At least several times a year, I review a movie that had a troubled production. Movies like The Invasion. Since these troubles usually impact what’s actually up on the screen, I feel obligated to mention them. In this case, for example, I may think it is relevant to point out that when director Oliver Hirschbiegel (who made the magnificent German film Downfall) turned in his cut to Warner Brothers, the studio execs thought it was lacking something. So they brought in Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of The Matrix, to rewrite a quarter of the screenplay. Their protégé, James McTeigue (V For Vendetta), then took over for Hirschbiegel, supervising two weeks of re-shoots. These were supposed to be kept quiet, but when star Nicole Kidman was injured during a stunt, the media caught on. After cataloguing all the production difficulties of a picture – as I have just done here – I often go on to talk about how they have marred what might have been a good film. Because that’s almost always how it goes. The difference between The Invasion and most other troubled productions is that, despite a pretty painful birth, I thought this movie actually held up pretty well.
This is the fourth film adaptation of Jack Finney’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It begins with an event that hits close to home: the tragic explosion of a space shuttle upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The government warns people not to touch the pieces of wreckage that have fallen, but since when do people in movies listen to the government? Nicole Kidman plays Carol Bennell, a psychiatrist whose ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam) works for the CDC. She notices some strange behavior on his part, and it seems to be spreading. Individuals who once seemed normal are now eerily robotic. It turns out – in case you hadn’t already guessed – that the shuttle wreckage brought with it an alien virus, which spreads through various kinds of contact, including kissing or spewing slime into another’s face. This leads to one of the most genuinely creepy scenes of the year, in which some of the infected spread the virus to a roomful of conference attendees by…well, I’ll let you see for yourself.
Unfortunately for Carol, she finds out about the virus right after dropping off her son Oliver (Jackson Bond) at Tucker’s house. Worried that the boy might contract it as well, she enlists best friend/medical researcher Ben (Daniel Craig) to help her retrieve him. They will then travel to a military facility to help Ben’s colleague, Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), explore a cure. This is easier said than done, as Tucker and his transformed minions are out to infect her and anyone else they encounter. Carol comes in contact with the virus herself, which is triggered once a person enters the REM stage of sleep. To save herself, she needs to stay awake long enough to locate her son and get to the facility.
Now there’s an interesting twist. Have you ever tried to force yourself to stay awake? I have, after getting a concussion at age nine. It’s painful. Not physically, but mentally. There is some tension generated in watching Carol fight her own body in an effort to avoid sleep. Interesting, too, is how the infected attack those who show emotion. Since they themselves are suddenly incapable of feeling it, they do not have much difficulty spotting the uninfected. Anyone who freaks out is ripe for targeting. Carol can get through them if she can suppress her shock at what she sees.
The Invasion is really a movie in two parts. The first (and slightly better) half is an eerie, atmospheric tale of Carol’s realization that there’s a virus and that she has left her son with a man who is hell-bent on spreading it. (There’s an especially tense scene where a “census taker” comes to Carol’s door late at night.) The second half is a more routine action/chase picture with Carol fighting off the body snatchers and trying to escape Baltimore. One could reasonably assume that Hirschbeigel was responsible for the first half, while the Wachowskis were responsible for the majority of the second half. The re-shooting has admittedly left the film with some unusual continuity problems, such as the fact that Carol writes a note for Oliver warning him not to fall asleep, but doesn’t find out that sleep triggers the virus until the following scene. Also, it’s not always clear how characters get from point A to point B, or how so many infected know to chase Carol wherever she goes.
Despite the occasionally inconsistent tone, the film regularly sneaks in some subtext. Throughout the story, we see and hear television news clips about Iraq. These are contrasted with the virus victims, who profess that a life without emotion increases peace and reduces violence, even as they try to forcibly spread their sickness to others. I’m not entirely sure what the message here is. Does the movie mean to suggest that America’s attempts to stabilize Iraq are as misplaced as the pod peoples’ attempt to spread their disease? Whatever the point, the film at least attempts to do something more than just provide a scare show.
I’m not sure I can make the case that The Invasion is a good movie – it’s got enough abrupt tone shifts and awkward moments of continuity to make that task difficult – but I do think I can make the case that it’s entertaining. Usually, when I am watching a bad movie, I am very aware of time. I look at my watch a lot, or feel a general sense of time passing slowly. If a movie is entertaining me, I forget about time altogether. Watching The Invasion, I forgot all about time. While it doesn’t completely succeed at anything it tries to do, it succeeds sufficiently at most of them to be enjoyable. In other words, the film is not as creepy as it could have been, but there are some seriously creepy moments. Its message doesn’t really ring true, but it’s provocative enough to be intriguing nonetheless. The action scenes don’t quite blend with the more atmospheric stuff, but they are effectively staged. And, perhaps most importantly, Kidman gives a good performance, providing the story with some emotional grounding.
I’m looking forward to the movie’s eventual DVD release, which will doubtlessly include the footage that had to be re-shot. It’ll be interesting to see how things changed and whether they should have been. Still, for what it is, The Invasion provided me with a few hours of decent amusement.
( out of four)
There are several bonus features accompanying the feature film. The best of them is “We’ve Been Snatched Before,” a 20-minute mini-documentary that examines the possibility of a real-life version of the movie’s scenario. Various scientific experts appear on camera to discuss the plausibility of a foreign virus spreading. The feature is very educational (I learned the difference between a “pandemic” and an “epidemic”) as well as entertaining.
After that, there are three short behind-the-scenes features, each running about three minutes in length. “A New Story” explores how filmmakers found a way to put a modern twist on a classic tale. “On the Set” has the actors and director discussing why it was important to film on location in Washington, DC. Finally, “Snatched” looks at some of the makeup effects used to create the new pod people. It contains a really cool backstage rehearsal for one particularly gruesome effect.
The Invasion will arrive in a widescreen format on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 29th. An HD-DVD version hits stores on February 19.
The Invasion is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Invasion
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