Previous adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1954) had cannily reflected something of the times in which they’d been made. Don Siegal’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot through with McCarthyite angst about the Red Menace; Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake effortlessly captured the paranoid zeitgeist of the late 1970s, turning the story into an allegory of urban alienation, pop psychology and the erosion of personal relationships; and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993) arrived in the wake of the Gulf War and set its apprehensive tale of the loss of individuality in a military base.
Sadly Oliver Hirschbiegel’s fourth run-through of the story has nothing quite so profound to offer. A troubled shoot (which resulted in uncredited rewrites by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix (1999)) and a partial re-shoot by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta (2006), Ninja Assassin (2009), The Raven (2012)) has clearly left its mark in this muddled retelling, one unsure of exactly what it is that it’s trying to say – is it an AIDS allegory? A warning about the excesses of power (original screenwriter David Kajgenich told Singapore newspaper Today “You just have to look around our world today to see that power inspires nothing more than the desire to retain it and to eliminate anything that threatens it”)? Or is it just another anodyne remake that has no reason to exist beyond coining a few more dollars from a well-worn property?
Nicole Kidman, rapidly becoming Queen of the Unwanted Remake (The Stepford Wives (2004), Bewitched (2005)) wanders through the familiar plot in a state of perpetual bewilderment as she and the audience try to make sense of it all. A crashed space shuttle brings to Earth an alien spore that, in a lumpen piece of exposition from a wasted Jeffrey Wright, we learn is altering the human brain, removing their previous personality and replacing it with… something else. It’s not at all clear exactly what that something is or how the process actually works though it does lead to the film’s only interesting thread, as the infected come up with increasingly sophisticated ways to spread the infection, graduating from simply vomiting on their victims to instigating a nationwide “inoculation” program.
The climax represents just about everything that’s gone wrong with gutless, post-millennial Hollywood. Siegal’s version may have been compromised by the studio’s insistence on a less nightmarish ending but he still managed to end it on an ambiguous note, leaving us unclear as to whether the invasion has been stopped. Kaufman’s version has one of the most unsettling and downbeat endings of any 70s science fiction film (and given how, pre-Star Wars, happy SF endings were in seriously short supply that’s saying something). And Ferrara’s version is as ambiguous as the original, suggesting that the invasion has spread far beyond the confines of the army base.
Inevitably Hirschbiegel and McTeigue’s version tries to wrap it all up in a non-threatening, unambiguous bow, coming up with a frankly ridiculous development in which Kidman’s son holds the key to a worldwide cure, a reversal of the infection which inexplicably gives the infected back their original personalities. It’s precisely the sort of cop-out ending that Allied Artists tried to foist off on Siegal but neither Hirschbiegel nor McTeigue (it’s not at all clear who directed what) have the talent, imagination, courage or studio clout required to make something of it.
No-one comes out of this looking good. Kidman struggles with an under-written hybrid of characters from earlier versions (her character is named after Kevin McCarthy’s in the original and she’s a psychiatrist like Leonard Nimoy in the Kaufman), a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig makes no impact whatsoever as her occasional love interest and fellow doctor, as already noted Jeffrey Wright is only on hand to do the science stuff and swoop in on a helicopter in the climax and the supporting cast (which includes Veronica Cartwright from the 1978 film) barely register at all.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel was probably ill-served by his involvement in The Invasion, it being impossible to tell now exactly what he brought to the party. The few, vague socio-political flourishes (including amusing background television news broadcasts, made under the influence of the virus, which pronounce peace in the Middle East, a nuclear-free North Korea, free AIDS vaccines and a US withdrawal from Iraq) were likely the work of McTeigue, director of the overtly political V for Vendetta, leaving Hirschbieghel with the mundane conspiracy/paranoia nonsense. But don’t feel too sorry for him – six years later he was responsible for much-reviled royal biopic Diana (2013), a film one suspects he might now wish actually had been partially reshot…