Pod people get bland makeover in The Invasion

by Glen Baity

After a tumultuous post-production period fraught with endless reshoots, The Invasion finally lumbered into theaters last week. Even if you know nothing about how The Invasion almost didn’t happen, there’s something suspicious about it. Two years ago, another alien invasion film based on an ancient property (War of the Worlds) made $234 million at the box office for Paramount. Given that, one has to imagine another modern-day remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would have studio execs at Warner Bros., emboldened by the knowledge of their customers’ notoriously short memories, seeing dollar signs.

Instead, it’s been pasted onto the tail end of summer movie season with comparatively little fanfare. After seeing it, that’s no mystery.

The film is stylistically cohesive, but it’s also a mess: The pacing is frantic, even when nothing much is happening, which has the damning effect of making the viewer both anxious and bored.

That said, there’s a coldness to The Invasion that seems appropriate to the subject, which deals with a legion of alien microbes that descend on earth (no pods this time, unfortunately), quietly taking over peoples’ personalities and using their bodies as vessels. Once commandeered, the afflicted become eerily serene and unemotional, part of a hive mind set on making this planet its own.

Despite the critical hemming and hawing thus far, the film isn’t the worst of the year – nowhere close. It’s also not good by any stretch of the imagination. This incarnation of the body snatchers stars Nicole Kidman as Carol, a Washington, DC psychiatrist and single mother to the obnoxiously cute Oliver (Jackson Bond). The titular invasion happens at the beginning of the film, when the space shuttle Patriot explodes over North America, sending flaming debris, lousy with alien slime, from sea to shining sea. Over the next several days, people start noticing their loved ones acting a bit strange – they don’t sweat, they don’t get angry and their irritating personalities have leveled out, as if they’d taken an excess of Prozac.

Oliver and Carol are separated when the invasion hits critical mass, and the bulk of the film involves her efforts to reunite with him and get to a nearby military base.

Despite a perfectly okay plot and a decent first half, the film goes sour as it nears its conclusion. This happens for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is its staggering pretension. After the studio saw original director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s first cut, they ordered rewrites by the gifted, if sometimes unforgivably haughty, Wachowski brothers. I’m not sure what the film was like before they climbed on board, but The Invasion touts a prevailing theme that, conspicuously, is a Wachowski favorite: human nature, the subjugation of which naturally leads to world peace. Humans, as we’re helpfully informed during one of many weirdly preachy tangents, are naturally violent and destructive. To be without violence and conflict, therefore, is to be without humanity itself.

Of course, a great deal of science fiction is really about some real-world social ill, but that all falls apart if the metaphor becomes too obvious, as it does here. The Invasion is replete with cardboard characters flogging the dead horse of free will in as unsubtle a way as possible. After three Matrix movies riding shotgun with motor-mouthed Morpheus on the way to Zion, I don’t think I’m alone in saying: Thanks, Wachowskis, but no thanks.

It doesn’t help that the only character with whom we’re really acquainted is Carol, who is just disastrous. Kidman is a fine actress in the proper setting, but she’s in the wrong element here. Her character’s love for her son is meant to juxtapose human emotion with the calculating, take-no-prisoners logic of the aliens, but the moments that are meant to establish Kidman’s maternal warmth seem phony and forced. Her character always comes off as distant and cold, and it’s an unpleasant thing to watch her try – and fail – to rise above it. Daniel Craig, always a dynamic presence, is wasted as Carol’s would-be lover, shoved off the screen when the film could most benefit from his presence.

The worst parts are in the end, so I’ll have to issue a SPOILER ALERT!!! for the rest of this review. The climax is deus ex machina defined, depending as it does on a magical helicopter swooping in out of nowhere to save the day. But it doesn’t stop there. The movie, God help it, closes with a press conference, so one of the characters can explain away the plot holes and dubious contrivances to a chorus of TV reporters. I’m not sure how much of this has been pulled from the original story by Jack Finney, but I can’t imagine why it would matter. It still sucks.

Despite all that, there are a handful of tense moments to be had here, even a scare or two, though you’ll have to work for them. At a manageable 93 minutes, the film is still arduous to sit through, and the ridiculous happy ending is a major letdown. After the invasion, we’re told, the afflicted wake up as if from a long night’s sleep, with nary a memory of what has transpired. If only the audience got off so easy.

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