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The Invasion - Movie Review

The Invasion
Craig's eyes, man

2007's adaptation of The Body Snatchers came and went with little fanfare, forgotten almost as quickly as it was released. It's kind of a shame, too, because The Invasion is easily the most ambitious version of the story to be put to film. It doesn't achieve the heights of success reached by the 1956 or 1978 movies, but it certainly doesn't deserve obscurity. It also doesn't deserve the lambasting it received from critics, many of whom praised the clearly inferior 1993 flick. With that in mind, let's break it down: what works, what doesn't, and what lessons future filmmakers can learn as they approach a potential fifth adaptation.

We'll start with the negatives. 2007's The Invasion has two primary flaws: its pacing and its lack of focus. The first is why it failed at the box office, because despite its enthusiasm, its budget, and an action-heavy third act, the movie can be boring. Whereas all versions of the story are slow burners that rely on building a sense of mystery and dread, The Invasion simply takes too long to set up its characters and situations to be effective, not to mention the fact that it overexplains what's happening in the first few minutes. No doubt the studio and/or the filmmakers realized this, which is why there's an unnecessary preface showing a scene from much later in the film. It also doesn't help that Nicole Kidman's performance as the lead, while truly excellent later in the film, is wooden and unengaging throughout the first act, making it hard for audiences to connect with her.

The second flaw is equally important, however. This is the most political take on the source material to date (not just because it takes place in Washington, D.C.), and it pulls thematic ideas from everywhere to earnestly build upon Jack Finney's allegorical potential. This is, all at once, a movie about global security, the nature of warfare, the pharmaceutical industry, flu vaccinations, balancing career and family, the overreliance on drugs in psychology, media saturation, technological dependency, the sinister politeness of modern aristocracy, corporate greed, the chaos of unbridled individuality versus the peace of rigid conformity, the tendency of people to mask their identities (note that it takes place on Halloween), the insincerity of diplomacy, and more. It steals tropes from political thrillers, zombie apocalypse films, heady science-fiction, conspiracy fiction, and psychological horror. Then, it tries to pull all of this material into one grand theme about our civilized nature hiding a capacity for primal violence--demonstrating it on the personal level by showing what our hero is willing to do to protect her son--but it doesn't work. There are far too many ingredients from which to make a cohesive meal, and despite so many options on the table, the inability of the movie to embrace just one or two prevents each of its myriad themes from being palatable.

The Invasion
It even riffs on the then-four-year-old Columbia disaster

In other words, it's too ambitious. Even on a surface level, it takes the core concept much further than ever before. Each adaptation seems to try to one-up the one before it in terms of scale: the 1956 film sticks to the novel's small town; 1978 sees the invasion take place in the urban setting of San Francisco; and the 1993 movie toys with the idea of infecting the entire United States military. 2007's The Invasion, then, has to go even bigger by infecting the whole country at once and promising to quickly overtake the whole world.

While the plot is a bit more true to the original story than 1993's wild rewriting of events (there's some character remixing and a diverging third act, but it's genuinely surprising how many plot beats are preserved in one form or another), it still makes one massive change to the Body Snatchers canon that is unfortunate and perhaps unforgivable: there are no pods. What makes Jack Finney's story stand out in the library of alien invasion tales is the method whereby the aliens overtake humanity. Seed pods from space copy and replace people. The Invasion, though, treats the alien outbreak as a pandemic disease started by spores that infect people, leaving room for things like immunity and a cure. Conceptually, it seems to have more in common with The Andromeda Strain* than The Body Snatchers. Maybe that's why the typical second half of the title is missing.

[*Don't worry, dear readers. I plan on covering Michael Crichton's work in the near future.]

The Invasion
There's a lot of Nicole Kidman here

Fortunately, though, the movie still manages to do a lot of things right. For one, it learns from its predecessors. For example, it shows menace by having odd background details the way the 1978 film does, and it uses the child of divorce angle from the 1993 film. It also gender swaps the two leads to good effect: Dr. Miles Bennell and Becky Driscoll become Dr. Carol Bennell and Ben Driscoll. This isn't done just for the sake of it, either; by making the lead a mother, it highlights her strong maternal instincts, which become central to her character's journey.

And though I complained about Nicole Kidman's stilted performance in the first act, she does a fantastic job as the story progresses, pulling off one of her best performances as her character goes through Hell to find and rescue her captured son from the clutches of his alien-infected father. She carries the entire second half of the movie. Daniel Craig also has a fun turn as Ben Driscoll; Josef Summer and Celia Weston are great as the foreign versions of the Belicecs; Veronica Cartwright does well with her glorified cameo as Wendy; and Jeffrey Wright is his typically endearing self as Dr. Galeano, though he is saddled with some painfully bad technobabble. The only actor to fall flat is Jeremy Northam as Carol's infected ex, who plays it far too villianously. (Spoiler alert: near the end, Daniel Craig proves it's possible to do the pod person shtick without coming across like a bad actor.)

The Invasion
James Bond and Felix Leiter are always good together

If you can get through the slow first act, the film improves as it goes, so that, by the end, it's an exciting and interesting little thriller. Sure, there's some amateurish direction at work, and sure, there's some schlocky dialogue, overt Nokia product placement, and choppy editing. But it still manages to be entertaining and provocative, with plenty of meat to sink your teeth into. It's certainly of a higher quality than 1993's Body Snatchers, and if it weren't for the 1978 adaptation overshadowing its reputation, it probably would have been more successful and memorable than it is. Most importantly, though, I think The Invasion is the primary adaptation to study if there are any filmmakers out there hoping to make a fifth (like, say, John Davis and Leslie Johnson over at Warner Brothers).

With just a little tweaking, you could take some of the same ideas underlying The Invasion, mix them with what worked in the previous adaptations, and make a film that shines. For starters, keep the mystery alive in the first act, and keep a laser-like focus on the protagonist. Secondly, choose a thematic angle and stick with it. Choose one allegory--or two if you absolutely must--and ignore all the other places you could take the story. Refine it, explore it, and enhance it, but don't try to make it answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Don't be afraid to play with the setting and the characters, but try to keep Jack Finney's plot relatively intact. Have a bleak ending, no matter how hard the studio fights you on it. And finally, you absolutely must have seed pods. Let's never make the mistake of omitting them again. Do all that, have fun, and you should be able to make something worthy of the legacy. When you do, I'll be right here, ready to nitpick whatever you make.

-e. magill 12/20/2018

  • The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
  • Body Snatchers (1993) - Movie Review
  • The Invasion (2007) - Movie Review

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