How is it that when aliens invade, they always seem to pick Washington? Perhaps it’s the precedent set by The Day the Earth Stood Still, or maybe it’s just the drama of blowing up the Capitol building, like in Independence Day. Either way, whether by design or dumb luck, Hollywood’s alien hordes usually end up in the seat of government. Somehow, it just seems right. And so it is in The Invasion, an update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig tear through Georgetown while fending off baddies from another world. Unfortunately, the remake replaces the bleak scares of the original with a bid for political relevance that’s as hollow and unconvincing as its legions of extraterrestrial goons.
Conceptually, the film follows much of the path of the original. An icky alien microbe slimes its way into people’s bloodstreams and turns them into affectless copies of their old selves. It’s not long before the streets are filled with blank-faced, dead-eyed Washington office workers, which, if not for the whole alien invasion thing, would normally just mean that it’s Monday morning. The trick to avoiding the microbial menace is not to fall asleep. But as the film goes limp in its second half, staying awake becomes nearly as hard for the audience as for the characters on-screen.
The obvious choice for the starring role in a remake would’ve been Donald Sutherland’s son, 24-star Kiefer — but we already know he can stay up for 24 hours at a time and not lose a bit of oomph, so that might’ve taken some of the fun out of it. This time out, then, we’ve got Nicole Kidman, the aging queen of American movie starlets whose sculpted, austere beauty makes her perfect for the role of the suit-clad Washington professional. She pairs up with Bond, James Bo — I mean, Daniel Craig — to trounce around town looking for her kidnapped son. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright plays a scientist who shows up just often enough to deliver expository details about how the virus works and who, off fighting the virus in a lab somewhere, is so separated from the main action that he seems to be in some other, far more exciting, movie. For most of the running time, I wished I could join him.
That said, the first hour almost works. There’s some moody photography, a few suspenseful moments, a number of distracting location shots of northwest Washington, and, when all else fails, Nicole Kidman’s legs. And there are a handful of apt Washington moments. At one point, Kidman and Craig end up at a cocktail party with some European diplomats. A Russian envoy waxes on about the evils of American imperialism, the war in Iraq, and U.S. relations with North Korea. Kidman responds with a firmly worded rebuttal that includes references to post-modern feminism, Abraham Maslow, and a host of psychology-department heavyweights. Both are heavy-handed, self-absorbed, vaguely obnoxious, far too well-spoken, and completely full of themselves — and if you don’t think that’s realistic, you’ve obviously never been to a D.C. cocktail party.
But these small pleasures don’t make up for the film’s myriad creative failures. The action is poorly handled, shot in quick, dull bursts, and there are some bizarre editing choices, with some scenes intercut with shots from future events for no discernable reason. The finale is the most anticlimactic thing I’ve seen in years — the major resolution actually takes place off screen, as if the director was just too lazy to film it. We only hear about what happens through some answers given at a press conference. That’s Washington-appropriate for sure (what isn’t wrapped up with a press conference in this town?), but it hardly makes for a compelling sci-fi flick.
Meanwhile, the whole production desperately strains to be relevant. As the alien takeover moves forth, there’s a not-at-all hidden subplot about the political changes that occur in the rest of the world. Bombings cease in Iraq, Kim Jong-il signs a peace treaty, and President Bush buddies up with Hugo Chavez. Thank you, space aliens! Or maybe not. Everyone involved seems to have missed the memo that references, no matter how plentiful, don’t count as commentary.
And if you want to make something out the whole alien-collective metaphor, good luck trying — you’re more likely to squeeze a Bush-bashing tell-all out of Karl Rove than get this mess to make sense. The best you’re likely to come up with is Popeyeesque philosophizing: “Man is what he is and that’s all that he is.” Makes most middle-school poetry look deep by comparison.
The point of the movie, it seems, was to force apathetic audiences to face the grim reality of man’s hideous nature, our intractable malice and insatiable greed — in other words, all those things that lead to the war in Iraq, our continued lack of intervention in Darfur, and the European press being just, like, totally more on top of the “real” issues than the lame-o U.S. media, man. What a cruel world it is that makes us pick between being bland, lifeless automatons and keeping our souls — but continuing in our egregious, arrogant, all-too-human ways! It almost makes you stop for a minute to pause and consider the choice: If giving in to a collectivist alien bacteria prevents any more movies like this from being made, it just might be worth it.
–Peter Suderman blogs at theamericanscene.com.