Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movie Review: The Invasion

As Shakespeare might say, it's a brave new world...sort of.

The Invasion, written by Dave Kajganich. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with additional hack work by James McTeigue and Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starrring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeremy Northam. Warner Brothers. Runtime 93 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

It's no surprise the critics hate this movie, considering this is now the fourth film based on Jack Finney's novel, Body Snatchers. Probably only Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Phantom of the Opera have received similar Hollywood treatment. Does a story about people-replacing giant eucalyptus leaves from outer space really warrant the same attention as those horror classics?

Having somehow, by some grand oversight, missed all the previous incarnations of this film, I don't actually hate this movie; I only dislike it. The main reason I dislike it is because somebody apparently thought it was artistic to edit all the action sequences so they flip back and forth in time, so for five seconds we're watching two people having a quiet conversation and then for five seconds we're watching them in a car chase, and then we're back to the quiet conversation, and then we're back to the car chase. The only other movies I've seen that use this sort of ill-advised artsy technique are the sort that end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This particular interpretation of Body Snatchers has no campy pods creating human-like replicates. Instead, the "pod people" are merely people infected with a virus from outer space, a virus that causes them to walk funny and gives them a talent for projectile vomit. These aren't really aliens so much as straitlaced, upper-class zombies. In other words, The Invasion comes to us in a manner similar to Robin Cook's Invasion, which is also a bad movie about a virus that turns people into aliens. But at least this new Invasion doesn't feature anyone building a ray gun out of a Discman.

The movie centers around Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Kidman), whose ex-husband Tucker (Northam) suddenly wants to see their son Oliver (Jackson Bond) years after being out of the boy's life. Tucker is acting weirdly, talking in a monotone and walking as if he can't quite remember how, and some of Carol's patients are reporting similar behavior in close relatives. Does this have anything to do with the weird spores on the scattered pieces of the recently crashed space shuttle?

Soon, the pod people are taking over the country and the world, spreading the infection mostly via projectile vomit or flu vaccines. Anyone who falls asleep after being infected is encased in sticky goo and wakes up as one of the goody-two-shoes pod people. Certain sequences featuring Carol trying not to fall asleep may very well put you to sleep.

It's possible for the uninfected to fool the pod people if they act emotionless; this adds to the movie's incoherence, as Carol goes back and forth from freaking out to stony calm, apparently with no effort. Adding even more incoherence are some obvious emotions in the supposedly emotionless pod people: cold, nasty emotions to be sure, but definitely emotions.

As it turns out, certain people are for a certain reason immune to the virus, and one of them might even be Carol's son Oliver, if only she can have some car chases and rescue him so her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Craig) can develop massive quantities of a vaccine to be sprayed from crop dusters. Whoa, I'm starting to nod off, so I better finish up the summary and get on to the criticism.

The Invasion appears to have been cobbled together out of spare parts. Spare parts include projectile vomit borrowed from The Exorcist; a plot borrowed from a novel, three previous films, and the aforementioned Robin Cook stinker; action sequences excused by the plot device of a child needing rescued, borrowed from loser movies like Mercury Rising; and Nicole Kidman, borrowed from wherever they found her to convince her to waste her time on this film.

The script is not as awful as some critics say; it does feature a few bits of witty dialogue, some technical language about extraterrestrial disease that actually sounds technical, and a fair (but failed) attempt at relevance and depth of meaning. It also features some jaw-droppingly dumb lines: postmodern feminism is an advance in human consciousness? That's almost as dumb as those science fiction fans who think they're the next stage in human evolution.

Then there's the movie's attempt at relevance. No movie that mentions the Iraq war, President Bush, or the Department of Homeland Security is going to get a positive review from me. Some may accuse me of not caring about the real world or about current events. That's not true; but it is true that I quickly reach the saturation point when multiple works of fiction want to comment on or satire those real world events ad nauseum; it makes me feel like the conscientious objector in Lester Del Rey's "Fifth Freedom" who couldn't escape World War III even in his science fiction pulp mags. During the Clinton years, I got tired of Hollywood telling me the president was an action hero (Independence Day, Air Force One) or an old-fashioned lover boy (The American President) or at least not as fat and stupid as a Republican (My Fellow Americans). I am now just as tired of Hollywood telling me the President or Department of Homeland Security is so evil and/or stupid that our only hope of salvation is a group of giant transforming robots, a stuffed bunny rabbit, or a superhero in a Guy Fawkes mask. Enough already!

The Invasion offers a mildly interesting take on the whole thing. If everyone were pod people, we are told, we would have no war in Iraq and no suicide bombers. I suppose that's true, just as it's true that if we all learned Martian we could grok peace and love. Only problem is there is no Martian and there are no pod people. Allow me to quote G. K. Chesterton's Heretics:
And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon. [p. 79]

In his historical fiction/conspiracy novel, Lovecraft's Book, Richard Lupoff puts a similar statement into the mouth of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who comments that just about any philosophy could make a utopia if every man held it and followed it consistently. If we absorb these statements, we are forced to ask, what exactly is the purpose of suggesting an alien virus could solve our problems? Is it meant to be a serious comment on the human condition or is it just a cheap attempt to make the evil aliens tempting?

The catchline of this review suggests the movie is a presentation not of a utopia but of a distopia, but that's not exactly correct. It is, rather, a presentation of a distopia in the making, and that saves it from being completely silly. The movie meditates briefly on human nature, correctly concluding that human nature is fallible and therefore includes such things as war, poverty, and other difficulties the pods can solve only be eliminating our humanity. If the film were written a little better, that would be enough, but unfortunately, screenwriter Dave Kajganich has to go on to offer what he thinks is the real solution to our problems: the evolution of human consciousness, best represented by postmodernism. In other words, the situation is worse than we thought: if we can't tell the difference between cultural decadence and evolving consciousness, we are really in trouble.

The review at Plugged In Online suggests the movie makes an "accidental statement" about Original Sin, humanity's inherent defect. It doesn't look so accidental to me; a film that depicts humans achieving peace only at the price of their emotions, their desires, their individuality, and their ability to walk normally seems to understand that imperfection is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human.

I don't really want to compare this film to Brave New World. That's too easy. Instead, I'll compare it to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, possibly my all-time favorite TV show even though I only saw it about four times when I was a kid and have only hazy memories of it. Captain Power was one of those post-apocalyptic stories, featuring a future of red skies and crumbling cities where a few bands of human survivors are trying to escape the menacing BioDreads, fake-looking CGI robots who hunt people down and digitize them into computer programs as part of a distopian scheme instituted by the Darth Vader-like Lord Dread, who believes human problems will be solved if--guess what?--we get rid of our emotions. Perhaps the great irony of the show is that Lord Dread and his robotic minions are always having emotional issues whereas Dread's nemesis, Captain Power, has trouble getting in touch with his own emotions. Now that's what I call good screenwriting. It is probably no accident that Dread's diabolical computer, which houses all the digitized humans, is named Overmind, which is also the name of a god-like species-absorbing collective entity in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. In Clarke's world, union with the Overmind is a race's ultimate achievement, but in the world of Captain Power, union with the Overmind is a hellish nightmare. This TV series and The Invasion explore the same basic idea, that the elimination of the things that cause our greatest problems is also the elimination of what makes us human. And of course, that begs the question of whether or not it is intrinsically good to be human. That brings us to a philosophical assumption that both the movie and the TV show share, that something about humanity is inherently good. Whether the writers of either of these programs realize it or not, they are probably drawing this idea from our culture's Christian roots and the concept of the imago dei, which is the Judeo-Christian belief that humans bear the image of God.

The Invasion's biggest mistake is in assuming that we will somehow overcome our problems through some vaguely defined evolving consciousness. It rejects the distopian vision of a race of soulless robots, but it makes the mistake of the Utopia that Chesterton so nicely encapsulates, assuming the biggest problem will somehow easily go away. Christians, too, have sometimes been guilty of Utopian visions. The original Utopia comes from a Christian saint. Teilhard de Chardin bought into a concept of evolving consciousness not unlike this film's. And a lot of Catholics today naïvely believe everything would be hunky dory if the Mass were in Latin again. An honest appraisal of Christian experience, however, reveals that Christianity can make people better but not perfect, at least in this life, and that existence on Earth always includes the need for continued vigilance against our own worst natures. The life of the Church and the individual Christian, then, is a continual self-battle. By contrast, Utopias are inevitably sleepy and stagnant: their members have nothing left to fight for. In real life, if such a society could exist, it would crumble in on itself because its citizens would inevitably become lazy and intellectually flabby.

On a more personal note, to whoever was talking on his cell phone behind me during the movie, leave the thing at home! That goes double for whoever was behind me at Mass this morning. I firmly believe that televisions, cell phones, and iPods are part of a vast conspiracy to turn us into zombies and destroy us. Do you really think it's a coincidence that it's called an iPod? I don't.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Invasion:

Myth Level: Medium (nice try)

Quality: Medium (try linear editing; it works!)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (nothing especially objectionable)
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