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The Invasion   C

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: David Kajganich (based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, Jeffrey Wright, Veronica Cartwright, Josef Sommer, Celia Watson.

Review by Rob Vaux

How necessary was this remake? I don't ask myself that much, since the answers aren't good for my long-term peace of mind. Of late, the multiplex has been lousy with old-time horror movies sporting a new coat of paint, and some of them actually wear it fairly well if you don't look too closely. On the other hand, none of them carry the pedigree that the latest version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. Despite its long tenure on the Warner Bros. shelf and an inauspicious release amid the dumping grounds of August, the names on the marquee speak to reasonably high expectations. A pair of thoroughbred performers stand above the title, while director Oliver Hirschbiegel is still walking tall after the triumph of 2004's Downfall. Other horror-movie remakes can coast on style and a few decent scares; this one features some real talent, and you'd hope they were here for something other than a bad Xerox copy. Not so much, unfortunately.

For what it's worth, the story certainly matches the times: our current culture of fear and uncertainty makes fertile ground for a tale of alien assimilation. And that may be The Invasion's biggest problem, for so many parts of 21st-century life fit so perfectly into its unnerving ethos that it has a hard time settling on a solid theme. At various points in the film, the soulless pod people who replace us when we sleep stand in for government callousness, terrorist infiltration, pandemic infection, technological isolation, and Prozac. Hirschbiegel skates over them all in an effort to encompass the numbing social paralysis they represent, but he never focuses on any of them long enough to sink in, rendering the promising subtext a grab-bag of half-formed ideas.

It also robs The Invasion of its all-important paranoia. The looming betrayal from your nearest and dearest, the faceless crowds threatening to swallow you whole... they appear here in copious amounts, but never trigger the shuddering fear that made earlier versions so brilliant. These pod people feel like run-of-the-mill bad guys -- a little eerie, perhaps, but mainly concerned with the routine pursuit of psychiatrist heroine Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) while she searches for her missing son (Jackson Bond). Hirschbiegel touches all of the tale's proper buttons: setting the stage with a shuttle explosion that showers space cooties all over the Eastern Seaboard, then scrolling through the inexorable creep of infection that turns ordinary people into alien drones. Unfortunately, most of the visual cues feel recycled and empty, having resonated more ominously in other Body Snatcher films. The slowly changing street scenes, for example -- where self-absorbed chattering gives way to unobtrusive rows of silent automatons -- lack the requisite chill, while Bennell's gradual awakening to the threat surrounding her feels more like narrative necessity than believable character development.

The uninspiring special effects don't help matters. Other Body Snatcher movies portrayed their alien replicants with skin-crawling revulsion -- spongy half-formed webs, pulsing seed pods, etc. -- augmented by simple facial expressions that perfectly captured the characters' newly forged monstrosity. (Who can forget Donald Sutherland's horrifying howl at the end of the 1978 version?) The Invasion, on the other hand, utilizes pedestrian makeup and a few lines of dialogue delivered in suspicious monotone -- sufficient to explain the circumstances, but never sending icicles down our spine like they should. Having found the humanity in no less a figure than Adolf Hitler, Hirschbiegel proves unable to reverse the trick, and his alien villains lack the otherworldly detachment that they sorely require.

He compensates with some strong technical direction; the low angles and claustrophobic close-ups from Downfall are in effective abundance here, while editors Hans Funck and Joel Negron add some nifty bits of time dilation as well. Both Kidman and co-star Daniel Craig (as Bennell's colleague/love interest) bring some much-needed appeal to their otherwise sketchy protagonists, and Hirschbiegel seems to know what he wants from both of them. The Invasion also shows signs of truly potent subversion by suggesting that an alien takeover might not be such a bad thing. As the infection spreads, the hatred and bloodshed that have always consumed our species starts to fall away. If everyone is united by hive-minded collectivism -- if our human essence is utterly erased -- then why wouldn't the world live in peace and harmony? And if we struggle against that, aren't we simply perpetuating the worst parts of our animal nature -- the things we wish dearly we could eliminate forever?

It makes for a wicked moral dilemma, but the film only fitfully develops it, while neglecting some gaping holes in its underlying logic. Furthermore, its grim overtones eventually give way to pandering bits of crowd pleasing that clash badly with the overall mood. Such intrusiveness hints strongly at the reported post-production meddling -- particularly in the interminable car chases and Bennell's relationship with her son, both of which are lifted from the laziest chapters of the Hollywood playbook. It might also explain The Invasion's exasperating lack of focus, as well as its muddled themes (and tired use of modern gadgets like text messaging) which do little more than place the scenario in a contemporary context. The Don Siegel original is revered because it tapped into the fears of its era as nothing else. Philip Kaufman's remake surpassed it by staying true the scenario's darkest implications without losing its bitingly satirical edge. Hirschbiegel has the skills to match their feats, but he needed the freedom to act on them more boldly. The Invasion leaves one with the sneaking suspicion that too many cooks spoiled his broth. He does what he can, but technical merits can only go so far... and with both Siegel and Kaufman just a Netflix queue away, there is nothing here worth considering over their superior efforts.

Review published 08.17.2007.

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