Day By Day

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Invasion" -- The World the Pods Wrought

“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I went to see “Invasion” yesterday. We had personal reasons for doing so – some of our friends appeared in the film as extras and several scenes were shot in and around the building in which we live. At one point “She” tugged my sleeve and exclaimed, “That’s the table we play bridge on!” As we left the theater “She” marveled at a sequence in which Nicole Kidman exited an apartment in one building, entered an elevator and left it in another building, fled into a passage with no street exit, and emerged from it in an alley three blocks away. Ah, movie magic!

I, on the other hand, was intrigued by the film’s possibilities. I knew it got horrible reviews and did very little business on its opening weekend. I knew there had been production troubles and that the Wachowski Brothers, whose work I intensely dislike, were involved in rewriting the original screenplay. Still, the original director was Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose previous work, especially “Downfall”, had been interesting. It would be fun to see what he could do with the creepy paranoia of the “Body Snatchers” series. I just hoped that the Wachowskis and their pet director, James McTeigue (who shot the execrable “Vendetta” and reshot some scenes for this film), had not done too much damage to the original concept.

Well, they did and they didn’t. The first half of the film works well, building suspense in a quiet way, introducing tantalizing concepts, then the Wachowski influence rears its ugly head and you have pod people hanging off the roof of a careening, blazing car. Too many cooks operating at cross purpose have spoiled what might have been an interesting film. Still, enough of the original remains to raise “Invaders” above the level of genre hackery.

And that is where fanboy reviewers have trouble with the film. Time and again you read the complaint, “it just wasn’t scary enough.” They’re right. Anyone wanting to see a standard monster or zombie flick is going to be disappointed by “Invasion.” It just isn’t that kind of movie. Nor is it a romance. Several female writers complained that Nicole Kidman doesn’t get it on with her sexy co-star, Daniel Craig. [“She” sympathizes with them – one of the high points of her recent film viewing was seeing Craig emerge nearly naked from the water in “Casino Royale”.] But here he keeps his clothes on and the stars never get around to coupling or even cuddling. It’s not that kind of film. Nor is it a suspense drama. The first half of the film, as I noted above, has plenty of suspense as you and the main characters wonder who is and who is not an alien, but once the Wachowskis take over that stuff goes out the window and we get an absurd demolition derby. The creepy sense of paranoia and unfolding peril that characterized earlier films in the series is dissipated. Neither suspense nor action film, nor a romance nor a horror flick “Invasion” cannot help but disappoint fans whose expectations are shaped by genre conventions.

Nor does “Invasion” work as a simple political allegory. Years ago a myth took shape within the critical community to the effect that Walter Wanger’s 1956 production of Jack Finney’s novel was an allegory that had something to do with either representing or condemning McCarthyism. That misperception is now cited as fact by major critics and even appears in texts used in film courses and is a reason why so many lefty critics hold the old film (which after all was just a poverty row B flick) in high regard. It affirms their bizarre understanding of mid-twentieth century American political culture.

But Wanger’s production was never any such thing. Wanger himself, as well as Don Siegel [the director], Dan Mainwaring [the screenwriter], and Kevin McCarthy [the star] as well as Jack Finney, who wrote the serialized novel on which the film was based, are all on record as saying that the whole allegory take on the film is nonsense. I might point out here that even those who believe it was an allegorical critique cannot agree on just what was being represented. To some it was a right wing warning about creeping communist subversion, to others it was a left-wing warning about creeping McCarthyism, to others it was more generalized expression of apprehension regarding conformity. This analytic confusion and repeated denials of their thesis did not, however, stop critics. For more than half a century they have continued to advance allegorical interpretations of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its progeny. It was quite natural, therefore, that critics should try to see in this latest iteration a political allegory and that they should be disappointed to find it lacking.

There is far more to complain about in the film. Much of the editing is…, well, bizarre. There are gaping holes in the logic of the narrative. The acting is adequate, but hardly outstanding. There is really no character development.

Well then, just what is “Invasion” other than an ungodly mess?

It seems clear that the film, as originally conceived by Director Hirschbiegel and Dave Kajganich [who wrote the original screenplay], was intended as a vehicle in which to advance ideas. Only a few critics have recognized this and most of these have seen that as a defect, declaring the film to be “preachy” or too talky. They see the scenes devoted to advancing ideas as being simply an impediment to effective narrative. Only Manohla Dargis, writing in the New York Times, takes the ideas at the core of “Invasion” seriously and she proclaims them politically “abhorrent.” Well, just what are these ideas that so repulsed the critic at the Times?

“Invasion” is, at its core, a film about a trans-humanist, collectivist utopia. Throughout the first half of the film we are reminded time and again of the real, as opposed to fantasy, horrors infecting our world. The point is hammered home during a dinner conversation at which a Russian former communist recites a long list of atrocities and Nicole Kidman’s character replies that “postmodern feminism” might hold a cure for the world’s ills. The dinner’s hosts are a Czech couple who applaud Kidman’s solution and banter good-naturedly with the Russian guest, displaying the kind of genial discourse informed by mutual goodwill and respect – talking rather than fighting -- that sentimental lefties hold to be the solution to all manner of things. Later as the alien infection spreads and more people are assimilated into the collective mind the troubles of mankind begin to vanish. Warring nations make peace, genocidal policies are abandoned, statesmen come together to promote peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the world. The liberal Czech couple willingly, almost blissfully, accepts assimilation into the collective. It is for them the culmination of everything they hoped for all their lives.

And what does assimilation mean? It is the elimination of all normal human emotions – those pesky things that short-circuit our rational processes and cause us to behave badly. The collective is, in other words, an enlightened utopia, a realm of pure reason.

Of course there are some rough edges. Some people die during the transition, and there is a chilling disregard for human life – an obscene willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own lives for the good of the collective. This is made clear in one horrific scene that was featured in promotions for the film. Uninfected people can pass as members of the collective by suppressing all normal human emotions. At one point, while Nicole Kidman is attempting to pass, a couple stages a suicide, apparently with the purpose of stimulating an emotional response in spectators that would allow the aliens to identify non-infected people.

And then there is the problem of immunity. Some people are immune, and (in one of the film’s numerous coincidences) one of these turns out to be Nicole Kidman’s son, played by the terminally cute Jackson Bond. This fact sets up one of the main elements of the narrative – Kidman’s efforts to protect her son. Near the end of the film, when it seems that the aliens have won, it is revealed that they plan to eliminate all the immunes. At that point Kidman’s emotions kick into gear and she turns into a murder machine, ruthlessly gunning down the aliens who are threatening her son. In that moment Kidman (and all of humanity) stands revealed starkly as an unreasoning killer ape.

So there the essential dilemma is posed. The pod people represent collective peace and order and the triumph of reason, and opposed to this ideal is homicidal human individualism and emotionality. We can achieve a liberal utopia, but only at the cost of losing the things that make us human, and we can remain human only if we are willing to accept the horrific suffering that fallen estate entails. Ultimately the film comes down on the side of the killer apes, the aliens are defeated [too easily for many reviewers], and this choice is apparently what repelled Ms. Dargis. There are serious questions at issue here. The problem is that they are so ineptly presented that few viewers are even aware of them.

Don Siegel, director of the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” once said that the pod people were studio executives and others in the film industry who couldn’t comprehend art and interfered in its production. The latest version of Jack Finney’s story shows that they are still with us. Their smooth fingerprints are all over “Invasion.”


Several critics criticized "Invasion" for having a "happy" ending [humans win]. Behind this is a broad rejection of the kind of positive conclusion that once characterized American films. Over at Windmills of My Mind, Damian is doing a month-long survey of Stephen Spielberg's career [one that I highly recommend]. In his discussion of "Sugarland Express" he writes:

Throughout his career Spielberg would become known for traditional, Hollywood-style happy endings. Though sometimes his endings (particularly his more recent ones) are a bit more ambigious than he is given credit for, most people seem to agree that endings tend to give Spielberg some trouble. It is, of course, a legitimate criticism that Spielberg can oftentimes add a happy ending to a film that really doesn’t seem to deserve it. At the same time, however, it could be argued that Spielberg’s unabashedly hopeful outlook on life is merely at odds with a culture that’s growing increasingly more dissatisfied with happy endings in general. It seems pretty evident, to me at least, that our worldview as a whole is gradually becoming more pessimistic, cynical and nihilistic. Thus, when we look at the world and apparently see suffering without purpose, evil without consequence and death without meaning, we naturally look to the movies to confirm those ideas and a filmmaker like Spielberg, who is ultimately an optimist, simply rubs us the wrong way.
Read it here.

If by "us" Damien means the community of critics, he certainly has a point -- it most definitely is characterized by pessimism, cynicism and nihilism. I'm not so sure about the general population, however.