What do pink satin gloves and an afternoon-tea wedding shower have in common with The Invasion? A great deal, as it turns out. Just 24 hours before seeing the latest Body Snatchers adaptation, I sat in the cheeso-swank Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, sipping tea, eating scones, and wearing pink satin gloves at the request of others. Every guest was given gloves of various candy hues on arrival, and down we sat for a ruling-class ritual, complete with high-end tea leaves (loose, of course), crustless cucumber sandwiches, clotted cream and jam, china, silver, potted ferns, and uniformed service. Not being much for tradition myself (weddings, showers or otherwise) and — but for my friend, the bride — surrounded by strangers with whom I had little in common, I found myself having to perform a role in those pink gloves. As so many of us do in the face of taxing social obligations we attend for the sake of others, I suppressed my indifference and behaved agreeably. Just smile and nod, I told myself. Go with the flow. Show no authentic emotion. One. Of. Them.
It’s as familiar a construct in film as it is in life — the occasion where your best option is to conform, or at least to perform conformity lest feelings get hurt or (in extreme cases) a legion of pod-people overtakes you and holds you down until you sleep. Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has spawned numerous adaptations over the years, each film referencing its era’s concern: the Red scare, McCarthyism, AIDS, and now, in the latest version, the brainwashing, de-individualizing and controlling effect that the news media has on a gullible population. This trope of conformity is so rich that its basic substance has even been mined indirectly in works like The Stepford Wives and The Midwich Cuckoos/The Village of the Damned. It may be rendered in facile ways at times, but it also seems to strike a chord resonant enough to keep on sounding. I’m personally kind of partial to it because I love a B-movie that isn’t timorous about its subtext; several Pajibans have proclaimed their belief in the apolitical movie, but I can’t get comfy with that notion, because the creatures that produce these movies are themselves inescapably political (Aristotle said it long before Marx ever did). In the case of horror/thriller/SF flicks, especially, socio-political metaphor has become so bound up in their folklore (e.g. vampire: disease/sexuality, Frankenstein: science-gone-awry, zombie: death/conformity) that the tropes they feature imbue these films with subtext often not even of the filmmaker’s asking. When it comes to politics in popcorn movies, I would argue that it’s normally a matter of degree or intent or execution — never an either/or poser.
No matter where you sit in this debate, though, I defy you to try to argue the subtext out of a Body Snatchers film, especially this latest version by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the German director who gave us Der Utergang aka The Downfall (with the majestic Bruno Ganz as Hitler panicking down in his bunker as the Allies close in). The Invasion is getting a critical drubbing on this side of the pond, and it’s just possible that the film’s critique of recent American politics and the Idiocracy-style complacency of its population (as portrayed in The Invasion, at least) are causing a few noses to slide out of joint. The film isn’t exactly subtle, after all. Hirschbiegel, taking a page from early John Carpenter flicks, ratchets up the presence (and the ominous, near-sentient quality) of videoed news, coupled with mentions of Iraq, Darfur and New Orleans, as deconstructed by a Russian observer. Authority figures are the first to “turn”: agency VIPs, cops, husbands and fathers. A leading CDC officer who wants to infect the population under the benign guise of mass inoculations is suggestively named Tucker Kaufman (coincidence, no doubt, but still I giggled); he’s played by Jeremy Northam at his most mild-mannered villainous. Nicole Kidman’s heroine, Dr. Carol Bennell, calls herself a “post-modern feminist” without a trace of irony. Her first attacker is a turned human posing as a census-taker. The film pillories quietism and passive acceptance of government decisions, and ultimately suggests that political violence at a grassroots level is a necessary last resort for desperate humans in the thrall of dictatorship. All you have to do is nothing, croon the bad guys. Sleep as a metaphor for quietism couldn’t have found a more perfect vehicle.
I suppose I’ve delayed getting to the meat of the plot because its general outline is so well-known. In this version, a space shuttle (The Patriot — yes, unsubtle) carrying an alien spore is destroyed on re-entry, scattering contaminant far and wide. Rather than taking shape as doppelgangers beside their sleeping targets, these pod-people (for lack of a better term) are turned from within on a cellular level. It isn’t long before Kidman’s character, a psychiatrist, harkens to her tingling Spidey-senses and begins to mistrust the people around her. When her son Oliver peels a weird, latex-like amoeba off his skin, she takes the sample to her friend/simmering crush Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) for analysis (cue the scientific exposition). A battle against pod-people and REM sleep ensues, conversion-vomit flies (more John Carpenter — see Prince of Darkness), chase sequence builds on chase sequence, Show no emotion becomes the survivors’ mantra as they try to move undetected among the Conformers, and … well, if there’s anything I can possibly spoil for the one person who’s been living under a shed since 1955, feeding on grubs and a tattered issue of Playboy, I’ll leave it at that.
As for execution, The Invasion is what I call a B-Movie With Budget. It relies on formula and atmosphere more than originality, logic or art. The performances are B-movie adequate (even a little campy on the part of Craig), the characters lightly drawn to the point of functional (and no more), the sets and photography slick, the ending typically pat, and the audience left to deal with the odd bump in the narrative. Many have griped about a lack of cohesion in the film’s tone; the studio brought on John McTeigue and the Wachowski Brothers to soup things up, adding a car-chase sequence and other things-go-boom that seem vaguely out of place. I suspect Hirschbiegel’s original cut was more (1975) Stepford Wives than Bourne Ultimatum, and I would have liked to have seen the quieter, tauter version which Warner Brothers decided was too steely and offbeat for a Hollywood alien movie. I also suspect that what I enjoyed most about the film — what worked with the subtext — was the Hirschbiegel contribution, which unfortunately seems to have been marred in both theme and tone by those extra cooks and studio numbfucks. The human mind, however, is elastic, and keen viewers who love a good bad movie should be able to fill in the gaps and get a kick out of the matinée fun being thrown their way. The Invasion needs to withstand the test of time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it winds up in DVD collections partial to titles like Logan’s Run, Westworld and other silly, wonderful movies that deliver something ineffable despite their flaws. I viewed it with the same kind of rollicked amusement as I do other stuff of this ilk — screw the general audience, the imperfections and the tsking elsewhere-critics. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 18, 2007.)