Sunday, December 9, 2007

Movie Review: The Invasion

The endless advance buzz about films that is leaked, intentionally or otherwise, from and by movie studios is as virulent as the alien infection in Warner Brother’s The Invasion. Without fail, behind-the-scenes tales of rewrites, re-shoots, and re-tooling in the editing room make their way like gestating germs into the collective consciousness, tainting the tableau before the canvas has dried. Critics and audiences alike have become like mindless pod people, led by this barrage of pre-release publicity to its pre-determined conclusion. Minds are made up on the merits of backstage hearsay, and movies are panned before they’re even seen. Expectations are a dangerous thing; water cooler conversation amongst film critics even more so.

In this third retread of the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers), critics and audiences will likely be caught up in the backstage brouhaha that had director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut deemed “too cerebral” for studio execs, the much-ballyhooed Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame being brought in for eleventh-hour rewrites, and up-and-coming action director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) adding extra action sequences to the mix. What they’ll likely miss is an effective update on this classic allegorical tale about the dangers of conformity and the paranoia of multi-culturalism.

Nicole Kidman headlines as Dr. Carol Bennell, a Washington D.C. psychiatrist for whom the science of psychiatry has been replaced by the mindlessness of polypharmacy. (In early scenes, Hirschbiegel nicely foreshadows the personality-robbing alien invasion to come with modern psychiatry’s pharmaceutical over-reliance.) When a mysterious space shuttle crash brings with it an alien microbe, it isn’t long before the good people of our nation’s capitol morph into expressionless, emotionless shells of their former selves. When Kidman’s ex-husband (British actor Jeremy Northam of The Tudors) goes pod person early on, weekend visitation takes on an entirely new meaning for her young son Oliver (played well by newcomer Jackson Bond), and it’s up to Kidman and physician pal Ben Driscoll (played here as the archetype stalwart British hero by the yummy Daniel Craig of newfound James Bond fame) to save him before the city is locked down to contain the infection.

There is much here that we’ve seen before in the previous triumvirate of Body Snatcher films: fooling the pod people by dumbing down emotions, sleep as the conduit for transformation, the idea that the human race is fucking up the planet with its own humanity. Updated to reflect modern-day fears is the idea of the alien invasion coming in the form of a virus versus plant spore, effectively embodying our societal fears of pandemic by chemical warfare or avian flu. There are also some pretty obvious late-to-the-party nods to AIDS here, with infection spread through bodily fluids (Coffee, anyone?). Even fears over a country seemingly without borders gets a nod here with the idea that (illegal) aliens walk among us.

Acting is solid with Kidman and Craig making a capable on-screen pairing. As original Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy popped up in the 1978 remake in a clever wink to fans of the original, so too does genre veteran Veronica Cartwright from Philip Kaufman’s version. Cartwright again proves that she can make the most of yeoman’s work with a chilling and effective turn as one of Kidman’s troubled patients – a glorified cameo in the hands of a lesser actress. Fairing less well is veteran stage actor Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America) whose talent is admittedly wasted in a one-dimensional “science guy” role.

While the latest Invasion incarnation falls well short of Kaufman’s chilling ’78 retelling, it compliments Abel Ferrara’s ‘93 version with its ability to effectively update a now-classic premise. Summer blockbuster? Hardly. Still, the Hirschbiegel/Wachowski/McTiegue hybrid is nothing to dismiss. Slick, well-paced, and not nearly as disjointed a vision as the chorus of pre-publicity zombies would have one believe, The Invasion is an enjoyable Saturday matinee that adds just enough twist without bending a classic out of shape.

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