Nothing persists like a good idea. Its power and elegance hold up no matter how it is reinterpreted over the ages. Think Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Now think about alien invasions.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a surprise science fiction hit in 1956 and remains a popular model for imitation, spawning movie sequels, prequels, and remakes. You can trace elements of the basic storyline on film and TV today: Bad things happen when you fall asleep. This sturdy premise spawned well-made remakes in 1978 and 1994. Now, a new version of Jack Finney’s tale of alien takeover steps up, Invasion. This remake arrives with plenty of drama behind the camera.
It offers an otherworldly Smackdown: Does Invasion snatch a good idea from the original movie, or lose its identity?
Psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins hearing odd things from her patients shortly after a space shuttle crash lands. Patients no longer recognize their spouses, the kids say daddy is… well, different. They’ve been infected by Spores from Space. Elements surrounding the story are new (video phones, references to Iraq on TV), but the dramatic conflict is familiar: They’re coming… and they want Carol’s son, Oliver (Jackson Bond). Together with colleague/love interest Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and scientist Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), they evade latter-day pod people while trying to defeat the malevolent microbes and save the world. David Kajganich has screenplay credit, and Oliver Hirschbiegel is the director of record, although substantial portions of those tasks were performed by others.
The Defending Champion
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has small town doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returning from a business trip to find big changes. Locals complain about friends and relatives who just don’t seem the same. Suspicion and paranoia build as mysterious pods appear and replace the residents while they sleep. The dramatic stakes go up when Bennell’s girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) is lost to the pod people. Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay delivers a straightforward story that is also a timely Cold War allegory about being “one of them” in Joe McCarthy’s America. Body Snatchers still has special meaning for viewers at either end of the political spectrum. Don Siegel crisply directed this low-budget ($417,000) horror project, now widely considered a classic.
Both films faced real obstacles in reaching the screen. The original Body Snatchers made a virtue of economy and simple smarts. The tiny budget allowed a shooting schedule of 23 days. The filmmakers could not lean on special effects, monsters, or staged violence. Instead, they gained mileage on Kevin McCarthy’s face, effective storytelling, and Carmen Dragon’s dramatic musical score. Even after 50 years, the film plays well, if a little hokey in spots. You never lose sight of the good idea propelling this small-dollar production.
By contrast, money wasn’t the problem with Invasion. Nicole Kidman’s salary was forty times larger than the entire production budget of the original film. The new film had creative troubles. It went through several name changes. Producer Joel Silver didn’t like the completed film Oliver Hirschbiegel turned in early last year. This led to a partial rewrite by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) and new scenes directed by James McTeigue. It may be impossible to reliably know just who did what. The resulting film is more action oriented, less psychological than the original film that inspired it. Kidman and Daniel Craig breathe life into a script that relies on special effects, slam-bam editing, and car chases. In fact, Nicole Kidman broke several ribs filming a chase sequence that knocked her unconscious.
Both invasion films create distinct signatures. They reflect the cultural context of their times, and both movies are highly enjoyable. Now, then: Does one take a good idea and carry it farther? Yup.
And the winner is…
The winner takes it on points. Invasion greatly benefits from having Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Composer John Ottman produced a score that is note-perfect for the material. It will satisfy audiences accustomed to action, special effects, and nonlinear structure. Invasion‘s big achievement may be that it reached the screen at all. The producers attacked their creative problems with lots of money. I don’t know whether they solved them.
Some fans want something else, and here is where Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands out. I wonder what could have been done with the millions spent and respent on the remake. Economic necessity forged a production that stressed storyline and effective staging, while adding a political subtext that gave it a life well beyond the B-movie existence intended for it. Producer Walter Wanger found a good idea and ran with it. Fifty years from now, you won’t watch remakes of Invasion–only the ones of our resilient winner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.