The Invasion is a lot like a roll of Certs: it’s two, two, two movies in one. While double the mint might be swell for breath mints, the same concept is less desirable when applied to a movie. The story has it that Warner Bros. didn’t care for the movie that German filmmaker Oliver Hisrschbiegel (Downfall) turned in, so the Wachowski Brothers were brought in to liven it up. And when that wasn’t enough to turn it into the movie they wanted, Wachowski protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) came on board to goose it even more. The result is a sometimes cerebral, serious movie with some pretty preposterous action grafted onto it. It’s at best an uneven mix.
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has already been filmed three times: Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993). The first two are widely—if somewhat generously—regarded as sci-fi classics. Ferrara’s version seems to have fallen by the wayside—probably because the 15 minutes Ferrara was the hot director (thanks to his 1992 film The Bad Lieutenant) are long past. Siegel’s original take on the story of mysterious giant seedpods from (presumably) outer space that turn into emotionless duplicates of human beings is an odd, sometimes clunky film that played heavily on the age of McCarthyism (while shrewdly allowing itself to look like McCarthyist anticommunist hysteria). When Kaufman tackled the story, it more or less took up where Siegel left off—moving from one small town to the world at large. Kaufman even brought in the first film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, to arrive on the scene warning that the pods were coming. It’s a nice touch, though it suggests that McCarthy has been running through traffic with this warning for 22 years.
Hirschbiegel’s new film from a screenplay by newcomer Dave Kajganich actually attempts to do something a little different with the material. In a move destined to annoy purists, the pods are gone and the invading spores (brought back by a space-shuttle crash this round) simply take over the victims’ original bodies. While this removes the iconic image of the pods, it does seem more reasonable, and it takes care of the question of what exactly happens to the victims’ human bodies. This also gives The Invasion a present-day relevance, linking the takeover to current fears of contagion—like avian flu or biological warfare.
Moreover, the new film tackles an entirely different question that no previous version even considered. As the invading spores take over, the world does become a cold, inhuman and creepily placid place, but something else happens thanks to the herd instinct of a collective mind: The world ceases to be in turmoil. Peace initiatives take hold, and violence all but comes to a standstill. The question then becomes one of what price would humankind pay for peace and harmony, or alternatively, what price will we pay in order to retain both the good and the bad things that make us human. This is the concern that runs throughout The Invasion, and it’s the thing that makes the film an interesting—and disturbing—rethinking of the basic concept. It offers no answer—being a largely philosophical question, there perhaps is none—but lays out the question effectively, if imperfectly. The original setup at a dinner party feels forced and somewhat like a weird pro-and-con argument on the topic of pure communism—a feeling aggravated by the fact that the argument is being made by the Russian ambassador (Roger Rees, The Prestige). The different approach is what justifies Hirschbiegel’s film, but it’s all undermined by the over-the-top action scenes that clearly belong on a different film, and which are often preposterous to the point of amusement (see Jeffrey Wright giving Nicole Kidman driving instructions from inside a helicopter). Beyond this, it seems unlikely that Hirschbiegel had anything like a “perfect” film from the onset.
There’s a problem with the characters. Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Carol Bennell is well defined, but most are not. Jeffrey Wright’s character isn’t bad, nor is Veronica Cartwright’s (herself a veteran of the Kaufman version). The big problem lies with Daniel Craig’s Dr. Ben Driscoll. The role is barely sketched in to the degree that it’s hard to tell the difference between the pre- and post-pod version of Driscoll.
Still, the film isn’t—even in its bastardized form—without merit. Thematic values to one side, Hirschbiegel does manage to create a number of eerie scenes along the way, even though some of these threaten to become risible due to the manner in which the spores are transferred from one person to the next. Who thought it was a good idea to have the virus transmitted by having the infected spew mucus into the face of those yet to be converted? The film is finally a mixed bag, but the parts that are good are good enough to push the film over into the plus column. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror.