Yet another pod movie
Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 The Invasion, the umpteenth remake of Jack Finney's 1955 classic The Body Snatchers is easily the fastest-paced, most action-packed version yet--and that's not a recommendation. In 1956 Don Siegel directed the lean, classically proportioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers; in 1978 Philip Kaufman did a lushly photographed (by Michael Chapman) comic remake; in 1993 Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers transposes the action inside a military base.
All three versions start out by establishing a familiar, quotidian world--a small town, a big city, a family newly arrived at a new military assignment--against which odd details begin to appear, accumulate, create an atmosphere of paranoia and gathering menace. Setting the films side-by-side, you can see a progression of premises demonstrating how Finney's potent story of alien conformism versus human individuality can apply to different times, and differing circumstances: the 1956 classic explored the cracks in the smooth façade of small-town middle America; the 1978 version evoked the strangeness of a major city (San Francisco) and poked fun (the mordantly funny W.D. Richter wrote the script) at complacent Sixties liberals (in a way the film anticipates the rise of Ronald Reagan and a more conservative, less intellectually astringent America). Ferrara took the previous films' concept (that the nature of modern culture leaves it open to alien mimicry and infiltration) and pushed it even further: soldiers--trained to follow orders and not question, to wear uniforms and move in carefully choreographed motions, to consistently value the unit (the platoon, the division, the service) above one's self--seem like an inevitable choice for takeover.
(This, of course, doesn't even begin to address the question of that other body-snatcher novel, Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters published four years before Finney's. Odd how it's Finney's take and not Heinlein's that has enjoyed cinematic immortality (I wouldn't call Stuart Orme's 1994 adaptation of Heinlein's novel a serious bid for immortality). Well, maybe not that odd--Heinlein's is set in the future, while Finney's is in a small town (cheaper to produce, more metaphorical traction). Heinlein's pointed up man's vicious efficiency in combating the aliens (an expression of American self-confidence, perhaps?); Finney's emphasized man's helplessness, and was more in tune with Cold War anxieties of the '50s. That said, I'd love to see a proper adaptation of Heinlein, with the hero engaged in an ambiguous relationship with his girlfriend (who might be his sister) and boss (who might be his father), and an alien (resembling a giant slug) whose merest touch turns you into a willing slave.)
One can see attempts to address the issue of being a third remake, of trying to distinguish this attempt from previous efforts. In these days of fast communication, of the cell phone, digital assistant, and internet, the aliens do away with pods (a slow, clumsy process, when you think about it) altogether and settle for (taking a page from any number of contagion movies (Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) comes to mind) a nice, quick vomit in the coffee urn (the alien spores are transmitted through standard-issue body fluids). The storyline has been done to death, so this version starts in media res, with the heroine Carol (Nicole Kidman) scrambling desperately through drugstore shelves for uppers to keep her awake, and flashbacks and flash-forwards in the action bring us up to speed, sometimes throw us off-balance.
All fine and good; the problem with disposing of the pods, though, is that you lose the suggestions of conformity ("peas in a pod") and artificiality (Frozen peas? Canned peas?) that the word evokes; you lose the evocative moment when a human comes face-to-face with his incomplete duplicate (done three previous times, brilliantly); you lose the horror of seeing a parody of a human visage, of seeing someone forced to make a decision as to how to deal with that parody (a pitchfork in the chest; a garden hoe in the neck).
Likewise, that shuffling of shots destroys the progression of paranoia found in the three previous films (and to some extent, in this one)--familiar territory, yes, but as film academic David Bordwell put it, sometimes we can sit through something familiar and still be thrilled by the details (in these particular cases, the directors managed to add a fresh spin--the shattering of a small-town idyll, the intensification of urban alienation, the perversion of military discipline). Early on in the picture we have a government laboratory analyzing the alien spores and identifying them as being a possible danger--great, fine, but the lab is quickly dropped from the narrative, and we're left with the (rather futile, as it turns out) anticipation that the government, forewarned, might immediately do something.
Actually, some of the movie's finest moments are found in the attempts, however fitfully, to create a developing sense of menace--a camera, for one, tracking a woman running down the street, crying for no apparent reason; long shots of men and women standing, their gaze trained in a single direction; brief inserts of police officers beating men and women on the streets. At one point Carol's ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam, smooth and suave as any creature freshly popped from his pod (but I forget, this version has none)) is photographed head-on, like the nose of a race car, creating an almost Bergmanesque intensity of regard even if we're not quite sure why we're looking at him that way--it's quite unsettling. Hirschbiegel (who did the fairly well-regarded Der Untergang (The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich, 2004)) reportedly did a quickly-shot version filled with unusually angled shots and only a few special effects that displeased the producers so much they approached the Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue (who did the Wachowski's V for Vendetta (2005)) to help sex it up, then dumped the whole project on the tail end of summer, almost two years after its announced release. Obvious, isn't it, the confidence they have in this production?
Always risky trying to guess who did what, but I'd say McTeigue came up with the idea of recycling many of the shots used early in the picture (the woman running down the street crying, for example), a shallow way of giving the picture some "edge." I'm more confident in saying McTeigue probably shot the final car chase, with Kidman racing to ferocious rescue of her son (something she did far more persuasively, I think, in Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001--easily both actor and filmmaker's best work to date)), pod people (difficult to shake the term, isn't it?) in hot pursuit. A car chase, in a Body Snatcher film? Worse things have happened in remakes, I'm sure; I just can't think of any at the moment.
(First published in Businessworld, 8/31/07)