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Sunday 19 August 2007

An Intelligent Virus:
A Review of The Invasion

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (and James McTeigue, uncredited)

Written by David Kajganish, from the novel by Jack Finney

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, Jeffrey Wright, and Veronica Cartwright

When going to see the third remake of the classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), audiences should know the drill: there is a strange occurrence in the sky, followed by a few disquieting signs that people are no longer acting like themselves; slowly, the protagonists realize that their friends and fellow citizens are being replaced by malevolent, emotionless aliens; soon, part of the dwindling numbers of untransformed people, the protagonists are pursued by hordes of aliens intent upon bringing them into the fold; and finally, since this is a big-budget film aiming to please the masses, there is the inevitable happy ending, as the evil aliens are defeated and the status quo is restored. Only someone completely divorced from American popular culture of the past sixty years could possibly regard this summary as a "spoiler."

Watching such a film, then, is like going to a performance of a Shakespeare play: already knowing what is going to happen, one wonders how the story will be adapted and interpreted for its current audience. Images of people turning into soulless zombies, manifestly, represent a deep fear of losing one's freedom and individuality; but people of different eras will have different reasons for that fear. In Don Siegel's 1956 version, the predominant worry is Communism, and the possibility that your neighbor was secretly an enemy agent recruiting others to surrender to that totalitarian philosophy; in Phil Kaufman's identically-titled 1978 remake, the underlying fear is that aging members of the counterculture will abandon their eccentricities to join the monolithic Establishment; and Abel Ferrara's 1993 remake Body Snatchers adds a generational overlay to such concerns, as becoming a pod person seems to symbolize becoming an adult. Thus, one could reasonably expect that this latest version of the story will have something new to say about what contemporary people see as the greatest threat to their personal liberty. Clearly, that question was very much on the minds of screenwriter David Kajganish and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, and their consistently interesting film provides at least three answers for the attentive viewer.

One fear conveyed in the film is that we may be over-medicating people to achieve conformity. To foreground medical issues, the film abandons Siegel's cumbersome process of growing pods to become human duplicates and recasts the alien invasion as a virus: a microscopic but intelligent organism that penetrates the bloodstream, replicates, and once activated by REM sleep, changes human DNA so as to make people into members of the alien hive-mind, a process accompanied by the temporary growth of a sticky membrane over one's body. To hasten the transformation of all citizens into aliens, the government falsely reports a massive flu epidemic and urges people to quickly get a vaccine that actually contains the alien virus. And although desperate aliens can spread the virus by spitting sticky stuff into the faces of their victims, they prefer to give it to others in form of some liquid to drink, they way that many people take their medicine. Quite literally, then, the film conflates becoming an emotionless zombie and receiving unnecessary medication.

In addition, the film's heroic doctor — Nicole Kidman as Dr. Carol Bennell, replacing Siegel's male Dr. Miles Bennell — is a psychiatrist who almost automatically prescribes mind-altering drugs to her patients; she gives her son Oliver (Jackson Bond) medication to prevent his nightmares, and when already-medicated patient Wendy Lenk (Veronica Cartwright, who also appeared in the 1978 version) complains that "my husband is not my husband," Bennell's solution to her problem is to "change her medication" to an "anti-psychotic drug." At a dinner party, the Russian ambassador Yorish (Roger Rees) sarcastically asks her if she can prescribe a "pill" to make him "think like Americans think." When she urgently needs to stay awake in order to remain human, Bennell does not consider a cold shower; instead (in a scene which is conspicuously, as a flash-forward, also the film's opening scene), she breaks into an abandoned pharmacy to "look for some medicine" — always seeking a pharmacological solution to a personal problem. And the link between taking drugs and becoming a cold, emotionless alien is made explicit when one transformed alien, Bennell's ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), tells her, "You give people pills to make their lives better. What's so different about what we do?" A final suggestion that becoming an alien is like becoming a drug addict comes in the scene when, to reawaken his dozing mother, Oliver must stick a syringe directly into her heart — an action previously observed in Pulp Fiction (1994) when the same procedure revives the victim of a severe drug overdose. In sum, Nicole Kidman may have divorced Tom Cruise long ago, but her film's firm opposition to mind-altering medication is very much in keeping with the teachings of Scientology.

A more prominent theme in the film, however, is that Americans are now afraid that their own government, not their own doctors, will deprive them of their individuality. The fact that the film primarily takes place in Washington D.C., and that protagonists Bennell and Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are friendly with foreign ambassadors, suggest a political interpretation. In this retelling of the story, the alien invasion begins when a space shuttle returning to Earth explodes and scatters alien-infested debris from Washington, D.C. to Dallas. The doomed shuttle is named Patriot, surely a reference to the infamous Patriot Act, recently renewed, which placed many new restrictions on personal freedom in the name of fighting terrorism. Further, we are told by investigating physician Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) that scientists are sure the shuttle was "destroyed deliberately." Now, it is certainly possible that aliens somehow took over the crew during their flight and decided to blow themselves up for the sake of their cause; but one could also theorize that government officials, already transformed into aliens, planned the explosion from the start as the most efficient way to quickly spread their virus across the country. And while it's true that Maryland's Fort Dietrich, the U.S. Army's center for work on biological warfare, becomes a base for scientists and soldiers combating the alien invasion, the other authorities in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, represented by police officers, almost immediately emerge as the aliens' strongest allies.

The Invasion, though, should not be regarded as a mere exercise in Bush-bashing, since the film takes pains to indict all political leaders as alien co-conspirators. For, while one cannot be sure how many ordinary people have succumbed to the virus, it very clearly has taken over the minds of the world's governing elite, as evidenced by the astounding news glimpsed on television screens in the background: North Korea becomes the final nuclear power to sign a peace agreement; India and Pakistan settle their differences, as do Israel and the Palestinians; insurgents in Iraq stop their violence, leading to an American withdrawal from the country; peace comes to Afghanistan, Darfur, and Chad; President George W. Bush and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez meet amicably; and even Bush and Hillary Clinton are pictured together smiling as they announce plans for universal health care. Indeed, the film suggests, politicians of all varieties, ranging from Bush and Clinton to Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, might have every reason to hope that their citizens would become mindless pod people, easily manipulated and controlled, so that the leaders could settle their factional disputes and concentrate on feathering their own nests.

Moreover, more so than in previous versions, the aliens here are permitted to eloquently defend their invasion as an effective way to eliminate not only our political problems, but our personal problems as well. At the dinner party, Bennell and others express hopes for a world without violence and discord, and that is precisely what the aliens provide: international disputes are resolved, the city streets are calm and peaceful, and Dr. Bennell's patients are canceling their appointments because they no longer need psychiatric care. When Bennell is brandishing a gun in front of group of aliens, one of them poignantly asks, "Is this who you are? Is this what you want to be?" One transformed alien describes the result of their eventual triumph as a "world without suffering," "beautiful and peaceful" with "perfect harmony," a "better world" than the one we currently inhabit. And finally, when the aliens are defeated and the world returns to all its old conflicts, Galeone ruefully notes, "For better or worse, we're human again." Of course, the film ultimately agrees with its horrified protagonists that an alien hive-mind is not the best solution to our difficulties, but it is one solution, and other than Bennell's vague hopes for eventual improvements in the human condition, there is no other solution in sight.

A third theme in the film is more understated, and to me more disturbing. The Invasion establishes and embraces a clear dichotomy: if you show emotions, you are human; if you do not show emotions, you are a sinister alien. Untransformed humans can pass as aliens as long as they remain stone-faced; if they display any sort of emotional response, they are immediately apprehended and subjected to the treatment. As it happens, today there are growing numbers of people around us who do not show emotions, who appear cold and distant, and they are the people suffering from various forms of autism. True, only one brief scene explicitly likens the aliens to victims of autism, but it is a striking scene nonetheless: one of Oliver's young friends, already transformed, is sitting quietly by himself in his Halloween skeleton costume — as one already dead to the world? Although his mother says only that the boy is in a "funk," he does at that moment look very much like an autistic child. Now, as someone with the mild form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome, I once wrote an essay arguing, among other things, that people who do not show emotions may not be all bad, and that typical negative reactions to such people may represent a form of prejudice; thus, I cannot be entirely comfortable with the assertion that blatant emotionalism is the one true sign of a genuine human being. In linking transformation into an alien with autism, and in making their aliens seem more sympathetic than those in previous versions of the story, Hirschbiegel and Kajganish may be expressing their own discomfort with this common attitude; but in the end, they are driven to endorse the traditional view that a cold, distant demeanor represents a malady that must be rejected or cured. Still, someday, there may be a fifth, revisionist remake of this story in which the people who become emotionless aliens are brought under control, but allowed to remain part of society as a tolerated minority.

There are other aspects of The Invasion which invite commentary, such as its somewhat conflicted feminism. It is true that Carol Bennell, who describes herself as a "postfeminist," does replace the male heroes of the 1956 and 1978 films, and she seems very much a confident, independent woman, perfectly capable of shooting aliens with a gun if that's what it takes for her to survive. In addition, the iconic scene in the first two versions of Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) running through traffic, trying to warn drivers about the invasion, is here reprised with an unnamed female character. However, one must contrastingly note that Bennell's primary activity during most of the film is searching for a man who will rescue her, and when one man lets her down, there is fortunately a backup available who comes through in the end.

This is also a film which displays a tremendous attention to detail, and thus rewards careful viewing. At the end of one car chase, Bennell's car crashes into a store window filled with mannequins, a visual reminder that she is battling beings who look like humans but really aren't. The first day of the invasion is Halloween, a time when people, like the aliens, pretend to be what they really aren't, and as his Halloween costume, Oliver dresses as Superman — appropriately, since it turns out that he is actually invulnerable, one of the few humans who is immune to the alien virus. When Bennell is in the pharmacy, guzzling soft drinks to wash down her pills, she carefully chooses Mountain Dew — which, as all caffeine addicts know, is the only lemon-lime soft drink that contains the stimulant caffeine; later, when she briefly dozes off, she is observed holding another caffeinated beverage, Pepsi. One scene in which Bennell and her son hide from aliens in an underground room, watching through a window, only to be visited by one alien, is an obvious homage to a similar scene in a recent film about a different sort of alien invasion, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005).

Still, however much one can say about this film's thoughtful and careful craftsmanship, one must also acknowledge that the filmmakers are regularly attentive to the demands of the conventional, mindless blockbuster — which is to say that much of the film is devoted to a series of inane chase scenes in which Bennell, either running on foot or driving, demolition-derby style, through crowded city streets, improbably contrives to elude hordes of pursuing aliens displaying a level of incompetence that is completely inconsistent with their other spectacular successes. (Perhaps uncredited co-director James McTeigue, of V for Vendetta [2005] fame, was brought in to enhance the film's action sequences.) However, in light of its other virtues, one can tolerate these lapses into illogic as necessary concessions to popular tastes in a film which costs a lot of money, and hence must earn back a lot of money. Most optimistically, one might regard The Invasion as an example of a new film genre struggling to be born — the thinking person's popcorn film. And a profusion of such films would indeed represent, for Hollywood, a genuine alien invasion.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.