STOP THE PRESSES! The Invasion sends out (gasp) mixed messages!
Well, most Hollywood films send out mixed messages, don’t they? Mixed messages are far more the Hollywood rule than the exception. It’s a result of the standard commercial practice of trying to please as many demographics as possible.
The Invasion is credited to director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and screenwriter Dave Kajganich (based on the sf novel The Bodysnatchers by Jack Finney), but substantial portions of the film were reportedly rewritten and reshot by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) and their director protegé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) after Hirschbiegel’s cut failed to test well with preview audiences.
Manohla Dargis, writing in the NY Times, was grossly offended by what she perceived to be the *message* of The Invasion, namely that “to be human,” as opposed to being alien, “is to be purely and violently self-interested.” One cannot deny that the film says this – or rather, one of the characters within the film says it – but this plea for a pure Ayn-Randian self-interest is consistently undercut by other aspects of the film. For one thing, the character who voices this take on what it means to be human is an abrasive Russian diplomat. You can’t trust anything a Russian says, can you?
For another, after the aliens have taken over most of the people in New York City, the few remaining humans are constantly going out of their way to help one another, even at the risk of their own safety. “Show no emotion,” says a black man to Nicole Kidman on the subway, “that way they won’t recognize you.” “Don’t blink,” she is warned by a woman on the street as they pass through a crowd of pod people. (I’m going to call them “pods” in homage to previous versions of the story, even though there are no actual pods in this version.) “Try not to sweat,” warns a third person. Kidman’s character is herself a paradigm of selflessness – throughout most of the film her actions are motivated by the need to protect her little boy, and at one critical point, the little boy returns the favor by saving her. (You may be reminded of Julianne Moore and her little boy in The Forgotten, another recent alien invasion flick.)
The film also sends out mixed messages with respect to the practice of psychiatry. Kidman’s character, a psychiatrist, is criticized by another character for the way she doles out medication to keep her patients calm and happy in a stressed-out world. What she does is explicitly compared to what the aliens do when they take over people leaving them unnaturally calm and contented. Yet there’s no getting ’round the fact that the hero of this film, Kidman’s character, is a psychiatrist.
Before we come down too hard on The Invasion for its mixed messages, we should recall that the first film version, Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), also left itself open to opposing interpretations. For right-wingers, the aliens in Siegel’s version were metaphors for the communist menace. For left-wingers, they were metaphors for the groupthink of Senator Joe McCarthy and his fanatic followers.
So it is with most alien invasion films. They reflect whatever fears a particular audience brings into the theater with them. Most people saw the aliens in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) as nightmare representations of Islamic terrorists. One of the first and greatest of alien takeover films, Invaders From Mars (1953), was directed by William Cameron Menzies, whose previous film, The Whip Hand (1951), expressly concerned invading communists.
Does The Invasion work as a horror film? It did for me. Its first act, where Dr. Carol Bennell (Kidman) starts to realize what is going on, is almost as suspenseful as the first act of Siegel’s version where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) begins to realize the same thing. The present version kept me engaged, more or less, until a big noisy car chase sequence near the end – one of the contributions, I assume, of the Wachowski Brothers. There are homages to Siegel’s 1956 version and Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version scattered throughout, and some of the political humor (the aliens bring world peace, George W. Bush shakes hands with Hugo Chavez) manages to be amusing and more than a little disturbing simultaneously.