Wednesday, October 10, 2007


So here’s my history with the pod people: I read Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers way back in grade school; and while Philip Kaufman’s 1978 adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is one of my all-time favourites, I thought Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993) paled in comparison to Kaufman’s effort. Small wonder, as Kaufman presented audiences with a tight, tension-filled exercise in urban paranoia, and left them with some unforgettable cinematic moments, while Ferrara didn’t really seem to add anything new to the tale, other than making the main protagonists younger.
So it was with some trepidation that I received word that there was to be a fourth film adaptation of Finney’s landmark novel. And when the news trickled in about the re-shoots and the eleventh-hour Wachowski/McTeigue intervention, I got even more concerned.
In a gross oversimplification of events, Oliver Hirschbiegel—director of the Oscar-nominated Der Untergang (Downfall)—began work on what was then being called The Visiting, described as “part thriller, part political allegory.” But when Hirschbiegel’s original cut reportedly didn’t quite click with test audiences, producer Joel Silver brought in the Wachowskis for a re-write; some reports indicate 30% of the film was re-written, others, nearly 70%.
Wachowski protégé James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) then came on-board for 17 days of re-shoots, and all this additional activity caused the original release date of August 2006 to be moved a whole year. At the end of it all, Joel Silver was quoted as saying: “I wasn't intending to make a little art film. I tend to make commercial, mainstream movies. [The Invasion] just needed a little help.”
It was clear then that whatever The Invasion turned out to be, it would most certainly not be the original vision screenwriter David Kajganich had, nor what Hirschbiegel shot over 45 days in Baltimore. This would then be the fifth re-working of Finney’s novel, completely bypassing the Kajganich/Hirschbiegel effort.
Was this a Hollywood train wreck waiting to happen, with extra conductors and replacement drivers ultimately arsing up the works? Or could the Wachowskis have actually hit this one out of the park?

In this redux of a redux, Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) is a divorced mother and psychiatrist who suddenly finds her world transformed by the arrival of an extraterrestrial virus which turns its victims into soulless versions of themselves: all of the memories and logic and habits, none of the messy emotions.
This crisis coincides with Carol’s son Oliver (Jackson Bond) visiting with his father (The Tudors’ Jeremy Northam, whose character is named Tucker Kaufman, presumably a nod to director Philip Kaufman), who happens to work for the CDC, and is an early victim of the virus.
As the strangeness escalates around Carol, the only ones she can turn to for help are her close friend Ben Driscoll (double-oh-seven Daniel Craig), and his colleague Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright, HBO’s Angels in America and M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water; Wright was also Craig’s co-star in Casino Royale). Not only do the trio need to comprehend the workings of this virus, but Carol must also retrieve her son before he is infected.

Clearly, The Invasion has something to say, about the inherent savagery of the human race, and the possible price for a completely conflict-free world. But there are a myriad things which serve to distract the audience and obscure what might have been a fascinating and provocative exploration of what it truly means to be human.
Most conspicuous are a number of curious and spastic editing choices which do little more than interrupt and confuse the narrative flow. Also evident is the lack of a real character in Carol Bennell.
I don’t really know much about her beyond the fact that she’s a shrink, she’s a self-professed “post-modern feminist,” and she’s a Concerned Mother. There is a distinct lack of tiny grace notes that tell me she’s actually a living, breathing individual. (And the little word game she plays with Oliver doesn’t count; that’s a quick “Oh, look, she must really be close with her son and really care for him a lot” tic more than anything else.)
And with a performance that doesn’t quite have the “oomph” of some of her past work, Kidman could very well have been a pod person from the get-go.

And while the choice of turning the threat’s nature into a virus—as opposed to Finney’s idea (which has been used in all of The Body Snatchers’ previous cinematic iterations), where alien pods actually produce an emotionless clone while the original human’s body disintegrates—is certainly interesting and timely in this virulent age of SARS and bird flu, it also leaves a back door open, saddling us with an ending that rings a bit hollow and somehow diminishes the catastrophe itself to just another outbreak.
At the end of it all, there just doesn’t seem to be much weight to what came before, no real, substantial repercussions of the disaster.

To be fair though, there are a few bright spots.
Just as Kaufman made a nod to Donald Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the first adaptation from 1956) by giving Kevin McCarthy a brief cameo, re-enacting his final lines from Siegel’s version*, The Invasion sees Veronica Cartwright (brilliant in Kaufman’s version) in a small role as Wendy Lenk, a patient of Carol’s, who twigs to what’s going down early on when her normally volatile husband becomes a cold and calm automaton overnight.
Cartwright’s scene with Kidman is awesome, and I’m just disappointed that we don’t see more of her, and that, ultimately, her character seems more plot device (to reveal to Carol and company some of the characteristics of the virus they face) than actual person.
Also, while some of the sequences where Carol meets other uninfected humans, who teach her to survive by showing no emotion and not falling asleep, are effective, there is one (which is actually shown in the trailer) whose dodgy effects mar and dislodge whatever emotional weight the scene could have had.
Undeniably though, the projectile vomiting as vector for the virus is disturbing and very unsettling; that census taker at Carol’s door, mouth agape, is one of the film’s creepiest moments.

For all its pros and cons though, it’s difficult at this point to try and determine where the responsibility lies for the mess that is The Invasion; which bits are Hirschbiegel’s and which are the Wachowskis. As Silver so wonderfully puts it, “… we added some stuff to it.” Okay, so which “stuff”?**
Even though this is a sad truth—that more and more, the responsibility for much of Hollywood’s big budget product these days must be shared by everyone from the director on down to the members of all those test audiences, with producers, studio heads, and agents thrown in for “good” measure—it only becomes glaringly evident in films like The Invasion, where art is so obviously b!tchslapped into submission by economics.
Was Hirschbiegel’s version so much of “a little art film” that it would not have found an audience? Is the “commercial, mainstream” Invasion any better? There really is no way to tell.
All I really do know is that a) while The Invasion isn’t a complete disaster, it is far from Kaufman’s version (it’s also quite distant from a completely satisfying viewing experience); and b) I really do wish the Hirschbiegel cut gets released somehow, so we can all see the original vision, before Silver oh-so-decisively struck with the weighty hammer of box-office hungry Hollywood.

* This ingenious little bit thus turned Kaufman’s version, on some sly level, into a sequel, rather than a remake, showing a certain amount of respect and gratitude to Siegel’s adaptation.

** The climactic car chase though, was part of the McTeigue re-shoots, apparently an attempt to punch up the film’s action quotient.

Parting shot: The lead characters in the Siegel and Kaufman versions have the last names Bennell (Miles and Matthew) and Driscoll (Becky and Elizabeth). Apparently, in The Invasion, the genders are reversed.
Additionally, in Siegel’s adaptation, there are also characters named Dan Kauffman and Wilma Lentz.

Parting shot 2: Now that I’ve seen The Invasion, the only cinematic iteration I’ve yet to watch is, ironically enough, the first adaptation, Donald Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As far as the films go, it’s kind of like meeting all these different pod people without ever actually having met the original.
Incidentally, Siegel also directed Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.

(The Invasion OS courtesy of; image courtesy of

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