Invasion, The

A troubled production that's been in the works for over two years, “The Invasion” (aka “The Visiting”) marks the unfortunate Hollywood feature debut of the gifted German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made a splash with his 2004 Oscar-nominated feature “Downfall,” about the last days of Hitler.

The fourth version of the story, which was previously filmed by Don Siegel in 1956, Philip Kaufman in 1978, and Abel Ferrara in 1994, is the weakest, most incoherent, and messiest rendition of Jack Finney's classic novel, “The Body Snatchers.”

Since it was published in 1955, the book has been regarded as a prime example of the power of science fiction to explore social and political problems of a given era. (See below) But, alas, despite potentially poignant themes, the storytelling and execution of “The Invasion” are so flawed that the ideas get lost, leaving no emotional or cerebral impact.

What went wrong You may have heard that Hirschbiegel was removed from the project and that the cast was reassembled as late as January of this year to reshoot some crucial scenes in L.A., including the ending, under the helm of the Wachowski brothers (who made the “Matrix” movies for producer Silver). If you look carefully, you can detect which sequences were shot in Downtown L.A. (See End Note).

I would guess that the first reel, which is subtle and poignant, is the one helmed by Hirschbiegel. In it, we witness massive explosion lighting up the skies from Dallas to Washington, DC, shattering the space shuttle Patriot into pieces that rain down across the U.S. The authorities are quick to seize control of the situation, but news stories across the world point to a strange substance found clinging to the wreckage, “something” that was able to withstand the extreme cold of space and searing heat of reentry. The seeds of a mass panic are planted, but the outbursts on the streets are subdued by the police and the government–at least temporarily.

Enter Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), a Washington DC psychiatrist, who at first doesn't connect the shuttle's catastrophe with the bizarre occurrences around her. Take Wendy (Veronica Cartwright), one of her regular patients, who claims she is terrified because her husband is not her husband anymore; he seems to have been replaced by a stranger. He doesn't kiss her the way he used to, and he attacks their beloved dog. Initially, suspecting that Wendy is delusional, Carol, the cool, distant pro, looks to the tools of her occupation for answers.

But then, a very strange substance comes home in Carol's son Oliver's Halloween candy, something that might be alive. Carol tells her friend and fellow doctor Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig, in his pre-Bond era) that, despite the fact that Washington seems unconcerned, “something is wrong.” The official word is that it's “simply a new form of flu.”

Estranged from her husband, the overprotective mom is forced to let Oliver spend the weekend with his dad, Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a high level official with the Center for Disease Control, who is in Washington to investigate the crash and happened to be one of the first people on the scene.

As the epidemic continues to spread, Carol discovers that the people in charge of inoculation against it are actually spreading something far worse, a spore of unknown origin that attacks human DNA while the host sleeps, remaking it in the image of a life form that looks and talks like us, but with all human emotion drained away.

Over the course of a few days, the people around Carol are transformed into hive-like beings with one imperative, to infect others and take control. Doing everything in her power to stay awake, Carol embarks on a journey into a changed world to stay alive long enough to find her son. To hide among “them,” she has to remain calm, which means betray no emotion–and not fall asleep.

In the previous film versions of the novel, the dramatic center was a male, but “The Invasion,” like Sydney Pollack's “The Interpreter” before that, is first and foremost a Nicole Kidman vehicle, and thus she is the heroine and everything we see is from her subjective POV.

The saga is divided more or less into four parts of equal duration. Unfortunately, after the first segment, in which the main persona and crises are introduced, the yarn increasingly gets worse and worse until it literally self-destructs, ending in a preposterously upbeat way that negates nearly everything that preceded it.

As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the filmmakers (director and/or writer and/or producer) couldn't decide whether they're telling a sci-fi action thriller with a poignant subject, or a more routine mother-son melodrama in the vein of Spielberg's “War of the Worlds,” a film that centers on a father (ironically played by Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman's ex-husband) and his devotion to his children during a disastrous aliens attack.

Like Spielberg's 2004 feature, “The Invasion” unfolds as a journey, one that puts Carol in one dramatically unbelievable situation after another. In the course of the film, Carol escapes the authorities and “they” in a tunnel, while driving and witnessing an accident; on a train where she's harassed by a little boy; in a pharmacy, where numerous “they” are locked behind the door; and in the end, in a shootout, in which she kills or injures at least half a dozen people who threaten to take over her son into their camp.

The film terminates in one of the worst scenes seen in a Hollywood actioner, and a low point in Joel Silver's producing career (which includes the blockbuster franchises, such as “Matrix,” “Die Hard,” and “Lethal Weapon”). Carol and Oliver are involved in a nocturnal chase scene, surrounded by numerous cops, driving a car that's not only in flames, but also has broken windows and people climbing all over it.

Against the broad backdrop of an insidious invasion is an intimate story of a handful of characters brought together by creeping suspicions that manifest themselves in terrifying ways. The crux of this story is Carol's journey, her desire to save Oliver from the clutches of his father, which is motivated by instinctive protection and unconditional love. Kidman brings to her role her reliable acting skills to playing a mom dominated by primal need to protect her child.

However, except for Carol, the rest of the characters are shallow and underdeveloped and don't fully use the skills of the gifted actors who play them. Take Carol's close friend, Daniel Craig's Ben Driscoll, a doctor at a busy DC hospital, who's courting her in a platonic relationship, though clearly he's in love with her and wants to take care of her.

Jeremy Northam is also cast in a routine role, as Tucker, Carol's estranged husband, an official with the CDC, who's brought to Washington to investigate the residue on the space shuttle debris and becomes one of the first to be infected by it. His sudden desire to exercise his rarely used visitation rights with Oliver, seems uncharacteristic of him, getting Carol's guard up.

Occasionally, there are good, creepy scenes, mostly with Tucker. For instance, when Tucker is lecturing government officials about the virus and the need to fight it, he's actually using the meeting to infect everyone in the room. They organize this magnificent campaign, which leads to exponential growth of the Snatchers.

The ensemble's most versatile actor, Jeffrey Wright, is stuck with the worst character, Ben's friend and colleague, Dr. Stephen Galeano, who has been researching the epidemic since Carol and Ben first brought him a sample of the mysterious alien substance. Safely sequestered, Galeano has been interfacing with other scientists working underground to find a way to fight its insidious effects.

Serving as sort of a narrator, Dr. Galeano explains the basic facts to the other charactersand to us. He is the one to suggest that whatever contagion the shuttle carried is rapidly spreading, and that those who are infected are driven to infect others. Dr. Galeano is the one who tells us that the infection process is completed when one goes into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. That's the catalyst that creates the change that takes over one's whole body on a DNA level.

Don Siegel's 1956 film adaptation offered commentary on the “Red Scare” that was gripping the nation during the Cold War, while the 1978 remake, released after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, echoed fears of the populace that ceased to trust its leadersor any figures of authority.

“The Invasion” tries, but fails, to put a marked twist on the idea of alien invasion, or the issues that stem from our fears of pandemic and political unrest. Nominally, the picture posits an invasion that can occur without the physical presence of aliens. A much better thriller could have been made, by grounding it in the realistic notion that we live in times in which a pandemic is a real and present danger, when annihilation could occur through microbes and/or weapons of mass destruction.

We do live in times in which politicians are not trusted, paranoid times in which we sense that something is wrong, but the government, the news media, the scientists in charge of stopping a disease are telling us that “Everything Is Okay.” Problem is, “The Invasion” is not scary enough and doesn't explore in any depth the fear of being confronted by something that could creep in and take over without anyone noticing, or knowing what to do about it.

The only significant element that “The Invasion” retains from the previous versions is the motif of staying awake, the notion that the only way to stay human is to remain alert, which is spelled out bluntly lest we don't get it. Mostly, there are superficial links to the former films. Hence, Carol Bennell is so named as a nod to the book's main character, Miles Bennell (played in 1956 by Kevin McCarthy). And actress Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” plays Carol's patient Wendy Lenk.

In “War of the World,” also a remake of a classic 1950s sci-fi, there were no characters to speak of, but the technical execution was good and the special effects spectacular. In contrast, the production values of “The Invasion” leave much to be desired, particularly in the fields of make-up and special effects.

Technically, “The Invasion” is sharply uneven. The movie's first parts use convincingly realistic locations and recognized landmarks, including the National Mall, George Washington University Hospital in the city's Foggy Bottom district, the Cleveland Park Metro Station, Georgetown, and the historic Union Station. By and large, however, by today's high standards of Hollywood sci-fi and actioners, most of the chase scenes (and the other set pieces) are conventionally staged, edited, and presented, though the score is above-average.

End Note

Who'll take responsibility for the messy “Invasion” and its probable commercial failure. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel finished lensing in early 2006, but the studio and producer Joel Silver didn't like his cut. Daniel Craig became unavilable for almost a year, during which he shot the James Bond film, “Casino Royale.” For the reshoots, Silver relied on Andy and Larry Wachowski, who did some rewrites and helmed some scenes, though most of the new footage was reportedly shot by filmmaker James McTeigue.

Cast

Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman)
Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig)
Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam)
Oliver (Jackson Bond)
Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright)
Wendy Lenk (Veronica Cartwright)
Henryk Belicec (Josef Sommer)
Ludmilla Belicec (Celia Weston)
Yorish (Roger Rees)

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 100 Minutes.

A Warner release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Silver Pictures production in association with Vertigo Entertainment.
Produced by Joel Silver.
Executive producers, Roy Lee, Doug Davison, Susan Downey, Steve Richards, Ronald G. Smith, Bruce Berman.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Screenplay, David Kajganich, based on the novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney.
Camera, Rainer Klausmann.
Editors, Joel Negron, Hans Funck.
Music, John Ottman.
Production designer, Jack Fisk.
Art directors, James Truesdale, Caty Maxey.
Set decorators, Maria Nay, Leslie Frankenheimer.
Costume designer, Jacqueline West.
Sound, Mary Ellie, David Kelson.
Sound designer, Bryan Watkins.
Supervising sound editor, Richard E. Yawn.
Visual effects supervisor, Boyd Shermis.