Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pods Revisited

While Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a plot with a choice metaphor that has allowed it to be relevant to a number decades since the first film in the Fifties, the most recent version was the most maligned in the press. David Churchill, in Critics at Large, however thought that many rushed to judgement.

When the Real Pod People Intrude: Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion

In my last post, I talked about the two-dozen plus DVDs I picked up for a buck each at the Rogers rental shutdown. As I stated, a few of the films I grabbed I assumed would be pieces o' crap, such as Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion (2007 - starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) which I had heard nothing but bad things about. It was the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I bought it for $1 to watch at some point just to complete the “collection.” So imagine my surprise when, except for the completely destroyed ending and idiotic bits here and there throughout the film, I found The Invasion well-acted, credibly made and far more pointed than I was expecting it to be.

In the first two versions, the invasion was literally a space-born spore that came to earth (never explained in the Don Siegel's effective 1956 version; carried to our planet on the solar winds in Philip Kaufman's brilliant 1978 version). Abel Ferrara's weak 1993 Body Snatchers also left it unclear where the spores came from, but suggested environmental problems – not space spores – on a military base caused the pods to evolve and take over people. In Hirschbiegel's version, spores have attached themselves to a returning space shuttle which experiences a catastrophic failure. When the shuttle breaks up on re-entry, it spreads the spores across the US (especially around Washington, DC, where most of the film is set) attached to the shuttle's wreckage.


The most intriguing thing about every version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is how they have tried to be a commentary upon the time in which they were made. Don Siegel's 1956 version is generally received two ways: either it's a warning about the McCarthy witch hunts and how good people can be destroyed by the group mind's fear of communism; or it's a warning against the insidious creeping of communism itself. Kaufman's 1978 masterpiece is a look at the collapse of Sixties idealism and the emergence of the navel-gazing Me Generation and Reagan-era conformity where nobody wants to seem out of step with everybody else. For an exceptional examination of these first two films, see my colleague Kevin Courrier's post here.

The pod, in the 1956 film
Ferrara's version, rather lamely, puts the negative focus on the military and how it demands complete obedience of its members. No, really? Military people obeying orders? As Count Floyd used to say on SCTV, “Ooooh, scary.” There is also a suggestion that our destruction of the environment caused the pods to evolve, which might have had some promise, but Ferrara – an overrated hack at best – didn't properly explore it. Hirschbiegel's take puts the spotlight on our fears of disease. The first people are taken over not by a pod duplicate, but the spores themselves. One touch (people picking up pieces of the shuttle are the first affected) and the spore enters the blood stream, attacks the human cells and replicates/replaces them while they REM sleep. There is no taken-over remains to get rid of in this version because the same body is used, just absorbed by the spore life-form a cell at a time. If truth be known, to me the giant pods always seemed a bit silly even in the terrific versions of the films. Didn’t anybody consider that the appearance of really large versions of milk-weed pods all over the place was out of place?

In The Invasion, Nicole Kidman plays Washington, DC psychiatrist Carol Bennell (only the Ferrara version didn't use the Bennell name – the hero's name in Jack Finney's original novel – for the film's hero/heroine). She's a single mother now divorced from her husband, Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam – named in tribute to director Philip Kaufman), who works for the Center for Disease Control (CDC). As the film starts, he is on the scene of the shuttle disaster and accidentally touches a piece of the wreckage, thus becoming one of the first infected. A few days later, Bennell first becomes concerned that there's something amiss in society when one of her patients, Wendy Lenk (Veronica Cartwright – another tribute to Kaufman's version, since Cartwright played one of last humans standing at the end of his version), thinks her husband isn't her husband anymore. She describes a terrible attack he levelled on their dog when it growled and tried to attack him. Bennell sends her home with new meds and an insistence that she contact her if the husband does anything else odd. As the appointment finishes, Bennell receives a call from Kaufman saying he wants to see their son, Oliver (well-played by Jackson Bond). Bennell at first refuses because Kaufman has had nothing to do with her or their son in years, and now he's suddenly back. Why? She reluctantly agrees, and drops off Oliver with Kaufman, but is still concerned. She tells her concerns to her colleague and friend, Ben Driscoll (pre-Bond Daniel Craig). Long story short, she begins to piece things together and, with Driscoll's help and that of another colleague, Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright – Felix Leiter in the later James Bond movies featuring Craig), try to determine a cause. They also discover that some people who suffered Encephalitis as a child (such as her son, Oliver) are immune to the spore's attack. (One disturbing moment occurs when Bennell asks one of the turned what they will do with her unturnable son. He says, “There’s no place in our world for the immune.” Namely, Oliver and all like him will be killed.) The race is then on to rescue Oliver and stay awake. Hirschbiegel's version works best on two levels. On one level, there’s our fear of a pandemic flu, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, Toronto and other cities. And two, are we too violent as a people?

Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig
Fear of disease reached such heights in 2009 that I recall panicked line-ups around the block to receive flu shots to protect against the potentially lethal H1N1 virus, which scientists at the CDC and at Health Canada claimed would run roughshod over society killing or making millions ill. As it turned out, they either cried wolf causing a near panic, or the shots worked. I think, unfortunately, it was the former. Though I believe in the necessity of vaccinations, I don't believe in fear mongering, so I didn't get the shot and I came through that winter not only without the flu, but not even a cold. Granted, I wasn't in any of the at-risk groups, but still I thought – and still feel – that as long as I have an immune system that functions on its own (and I do whatever I can to keep it strong), unless the risk seems really dire, I don't bother with the annual flu shot.

This is the first thing The Invasion plays with brilliantly. In the film, many US citizens are infected because the “pod people” take over the CDC and concoct a vaccine that is supposed to stop some sort of pandemic. In fact, the inoculation is actually the spore itself which will transform anybody injected into a pod person. Of course, as fear broadcasts go out over the media, the herd mentality takes place and everybody rushes out to get inoculated. (I guess that means I'd be on the run from the pod people because I refuse to get a flu shot.) The spores can also be passed on by a secretion spit from the mouth of a pod person into the unchanged human's face. (For example, early in the film, Bennell is captured by Kaufman who sprays her with the spore, so she really has a need to stay awake because she won't turn until she does.)

The second thing the film does really well, in an unnerving sort of way, is something that plays constantly in the background as Bennell and Driscoll race around trying to stop the invasion and try to stay awake. As more and more humans are turned, the TV broadcasts talk incessantly about how peaceful and non-violent the world is becoming. Basically, we humans are a very violent bunch and perhaps we need to be turned in order to save ourselves from ourselves. It is a smart move in the film giving us the suggestion that perhaps the world would be better if we were all turned. After all, look how peaceful the world becomes. Very sly.

And then the whole movie falls apart. (SPOILER ALERT.) In what has to be the most retarded happy endings ever conceived (or tacked on – more on that in a second), Bennell and her son are racing away from a hoard of pod people. Gaetano is in a helicopter trying to pick them up. He has earlier taken the spore to a facility where they've “miraculously” developed a counter serum that will not only undercut the spores, but turn back everybody already turned. They make it to the helicopter and then cut to one year later and everybody's back to normal (with our violent tendencies also back). What? How asinine. Are you kidding me? First, how did they find that “cure” so quickly? Second, did the pod people basically not fight back; just docilely submit to the change? However, we have no way of knowing because once the helicopter lands and picks up Bennell and Oliver, the film cuts to one year later and everything is happy happy joy joy. It makes absolutely no sense and undercuts everything the film is working towards. (Don Siegel’s original version also had a ridiculous tacked on get-the-FBI finale, but at least it didn’t damage the overall impact of the picture.)

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2009
I think I know what happened. The real pod people didn't like what they were seeing and intervened. In this case, the pod people were the executives at Warner Brothers (and probably notorious action producer, Joel Silver). They took one look at what sort of ending Hirschbiegel and good screenwriter David Kajganich came up with and shrieked that familiar pod people shriek. They replaced Hirschbiegel (a German filmmaker who to that point was known for his harrowing film about Hitler's final days, Downfall, so just what did they expect?) and also Kajganich because The Suits feared the two of them were aiming for something dark, I bet. The Suits brought in The Wachowskis (the brothers behind The Matrix movies) to rewrite (did the producers not see the nonsensical second and third Matrix movies?) and James McTeague (V for Vendetta – did they not watch that god awful film?) to reshoot. They basically destroyed the The Invasion. It's pretty easy to see where these sequences were dropped in: a line such as “turn everybody back” spouted by Wright; an incomprehensible exchange between Kidman and Roger Rees' Yoric; a visually exciting but utterly ridiculous chase scene with a bunch of pod people piled on Bennell's car as she careers through the streets trying to get to the helicopter; and the entire last five minutes.

Hirschbiegel and Kajganich had the right idea. They built an incredible mood and tension without overt action scenes and you can still see that film through the cracks of the mess the film became. But in 21st century Hollywood, for a summer movie (it was originally planned for release in June 2006, but due to reshoots came out in July 2007) to have almost only minimal action, to be about mood, tension and character, AND feature a downer ending, there was just no way. Somewhere, in an alternative universe, the film Hirschbiegel and Kajganich wanted to make was shot, edited and released, probably to great acclaim. We got the pod people version.

- originally published on May 23, 2012 in Critics at Large.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go tohttp://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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