If you’re going to make a movie about a lone heroine battling a worldwide epidemic of alien body-snatching, Nicole Kidman is an odd choice to play the lead. I admire Kidman, but not even her most ardent fan would call her the warmest of actresses. Her best performances have a chilly, deliberate, slightly detached quality, and her beauty is, precisely, unearthly. It’s impossible to know what’s inside that perfectly modeled head or behind those icy eyes. She’s easier to picture as the victim of brainwashing from outer space than as a fierce defender of imperfect human passions.
In The Invasion (Warner Bros.), the fourth film based on Jack Finney’s sci-fi novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kidman plays Carol Bennell, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist whose longtime patient lodges a sudden complaint that her husband is not her husband. * Also suddenly—a lot of stuff in this movie happens suddenly—a space shuttle has exploded over the southern United States and Carol’s ex, Tucker (Jeremy Northam), has resurfaced, asking to see their young son. As it turns out, Tucker and the patient’s husband are two of the earliest victims of a viral space goo that turns people into dead-eyed facsimiles of themselves, bent on making the rest of the world just as soulless as they are. (Doesn’t that pretty much describe Washington, D.C., already?)
Carol must have recently Netflixed the far smarter 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because she takes surprisingly little time to figure out the secret of the space spores. She’s aided by Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), a scientist who specializes in rapid-fire story exposition, and Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), a kind, hunky doctor whom Carol likes only as a friend (more evidence that she must have been body-snatched already: What flesh-and-blood earthling isn’t attracted to Daniel Craig?).
Having permitted her son to spend the weekend with his father, Carol now has two tasks before her: She must find her little boy before he’s brain-napped by Dad, and then smuggle him to safety while Galeano’s medical team races to invent an antidote. Along the way, she will make many tough moral choices, practically none of which will make any sense. The Invasion tries to update the political relevance of the first film (which treated the body-snatching threat as an allegory for McCarthyism and postwar conformity) with a constant stream of cable-news chatter about the war in Iraq. But in addition to ringing false—did we go to war in Iraq because we’re mindless conformists, or because we were fed bad information?—these parallels clash with the movie’s ham-handed humanist message. If (as expounded at length here by Roger Rees, playing a cynical Russian diplomat) it’s our predilection to defend our selfish interests that makes us truly human, then shouldn’t the peaceful advance of the body-snatched herd be regarded as a good thing? If, like Kidman’s character, we struggle mightily against the onslaught of the pod people, are we then affirming chaos and violence, including the violence of the current war, as our inevitable lot? Luckily, all of this philosophizing is too clunky to stick with you much past the parking lot.
The film’s German director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, is best known for Downfall, a claustrophobic melodrama about Hitler’s last days in an underground bunker. After he completed The Invasion, the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame were brought in to juice it up with some action scenes, and the graft is very visible. A late chase scene contains some striking images, including a speeding car completely covered with writhing body-snatchers, but it feels like a lift from a George Romero film.
The Invasion functions just well enough to accomplish the poor man’s version of suspense: It makes you jump when scary things pop out of dark corners, and go “ew” when the snatchers spread the virus by their favorite method—barfing on the victim’s face. But it falls far short as an effective sci-fi thriller, not to mention the brainy political allegory it’s determined to be.