Epidemic Cinema: The Invasion

The Invasion
2007, 99 mins., USA, NR (but PG-13)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: David Kajganich, from Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers.

As a big fan of the first two of the three versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1971; 1978)–although the third is called Body Snatchers: The Invasion Continues (1993)–I was of course pleased that there would be a fourth (ignoring a kind of fourth, The Faculty, for the time being*) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German director whose previous credits included the daring cinematic experiment of casting Bruno Ganz as a fairly realistic, i.e., not cartoonish, Hitler in Downfall (English title of Der Untergang, 2004). A Teutonic take on outer-space invaders or viruses was just what epidemic cinema needed.

Scarier than his space viruses, however, was the news that Hirschbiegel was replaced and substantial portions of the film re-conceived by the Wachowski brothers and re-shot by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue. “All three served time on the Matrix movies,” notes Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert (17 August 2007), “just the team you’d want to add a little incomprehensible chaos.”

But I would have preferred more chaos in this version than Nicole Kidman in an incredibly tight set of duds playing a Washington DC shrink, Carol Bennell (a nod to the first Invasion’s doctor played by Kevin McCarthy), whose estranged husband Tucker Kaufman (played by Jeremy Northam) is a leading scientist for the Center for Disease Control and whose boyfriend, Ben Driscoll, also a doctor, is played by Daniel Craig, who was obviously instructed to act like a pod person even before he is infected. In a nice touch, maybe the best in the film, Kaufman, an early pod person, uses his position to push the need for a flu virus vaccine that includes, secretly, some space virus.

Nostalgia for the seed pods grows in me as I write that this version, like so many other contemporary films in epidemic cinema, opts for viral infection, no doubt acknowledging that our century will be the culmination of the Age of Virus (AIDS, SARS, HIN5, and so on down that scary alphabetic road). This has encouraged some of the filmmakers, with an eye towards the ratings gathered by TV shows like CSI that include beautiful CGI renderings of how fluids course through brilliantly colored body cavities, to rely on special effects rather than crass physical moments. They almost redeem the film by graphically portraying one other principal means of spreading the virus: pod people vomit into the faces of their human targets or–in one gesture of labor solidarity for the underpaid of the world—banquet workers at a CDC shindig hurl unobtrusively into the serving pitchers. And in a rare display of Washington DC Metro discourtesy, pod passengers led by Nicole’s ex-husband chase our heroine and others onto the tracks throwing up on them willy-nilly.

While the reviewers savaged this film, they had to acknowledge that its premise–if human beings become spaced-out pods they’ll stop killing themselves in wars and committing other violent acts–was an intriguing variation on the earlier more personal pleas of the pod people: become us and you won’t be miserable any more. Some reviewers even seem annoyed that the Iraqi War was declared over. In any case they were certainly right that there were too many car chases, including one in which Nicole tries to shake a dozen of the pod people holding on to the roof and hood of her car. “If aliens are among us, we will not be saved by stunt driving,” Ebert, suspiciously sympathetic to the space invaders, concludes. His colleague, Manohla Dargis from the New York Times (17 Aug. 2007), gets the best headline–“Pod People Propagating With a Fierce Indigestion”–and the best reaction to Nicole’s anemic acting: “Maybe all those tight skirts she wears have cut off her circulation.”

Note to the future set of studio suits for Invasion #5, the next installment: Please bring back the funny-looking seed pods. And have Veronica Cartwright, who has now logged two Invasions, keep on coming: she’s got the patent on the role of the distressed spouse of a pod husband down pat.

*”The Faculty” is an ingenious version of the “Invasion” and when Salma Hayek plays a school nurse in a typical Ohio high school, attention must be paid. But her screen time is short while the tentacles from the parasites–who start as interplanetary shrimp but graduate to cinematic “Alien” size, body shifting at will, it seems–are quite long. Most critics dislike the in-jokes about “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that the high school kids who realize their faculty have gone over to the squidoid side tell, not to mention some meta-analysis, as in Jack Finney, author of the original “Invasion” novel, stole his ideas from Robert Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” Who knew? Not me, so this film was an education. Piper Laurie, the come-back actress who was Carrie’s mom in “Carrie” and the shifty Catherine Martell in “Twin Peaks,” comes back still again as a senior faculty pod, joined by a wonderful over-the-top football coach played by the second “Terminator” Robert Patrick, supported by sexy star turns from Bebe Neuroth and Famke Janssen as school principal and mousy English teacher and you get the best faculty you’ve never had. The school zoids, one a drug dealer, the other a Trekkie type (Frodo himself), solve the problem: squish the parasite queen, another plot turn I should have seen coming but didn’t.

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