which had occurred just four years earlier. Classy.). Among the wreckage, CDC director Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) finds and is infected with clusters of a seemingly alien virus that alters the brain during REM sleep (for which read: any sleep whatsoever) and causes an absence of emotion, as well as a psychic desire to spread the disease, which Tucker does by using the CDC to administer “vaccines” ostensibly against the contagion itself.
Meanwhile, Kaufman’s ex-wife Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) is a Washington, DC psychiatrist whose patients have begun to complain that their friends and family are not themselves, before they mysteriously abandon her services altogether. During a Halloween party, Carol finds a sample of the virus and gives it to her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). As Ben and his associate Dr. Steven Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) perform research, Carol discovers that her son, now being held by Tucker, is immune to the disease, possibly as a result of having suffered from encephalitis earlier in life. On this evidence, Carol has to escape a quarantined Washington to rescue her son, while Ben and Steven try to find a cure.
From the very beginning, the trademark of pod people is that they take away people’s emotions, so it’s important for the main cast to have a good emotional range for maximum contrast. The casting of the famously stoic Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig suggested a level of self-awareness that the film sadly doesn’t possess.
Midway through production, The Invasion’s screenplay was hastily re-written by the Wachowskis and re-shot by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, and as you might expect, the finished product is overloaded with plot holes. At one point, Carol is infected, and instructs her son to give her a shot of adrenaline if she falls asleep, raising the question of why she doesn’t just inject herself preemptively. Sometimes the pod people act in a fairly normal manner, while other times they act like mindless zombies. In this iteration, dogs, much like with earthquakes and thunderstorms, can instinctively tell when pod people are nearby and start attacking them, so pod people are killing dogs all over the place until halfway through, when that aspect is dropped entirely. At one point, a pod person tries to get Carol’s door open, but walks away when she locks the door. Why he didn’t just break through the window is unclear, except that they wanted the movie to have a jump scare. Similarly, the pod people can spread the virus by vomiting a phlegmy substance onto others, yet they mostly choose more diplomatic methods that people can easily avoid, or elect to do nothing.
The production is barely more competent than the screenplay. As it is famously difficult to acquire filming permits in the central part of America’s capital city, many films and TV shows set there are shot in nearby Baltimore. This movie is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with skyscrapers aplenty. Even more bizarrely, the climax, actually set in Baltimore, is filmed in Los Angeles, with landmarks such as the AON Tower in full view.
The film is also frenetically edited, with scenes of people planning to do some action interspersed with scenes of that action taking place. One fairly mundane scene from the third act is shown at the very beginning of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis-style, for no discernible reason. But more than anything else, no review of this film would be complete without discussing its ending. Spoiler alert for those who care, but it needs to be addressed:
In The Invasion, being a pod person is curable.
Not only is it curable, but in the epilogue it is shown to be cured very easily and almost instantly, as the virus, much like the aliens in War of the Worlds, has no defense against Earth’s natural ecosystem, and by extent its medicine. The whole conceit of the original story is that the invasion is irreversible– that’s what makes it scary; the world of the film, and by extent of you the reader/viewer, is being taken away forever. The Invasion not only gives us an ostensibly crowd-pleasing happy ending, it takes away any consequences; by the end, a few people have died, but otherwise everything is exactly as it was before. The film somehow sees this as a demonstration that humanity comes with a price; in fact it’s the opposite.
We’re left with a film that, in attempting to address current events, feels like a throwback to Hollywood’s 1990s Dark Age, with a classic premise reused as an excuse for a malformed, cliché-ridden thriller with bad special effects that is never willing to embrace the darkness at its center. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has stayed remarkably ripe for fun, thrilling, and thoughtful reinterpretations, but The Invasion is, and probably always will be, an outstanding blemish on that record.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carol turns on the radio one morning, during a news report of an exceptionally deadly suicide bombing in Iraq (which in 2007 is saying something). It seems like it’s going to come back into play later, but it doesn’t, except when the pod people briefly cause world peace, wrongly conflating human emotion with desire as the source of war.
In a recreation of a famous early scene from the 1978 film, a woman runs onto the road shouting “they’re coming!” In the ’78 version, the person doing that was Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 original and thus the scene is a cute little tribute. Here, it’s nobody, in tribute to nothing. Just another instance of the movie missing the point entirely.
How Did It Do?
The Invasion grossed $40.2 million against an $80 million budget, earned a dreadful 19% rating on RottenTomatoes, and to date was the last iteration of the Body Snatchers mythos, at least until Paramount gets the idea to reinvent it as the soulless launchpad for a cinematic-universe that will never happen. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who was inexplicably hired by producer Joel Silver on the strength of his critically acclaimed Hitler’s Bunker movie Downfall, never attempted a major blockbuster again, but continued making movies, most notably the appallingly-received Diana.
Next Time: Superbad