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The Invasion Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 23, 2008

    The Invasion Review
    It seems that lately, every film that I've reviewed has been either a remake or an adaptation of a celebrated book and, in most cases, actually both. What with The Omega Man, I Am Legend, Stardust, 3.10 To Yuma and Cat People all passing before my critical eye, I seem to be stuck in some Groundhog Day-cum-Twilight Zone of filmic re-visitations, re-appraisals and, inevitably, a lot of unavoidable comparisons and disappointments. And, folks, here we go again ... only this time out, the general consensus has it that Oliver (Downfall) Hirschbiegel's take on the now overly-familiar scenario based upon the novel Invasion Of The Body Snatchers written by Jack Finney, the fourth official adaptation, with some “poddie-wannabes” like TV's awful Invasion and the cheesy gold of Quinn Martin's sixties variation The Invaders lurking just off centre-stage, is firmly located in the department marked Disappointment. Yes, that capital D is thoroughly deserved ... sadly.

    Having already reviewed the classic original version (seek it out) and being a confirmed fan of the story as it has evolved over the years - Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake is terrific and a classic in its own right, and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers is an awesome gut-punch of a movie, and both do justice to their metaphor-rich source material - it would be all-too easy to play the purist card and state that this troubled and glaringly fractured film is nothing more than pants of the lowest common denominator. But you really don't have to take my word for it as I purposely watched this disc with three other people whose opinions I was interested in getting to help form an unbiased overall picture of whether or not The Invasion was, indeed, the right stinker that it has been accused of being. One was another fan of the series of films although he hadn't read the book, and the other two decidedly casual fans of the genre at large but avid movie-goers, just the same. The results of this experiment were, perhaps, slightly unexpected, as we shall see.

    The plot is essentially the same. A vicious, all-consuming alien parasite comes to Earth with the intentions and the means of taking over its human population and assimilating it into a sort of hive-society that is cold and unemotional. This time around, the alien spores appear to arrive here via a crashing space shuttle, echoing the original premise of Night Of The Living Dead's returning Venus probe. Spreading like wildfire, the infection, once the microbes have been passed on, begins to transform the human host once they reach REM sleep. The famous pods of the book and the previous films have been strangely jettisoned, David Kajganich's screenplay clinging to the New Age fears of disease and viruses to get its point across. This leads to a set-up that is similar in vein (geddit?) to early Cronenbergian horrors Rabid and Shivers, the victims attacked from within rather than merely replicated by anonymous alien pods, taking the body-horror idea to a “superficially” more realistic level. But don't worry, Hirschbiegel's film still allows for some icky-ness as the victims have to go through a type of chrysalis stage whilst they get some shut-eye, their bodies changing colour, their flesh mutating into what resembles a mouldy old potato. Once again, though, people begin to notice that their partners, wives, husbands, kids are no longer the same ... that they are, somehow, alien, cold, impassive and intimidating. One of the first to cotton-on to the weird pandemic that is taking place around her, is psychologist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman, looking like the most exquisite MILF on the planet), whose estranged husband (played by Jeremy Northam) just happens to be one of the first guys to have boarded the downed remains of that stricken Shuttle. Already deeply distrustful of him even without any alien-interference, now seems like the worst time for him to request that their young son, whom she has custody of, comes over for the weekend. And with her patients claiming that their nearest and dearest have transformed into total strangers - among them Veronica Cartwright, who not only starred in Alien but also Kaufman's bleak but exciting version of the story - her hackles rise and that little pixie nose begins to twitch with unnerving suspicions. Doctor friend Ben Driscoll (a lost and wandering Daniel Craig) is also soon on the case as odd happenings swiftly consume the metropolis and, before long, the two become embroiled in a race against to time to outrun the infected hordes, rescue Bennell's son and, natch, find a cure.

    Well, admittedly, the original story's hook is still in place. Mysterious mood-swings and ominous gatherings of people on street corners make the hairs begin to bristle. Hirschbiegel makes a neat set-piece out of Bennell simply walking across a road that she walks every day of her working life, the usual faces and crowds losing their monotony and becoming nightmarishly uncomfortable swathes of collective menace. But the mass takeover and what should be the slow seeds of its progress happen almost overnight - one minute we have carefully constructed spells of disquieting happenings (dogs sense the alien spores on victims and go for them; policemen have either stone-like reactions to nasty accidents - in a scene that pays homage to Kevin McCarthy's role in the original movie and windscreen-splattering cameo in Kaufman's take, or breathe whispered warnings in the ears of their fellow uninfected) and the next we have 28 Days Later-style crowds out hunting those who still haven't gone to sleep. The hive-brain mentality is also fudged as, after first bringing it into play - there are plenty of initial moments when infected passers-by are quite clearly aware that Bennell isn't one of them and a certain uniformity of behaviour - the film then lets the concept simply slip into something more like mob mentality, and this is the point at which the film, depending on what you want from it, either gets better or much worse.

    The infected are supposed to be emotionless and although this is engaged during a standout scene that has us observe, alongside the uncaring masses, a couple join hands and fling themselves off a roof to escape the New World Order, this is patently ignored when we see various members of this warped community getting angry, impatient, beguiling and frustrated during the majority of the action scenes the sweep over the rest of the film. One even makes an incredibly aggressive calling-card attack that would make every pod-person in the prior movies gasp in astonishment - collectively, of course. And here, presumably, is the main bone of contention that critics had with the movie - the upped action levels. Well, if we are honest, it is not just the critics who have had problems with them, for, as you are probably well aware, when Hirschbiegel's original cut of the film appeared to be vastly too talky and sedate, producer Joel (action is my middle name) Silver took over and brought onboard the Wachowski Brothers to write in some car chases, fights and street-battles for V For Vendetta's James McTeigue to then direct. Well, whatever your viewpoint on their inclusion is, they definitely do bring a vital spark of life and energy to what, beforehand, was tedious, dry and, quite frankly, boring. The shift from nervy suspicion-drama to all-out run-for-your-life thriller is clumsily done though and, worse still, makes the first half of the film look all the more like absolute old tosh. But the scene of Kidman's car speeding along under a carpet of clutching infected is more comical than chaotic. Heavy-handed plot signposting is never a good idea and here during Invasion's scene-setting act it is so blatant that it is akin to a Janet And John screenplay for idiots. The dinner-table conversation with an irritating and outspoken Russian dignitary is thoroughly excruciating and the writer should be ashamed of himself for penning such “THIS IS OUR FILM'S MESSAGE” garbage so spectacularly that it can probably be seen from space. Kidman's confession that her character is a “post-modern feminist” during the same exchange is as dreadful as the “issue”-proclamations, themselves, and as poor as she is in the movie (never once convincing as a shrink or as a determined alien-battler), I doubt that there is an actress alive who could pull off a line as crass as this and not have it sound utterly patronising. And Craig, so good in Layer Cake, Munich and, of course, as the new Bond in Casino Royale, is a seriously wasted talent here. Relegated to hanging on to Kidman's tail, and then suddenly performing some nano-second derring-do, he reveals his disinterest in the film with his complete reluctance to spark with his leading lady throughout. A crueller man than me might even go as far as to say that both he and Kidman portray the real aliens in the story, so obvious is their lack of chemistry and natural emotion. Craig's co-star from his first Bond outing, Jeffrey Wright, also appears in the thankless role of some specialist bacterial scientist whose computer projections make Blair's Atari-graphic leap of logic in Carpenter's The Thing (oh God, another remake of an original work of literature!) appear far more believable. Honestly, just check out his CG readouts of what the Earth is fighting - pure cartoon biology class.

    All this makes it sound as though I hated the film, doesn't it? Well, truth be told, I ended up getting quite involved in it, though probably for all the wrong reasons - I mean Kidman does look gorgeous in it. But there are a clutch of neat ideas that miraculously peep through the smoke-screen of cosy, by-the-numbers studio-endorsed genre-licks. For instance, the exponential spread of the infection is orchestrated quite ingeniously via a mass inoculation program to stem to tide of a particularly virulent bout of flu. Long lines of people happily waiting for their jab are a curiously chilling image that looks like the most ignorantly cheery culling of a species you can imagine. Horrible scenes of Nazi-style roundups of those not yet infected - dragged from cars or simply pounced-on as they walk down the street - while the “poddies” look on impassively are quite effective, especially when Bennell and her small cortege of refugees have to fake indifference to the iron-fist clamp-down. This feigning of assimilation is where the film succeeds. A tense scene set on a subway train quickens the pulse and it is strange how the plight and communication between the few remaining humans actually recalls something of a French Underground vibe of hiding in plain sight.

    Now, I'm not going to give away the ending of the film, folks - so don't worry - but it would be extremely remiss of me not to warn you in advance that, if you stay the distance, you are in for a letdown of possibly “demand-your-money-back-with-violence” proportions. What Hirschbiegel, Silver and Kajganich hand out here is nothing short of a cheap, shameful con. Hollywood continually proves its yellow-bellied fear of upsetting an audience, but this cop-out goes way, way beyond the call of duty that cowardly Tinseltown ever had to deliver viewers home to their beds without fear of any nightmares. This isn't a post 9/11 conscience thing, this is just needless reassurance that, hey, only in the movies, huh! We know the film was seriously tampered with - it feels uneven, broken and then snapped back together like a Lego castle with several integral pieces still lost on the carpet - but it could have done without this sappy, aw-shucks, lousy denouement to kick it when it's down. Trust me on this, The Invasion is made by some very scared people. Even without falling back on the book and the other visual interpretations (to see how this sort of thing really ought to be handled), this is just a jaw-dropping insult to anybody who has had the patience to run with the badly scripted film in the first place. Sadly, it doesn't end with this entry's awful chicken-out climax. Even the otherwise marvellous I Am Legend suffered the indignity of a wimps-only finale - although that may soon be rectified when we get to see the original unrated cut of the film on disc (out March - can't wait!) with its promised “shocking” alternate ending.

    Maybe one day, we will see the original version of The Invasion that Hirschbiegel was attempting to put out two years ago ... but, like the two versions of The Exorcist prequel, I can't, for the life of me, believe that it would be any better. Just slower.

    But, bizarrely enough, the person who actually enjoyed this film the most ... turned out to be me. Quite why that is the case is beyond me, if I'm honest. During the film I was the most vocal in my complaints and groaning - no surprises there, as many can testify - but, at the end of the day, I liked some of the ideas and scenarios enough for it to satisfy on a fairly simplistic level. Grand sci-fi it is not. Intelligent, metaphorical observation, it is not. An hour and a half of hide-and-seek it most certainly is, though, and even if The Invasion can't hold a candle to Finney's book or the previous adaptations which, at least, had the sheer courage to see the horrific premise through to the end (and beyond), it is diverting and entertaining schlock for the undemanding. My advice, though - turn the film off around the eighty-nine minute mark and just leave it at that. You go any further and you may regret it.