by Lucius Shepard
September 9, 2007
It's a pity Nicole Kidman spent a decade of marriage to Tom Cruise prepping for her role in The Invasion, living with a pod person, pretending to be one, suppressing her emotions, etc., because the movie, as it turns out, simply wasn't worth the sacrifice. Actually, it's difficult to believe that either Kidman, who's made a career out of displaying an icy reserve, or her poker-faced co-star, Daniel Craig (Dr. Ben Driscoll), could be reasonably cast as people who need to control their emotions, but that's not the main problem with the picture.
Initially the project, a third remake of Don Siegel's B-picture classic, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, didn't seem like such a horrible idea. Warner Brothers announced that they were bringing over Oliver Hirschbiegel from Germany to direct their A-list cast, Kidman as psychiatrist Carol Bennett, and Craig, the new James Bond, as her deeply smitten, platonic lover. Hirschbiegel had demonstrated in previous films like The Experiment, based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Downfall, the story of Hitler's last days, his ability to handle both action and psychological complexities, and good things might be expected. This version, WB promised us, would be something completely different. But when Hirschbiegel turned in the movie, the studio wasn't happy with the result, calling to mind an old Hollywood joke.
Director: But . . . you said you wanted something different.
Studio Exec: Yes, but we didn't know it would be that different.
Warner Brothers called upon the Wachowski Brothers to oversee a reshoot of the ending, and the Wachowskis in turn called upon their protégé, James McTeague (V for Vendetta), to manage the chore. The studio was so pleased with McTeague's work, they decided to let him reshoot a significant portion of the movie, thus making of it the hybrid creation of two directors with wildly variant aesthetics and aptitudes.
The snippet of dialogue that serves as the title of this column was excerpted from a speech delivered by actor Kevin McCarthy at the end of the original film while running alongside a highway, trying to alert passing cars to the threat of the pod people. Many reviewers have interpreted this speech to have been a warning about either the dangers of communism or that of Senator Joe McCarthy, whose House on Un-American Activities engaged in witch hunts and fearmongering to such an extent, they created a nationwide atmosphere of paranoia and mob rule . . . an atmosphere not unlike the one engendered by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration's reaction to them. But if we look closer at the film, we find a deeper meaning, one closer to the intent of Jack Finney's novel. Finney believed mankind had surrendered mastery of its fate to its own inventions and that traditional morals and values were casualties in the "rush to modernize, bureaucratize, streamline, and cellophane-wrap." Witness this speech given by the Kevin McCarthy character, Dr. Miles Bennell, early in the film:
"In my practice I see how people have allowed their humanity to drain away . . . only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind. . . . All of us, a little bit. We harden our hearts . . . grow callous . . . only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is."
Or as Don Siegel himself put it:
"People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you . . . of course, there's a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health, and mental disturbances, are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in. It's the same as people who welcome going into the army or prison. There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions. . . . People are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it."
Dehumanization, then, or more precisely, the suborning of our collective will to inexorable, pacifying forces, be they pods or the media or religion or a marketing campaign, is the central message of the movie.
Philip Kaufman's outstanding 1978 remake spoke to this and further dealt with our nation's post-Vietnam and post-Watergate traumas. Abel Ferrara's worthwhile 1993 remake focused on our misplaced trust in the military-industrial complex. The Invasion, seeking a contemporary relevance, waves its hand at a whole shopping cart of issuesDarfur, Iraq, the pharmaceutical industry, AIDS (instead of pods, the villains are alien spores that metabolize in humans when they fall asleep and are transmitted by injection or an exchange of bodily fluids, most often by vomiting)but none of it sticks. The issue of dehumanization is trotted out, but is declawed by having the characters discuss it as though it was a subject for chit-chat over coffee and doughnuts. And so, lacking a coherent thematic structure, as the blandly malevolent spore people increase, their numbers swollen by a government-sponsored program of flu injections, The Invasion begins to verge on Uwe Boll territory.
There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments during the movie. My favorite is when Carol's ex-husband, Ben, prior to infecting her, while giving the obligatory come-join-us-in-vegetable-bliss speech, asks her to think back to a long-ago vacation when she expressed the wish to become an aspen tree . . . It's like that, honey. The cocktail party at a foreign embassy that might be a meeting of the Hollywood chapter of the Bad Accent Club deserves mention, but audience reaction was most pronounced when Carol hands a hypodermic loaded with ephedrine to her son Ollie, an uber-cute moppet of five or six, and tells him to inject it into her heart if she falls asleep. Ollie must have gotten in some practice, because when the moment arrives, he performs the task unerringly and unfalteringly, like any superhuman five-year-old with a background in emergency-room nursing.
It's impossible to know what Hirschbiegel had in mind for the movie and whether it would have worked; but there is some evidence that his take on the materials involved a lower-key, almost documentary approach, focusing more on the psychology of the event than the earlier films, suggesting that Kidman's character may be wound too tightly and, essentially, is having a paranoid fantasy that happens to be coming true. Her mental state is provoked by the actions of her ex-husband, an official with the Centers for Prevention and Disease Control, whom she suspects of having kidnapped Ollie, thus creating a modicum of tension where before there could be none (though the plot of the movie may be a mystery to some, I doubt this fourth version of the pod-people-replacing-humans story holds any surprises for the vast majority of the audience). If ambiguity, or subtlety of any sort, was Hirschbiegel's intention, McTeague has obliterated almost every trace of it by adding a car chase or three and tacking on a ludicrously upbeat ending that defies common sense, logic, and the fundamental tenets of microbiology, not to mention those of Screenwriting 101, a course that David Kajganich, author of the script, would do well to audit before attempting another project. What remains is a movie in name only, a collection of scenes featuring an increasingly wired-looking Kidman, popping uppers and chugging Mountain Dew, that somehow resolves into a finish with all the brio of a bout of flatulence. It's hard to believe, given the money and talent at their disposal, that they could screw up such a strong story. If you let your paranoia creep just a teensy bit, you might imagine that the pod people in power at Warner Brothers had sabotaged the film, defused its cautionary message, in order to safeguard their path toward world domination.
Danny Boyle's Sunshine is not a remake, it merely cribs from half a dozen of its predecessors in the deep-space-mission sub-genre. 2001 to Alien . . . name any similar film, and Boyle's movie quotes from it. You've got your computer with the narcotized voice (you'd suppose they'd have the option to change it, because the one they have could become irritating after awhile); you've got your spacewalk to make vital repairs; your mysterious distress signal; your stressed-out crew . . . and what a crew it is, surely the most attractive bunch of Earth-saving astronauts ever assembled. Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, the hottest Earth-saving pilot since Hillary Swank in The Core, a film that Sunshine also references. That said, it's a serviceable science fiction thriller for the majority of its running time. Alex Garland's (28 Days Later) script offers precious little in the way of originality, but what there ismainly the crew's developing and perhaps unhealthy obsession with the sunacts to hold your interest.
The sun, you see, is dying, its core infected by a type of matter left over from the Big Bang, and the crew of the Icarus 2 (Icarus 1 having disappeared inside the orbit of Mercury) has been sent to reignite it with a bomb that must be delivered with pinpoint precision. It's Earth's last shot at survival, so naturally all thought of precision goes out the airlock when they receive a distress signal from Icarus 1 and decide to divert their flight in hopes of acquiring a second payload. Though this strains credulity, as does the screw-up in plotting a new course (you'd think that chore would have been checked and double-checked, and not left to one overtired crew member), I was willing to suspend my disbelief . . . until the third act, when I began to understand that there was a reason for the annoying subliminals (mostly demented faces) with which Boyle has salted the filmthey foreshadow the imminence of a deranged villain, where no villain was really necessary to heighten tension or further the plot. At this juncture the film lapses into an unintelligible horror movie (Event Horizon springs to mind), Grand Guignol laced with spoutings of undergrad philosophy courtesy of said villain, whose appearance suggests that prolonged exposure to the sun at close quarters has caused light to bend and blur in his vicinity, giving him a glossy, out-of-focus look. It's a shame Boyle and Garland didn't stick with the drama and dread that the mission alone inspiredthey never should have answered that distress call.
There is some good news for genre film buffs. Count Dracula, a 1978 BBC movie, is now on DVD. This version hews closely to Bram Stoker's classic tale and may be the best vampire movie ever made. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, it features a charmingly menacing Louis Jordan as the count, Frank Finlay as Von Helsing, Susan Penhaligon as Lucy, and Judi Bowker as Mina. Aside from some campiness in sound design, I found it an almost flawless adaptation of the novel.
Of less interest to the casual moviegoer, but for fans of Jodorosky, Tarkovsky, and David Lynch, Andrzej Zulawski's unfinished science fiction epic, On the Silver Globe, will be a valuable addition to their DVD collection. Zulawski, who is best known for his beautifully shot and cerebral horror movie, Possession, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani (if you haven't seen it, you're missing out), began Globe in 1977, but midway through the principal photography, the Polish government shut the project down. Some ten years later he went back and attempted to sew the film together by means of narration and the result . . . Well, it's not very good.
The story concerns a group from a post-apocalyptic Earth who set up a colony on the moon. Their incest-bred children create a primitive society and worship the oldest astronaut as a god. Years later, another astronaut comes to rescue them and becomes their defender against monstrous black-winged creatures that have enslaved them. Some of Zulawski's imagery has been aped by others in the interim and thus may seem stale, but much of it is stunning and the cinematography is nightmarishly bleak and, while I can't recommend it, a viewing will give you a sense, however fragmentary, of the masterpiece that might have been.