The Theory of Chaos

Friday, February 08, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Invasion

Originally posted 8/25/07
Full review behind the jump

The Invasion

: Oliver Hirschbiegel
: Dave Kajganich, based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
: Joel Silver
: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, Jeffrey Wright, Veronica Cartwright, Josef Sommer, Celia Weston, Roger Rees, Eric Benjamin

Plastic people/Oooooh baby, now you’re such a drag
-Frank Zappa

I don’t think this is a small point to make – in the classic “B”-movies of 50’s science fiction, you couldn’t cut very much. Film stock meant money, after all, so suspense had to be created, not with jittery montage, but with invention and atmosphere (or by a well-placed
theremin on the soundtrack.) It helped to reinforce that the cut is a distancing device, as well, with a tendency to disperse such genre-essential moods as dread and claustrophobia.

Further, for the same monetary reasons, these movies didn’t have stars in them. The real high-wattage marquee names didn’t want anything to do with such kids’ stuff; so again, the movies sank or swam on the potency of their ideas and the wit of their execution.

Nowadays, Hollywood has nearly abandoned every genre save the “B” picture, but contrary to its original aesthetic definition they hurl their biggest stars at them, with giant sacks of money tied ‘round their waists. This regularly produces fascinating misfires like
The Invasion. Here is a movie that revives a well-traveled science fiction classic (now being adapted for the fourth time) and takes advantage of all possible modern resources. It can blind you with quick cuts, fill city streets with extras, and command you to bask in the warm radiance of A-list star Nicole Kidman. And all those assets, a critical mass of Hollywood Blockbuster Big Mo, are precisely what end up spoiling it by leveraging the movie away from its core good ideas.

As before this is a story about a nigh-invisible conquest of our planet by alien invaders, who replace us in our sleep with duplicates who can impersonate our behavior, but without the knack for how emotions work. The screenplay by Dave Kajganich has fun with pod-person dialogue which is revealingly just a few inches away from correct. In this iteration, the alien is viral, a pathogen that hitches a ride aboard a crashing space shuttle, and re-writes our DNA while we’re dreaming so we wake up unclouded by feeling, and filled with the desire to spread this sensation to others. Liquid is the preferred method, watch out for anyone who keeps trying to offer you coffee.

This is a great story because it always feels relevant. These days we’ve had to ponder a lot of dark suggestions – that we can free ourselves of the deepest depression, all we have to do is give up our best happiness; that we can keep America safe, all we have to do is give up what makes us Americans. This story posts a flag at the terminus of that nightmare train of thought – we could end all the war and poverty and suffering of humanity; all we have to do is give up what makes us human.

And in a few of its ominous sweeps The Invasion gets this very right. We see how our own ingrained obedience to authority makes us easier prey – infected government officials send vaguely dire warnings about a superflu through the compliant media and the populace lines up for “vaccinations”. Hey, remember all the duct tape we were told to buy? And as Dr. Carol Bennell (Kidman), a therapist, crosses the street to her office, she’s unnerved to see everyone…cooperating. Bus passengers lined up patiently and quietly. Pedestrians making way for one another. No car horns.

One of her patients (Veronica Cartwright) is claiming that her husband is no longer her husband, because he won’t even fight with her. Ever since Alien, when she got blasted in the face by fake blood during an improvised scene and became hysterical, Cartwright has been the go-to actress when you need someone to turn all wobbly on-demand. Appreciate just how much her performance paints a picture for you of what’s going very, very wrong in the world, and you have a glimpse of the way these movies used to have to get it done.

Even new 007 Daniel Craig’s incipient pod of movie stardom is not yet so hardened around him that he can’t crack through it and act. See how much presence and vibrancy he brings to Dr. Bennell’s friend Ben Driscoll; a character which is, on paper, all but thankless, the earnest and decent equivalent of a Ken doll. He’s still going about this as if his job is to create a character and perform him, rather than sell tickets, and I hope he preserves this habit as long as he can.

But it’s Kidman, with her porcelain doll face and a pointless chirpy Southern accent, that eventually capsizes The Invasion. It’s not that she gives a bad performance, it’s that her dreamgirl radiance carries the implied promise of everything being okay in the end. The movie seems hesitant to be too hopeless, to worry us too much about our capacity for annihilation from within.

In a way it has fallen victim to the wrong side of its own theme, finding it preferable to not make us feel too strongly one way or the other. When parables float into view, the movie looks the other way. When it finds a powerful spectacle of despair, it hurries off to a chase scene. It’s one of the puzzlements of Hollywood why anyone would want to spend so much money on a movie and then hope we don’t react too much to it. But too often, instead of being about our insidious undoing as a species, this version of The Invasion is just about a pretty woman with mean people trying to get her. From little movies with big ideas, we’ve arrived at a huge movie which actively shrinks its ambitions.


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