Written by David Kajgaich, based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel an uncredited James McTeigue
Nicole Kidman: Dr. Carol Bennell
Daniel Craig: Dr. Ben Driscoll
Jeremy Northam: Tucker Kaufman
Jackson Bond: Oliver
Jeffrey Wright: Dr. Stephen Galeano
Some of the letters are easier to pick up for HubrisWeen than others; as long as you don't mind zombies, you will never lack for Z films. Q, as one would expect, is a little harder to deal with (although the Quatermass movies are a huge help here; thanks, Hammer!). J was surprisingly tough. Sooner or later the participants in this roundtable will need to use numerals as "blank tiles" when there just aren't any more films available for a given letter.
On the other hand, assuming that I keep doing 26 reviews in alphabetical order every October, I can go through 2018 just on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its various remakes and never have to look for something like I, Madman (not that I have anything against Tibor Takacs' finest hour, mind you). Plus, contrasting films from the same source material give me plenty to chew on when I'm trying to go further into the cultural context of these movies. Seeing what anxieties were reflected by the post-millennial film versus the one that came out in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War? That's going to be a lot of fun. Add in the Carter-administration and McCarthy-era takes on the same enemy? Well, that's a doctoral thesis waiting to be written. By someone smarter than me. Anyway, even though this particular remake was a box office flop--it made about half of its $80,000,000 budget back in theaters--it'll be an interesting place to start examining the series of films. I'm guessing most of my readership is the same age as I am, so we're going to have direct experience of the cultural context for the 2007 and 1993 movies, extremely hazy memories of 1978 (if any at all) and no firsthand knowledge of 1954. To me, it makes some sense to start with the most recent film and work backwards. If nothing else, as we go back in time the movies are going to get better and better.
This one, though? This is a pod-person movie with no pods. How the hell does that happen? Well, it happens like this:
Q: How many movie producers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?
The movie starts with plenty of overwrought flickering edits as Dr. Carol Bennell loots a pharmacy for various pills (we get closeups of the labels, so even though John Q. Audience Member has no idea what those particular drugs do, it's apparent that Bennell is picking particular ones). She washes down a handful of them with Mountain Dew while the locked and bolted Employees Only door is getting rattled and thumped from the other side. A clock shows that it's about 3:30 in the morning--the perfect time for the B Fest schedulers to hurt the audience's feelings. And speaking of hurt feelings, the next image on the screen is a Jerry Bruckheimer-style action sequence of a space shuttle burning up on atmospheric re-entry, killing the entire crew.
The film immediately switches to a news report showing the debris trails in the sky, which is an image that certainly doesn't immediately make me think "Fuck you and your plans for the future" towards every single person involved in making this film, down to the key grip. I understand your film has to start somewhere and blowing up the Space Shuttle is a perfectly valid artistic choice for an alien invasion movie. But treating it as awesome spectacle (and at a distance of a few hundred feet as it streaks past the "camera" in a digital shot) rather than tragedy? Well, I don't think I've disliked a movie this strongly this soon in years. Maybe not ever. It takes a while to get a movie made, so it's entirely possible that the screenwriter or producers saw the Columbia shuttle tragedy and said "Oh, shit, we have to put this in the movie now!", and if that's the case those guys are assholes. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all let their logos be used in the simulated news coverage of the Patriot shuttle disaster, and I can't help but wonder if some of the grainy video of smoke, fire and debris above the Texas sky is from a genuine news report of the Columbia fatalities. If so, the film's even more crass and tasteless than I would have thought.
After the news coverage montage (which establishes that there are pieces of shuttle debris on the ground and that people aren't supposed to touch them because they're "contaminated", the scene shifts to Virginia where a high-ranking doctor for the Centers for Disease Control, Tucker Kaufman, walks past a CNN reporter without giving so much as a "no comment". Once he gets into a sealed biohazard suit, another CDC staffer tells him that there's some kind of invasive organism on the shuttle debris and that there's a 1300-mile-long, two-mile-wide area that's already been contaminated by whatever it is. According to Doctor Exposition, the debris track and resulting alien contamination spreads from Texas to the nation's capital.
Doctor Exposition continues: The mystery stuff is some kind of spore. And whatever it is, it lived through the unbelievably harsh conditions in space (temperature near Absolute Zero, hard radiation baking it 24/7) as well as the heat and friction of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Shit, it's time to give up if we're up against something with no central nervous system that can't be killed. We don't get a decent look at the spore at this point, because whoever edited the film decided that lots of quarter-second and half-second glimpses of a thing under blue light is awesome, and being able to see what you're looking at is for squares.
Kaufman, moments after seeing an indestructible alien spore while in a full biohazard rig, takes a piece of Patriot debris from a moppet who was touching it without so much as wrapping it in a paper towel. The doctor, a highly trained expert who knows full well how catastrophic contact with the alien organism can be, takes hold of the debris piece with his bare hand, gets burned or stuck or something, drops it, and gets into his waiting limo to be taken away without saying a single syllable to the girl who handed him the Spore Debris Chunk Thing. Oh, movie, I hope you get smarter. I'm four minutes in and you're pissing me off pretty severely. If this keeps up, I'll have a new champion for Stupidest Movie I've Ever Seen, displacing the ludicrously entertaining Road House.
Kaufman goes home (the newsreader on the radio telling the audience that the President is planning to meet with advisers and come up with a response to the shuttle disaster); when he pets his dog, the dog growls and walks away from him. His girlfriend (or possibly wife? The movie isn't clear on this) gripes at him for not calling and letting her know he was going to be late--and his ex-wife called twice while he was out. Kaufman says he's due back in Washington in a few hours and wants to get some sleep before going back to the crisis meeting. His girlfriend or new wife or whoever crashes next to him, and while Kaufman's asleep, his body starts to melt (!), leaving him a semi-featurless gelid pink thing. Oh, and the woman who hasn't gotten a name yet, or her relationship to Kaufman established? Well, she sleeps through the whole thing. We also get a totally artistically legitimate shot of her in her underwear.
The more I think about this sequence the less sense it makes. Where did the slime come from? In all the other filmic takes on this material, there's a plant pod that grows into the duplicate while destroying the body of the person it's copying. In this one, the person grows a bunch of slime over their face and then gets taken over. Why is there a slimy duplicate monster version of them if they're not actually being duplicated? Because the filmmakers knew that's what these movies have in them, but they didn't bother coming up with an in-story reason for it. They're just copying things like they're a cargo cult financed by a Hollywood studio.
Smash cut to Dr. Bennell being awakened in the middle of the night by her Movie Autistic son Oliver yelling due to a recurring bad dream. After breakfast, a skip cut drops her off in her office, where her receptionist says her ex-husband is calling in; it turns out to be Tucker Kaufman. He sounds really, really stoned and he also says he wants to see their son. Dr. Bennell hangs up on him by way of reply. She brings Oliver to school (he's wearing a Superman costume; the movie reveals other students in costumes which means it must be Halloween). She gets a car ride from Dr. Ben Driscoll, a pediatrician who tells her that the BBC World Service is reporting more than four dozen scientists resigning from NASA thanks to the fallout from the Space Shuttle disaster. Apparently there's a conspiracy theory going around that the spacecraft was crashed on purpose, though whether the Beeb is reporting that or just Fox News is left vague for the moment. Dr. Bennell is out of sorts, and when Ben asks her what's wrong she says her ex-husband vanished completely from Oliver's life other than a couple of phone calls per year. Apparently being turned into a pod person made him less of an asshole because he wants to meet up with the kid now.
Dr. Bennell leaves the car with a vague promise to meet Ben again that night at a Hungarian event of some kind and walks past a homeless guy and a group of people demonstrating for a living wage. The soundtrack is also packed with car horns sounded in anger. I hope this isn't the film's idea of asking us if the pod people don't have a better plan for running America than the current political leadership does, but it might be. If nothing else it might cut down on hostility or something.
At her office, Dr. Bennell sees Wendy, a shaken patient who says her husband isn't her husband; he used to be an abusive terrifying asshole but now he's become placid and different. Her dog also hates the man out of nowhere. Actually "hated" is a more accurate term; the woman describes her husband snapping the dog's neck while still keeping his completely flat affect. Dr. Bennell writes a new scrip for stronger psychiatric meds, which is honestly the way this would probably shake out in the real world (therapists who approach each patient looking for clues that someone in their life is now an alien duplicate probably don't get a lot of repeat business).
It's Halloween night, and Oliver (along with three other kids) gets to go trick-or-treating with his mom and another woman chaperoning from a distance--so probably the kids don't hear that Oliver is on a prescription anti-anxiety medication as Mom talks about his newly acquired recurrent nightmares and upcoming week with his father. That discussion gets forgotten when one dude's dog goes apeshit at the pack of kids and knocks down one of them--the kid doesn't react all that much when he gets knocked down and attacked, which means he's also a pod person and that his mother doesn't appear to have noticed (she blames his slow-motion candy sorting and isolation from the other kids on the flu). During the candy sorting Oliver finds a weird translucent thing on his hand about the size of a half-dollar; it's moving, whatever it is and Dr. Bennell decides that candy sorting time is over.
Dr. Bennell takes the whatever-it-is to Dr. Driscoll and says she has no idea which house gave it to her kid, but she'd like him to do Movie Science to it and figure out what the heck it is. One of Dr. Driscoll's colleagues says other labs in other cities are reporting weirdness similar to the patch of whatever-it-is and thinks it looks like either a really expensive makeup effect or cheap synthetic skin. That doesn't make any sense to me, either, but roll with it.
Meanwhile, a scaremongering news report about killer influenza leads to Tucker Kaufman giving a press conference where he announces a vaccination program that will keep the new super frightening flu strain from killing all that many Americans. Which makes this an anti-vaxxer alien invasion movie, doesn't it? I had the science-hating science fiction movie yesterday and now this. The aliens have Liquid Duplicate Creator in the coffee--added to the carafes in full view of the public through a completely disgusting process more at home in Fight Club than this movie--at the press conference and use blackmail and threats to keep any of the journalists at the event from asking inconvenient questions.
At Dr. Bennell's office, her previous patient's husband is sitting in her waiting room and tells her that he's going to bring his wife home when she gets there. He's got a pod-person flat affect and refused to give his name to the receptionist; Dr. Bennell calls Wendy to warn her; the woman hails a cab and goes home to pack, planning to flee the city completely. That night, when driving Oliver to his father's place, a raving woman who's gone Full Kevin McCarthy is on foot in a freeway tunnel ranting about warning people because "they" are coming. She gets hit by an SUV (the driver is pretty obviously a pod person, as is the first responding police officer) and Dr. Bennell is shooed away from the scene before she can help. She makes it to Tucker's place and drops Oliver off without further incident. I'm guessing that since she hasn't seen her ex-husband in four years she can't tell how much he's changed since he got his brain reamed out by an alien parasite.
In the car (heading to the Hungarian shindig), Dr. Bennell recaps the accident she saw to Ben, who is concerned for Oliver. They attend the event at the Hungarian embassy while Oliver and his friend tell each other that there's something weird going on with each of their fathers. The most menacing offer of hot chocolate in cinema history follows. The Russian and former Czech diplomats sass each other at the dinner before the Russian guy starts talking about how a world without strife, conflict and violence is a world where there's no humanity left in humanity. Dr. Bennell counters with her knowledge of human social change; she says that things are indeed getting better, even if they aren't perfect yet.
After the dinner party, Dr. Bennell and Dr. Driscoll smooch for a few seconds in his SUV before Bennell says she can't lose her best friend by turning him into a lover (a world where the pod people don't write romantic-comedy cliches is one possible up side to the alien takeover and destruction of free will). Bennell goes home and gets bothered by a persistent "census taker" who does a stupid looking yawn / mouth twitch when she turns away--accompanied by an orchestral sting on the soundtrack to make it scarier (SPOILER: It doesn't really help). The census guy tries to force his way into the house but gets foiled by the dinky security chain, and then walks away placidly. Bennell tries to call the law but gets the "all circuits are busy" message, so she calls Ben over to keep her company. After a breakfast of extremely well-done pancakes she heads for the office (and is monitored by other commuters as they drive or walk by her). The shots of staring people don't really look like they're in the same scene as her in a couple of instances, and that's really too bad because it'd be quite creepy if the sight lines of the actors were handled better (having all of them stare straight ahead doesn't make it look like they're all looking at Dr. Bennell; they should be positioned slightly differently so they're all obviously watching the same person).
At the office, it looks like Dr. Bennell's receptionist and the FedEx guy have both been taken over. The receptionist mentions "that flu going around" as a possible reason for multiple canceled appointments for the day. When she calls Wendy, the woman's husband says she's doing fine now, but is taking a nap. Later on Wendy will call her shrink back and tell her how fine she's doing. A quick Google search for "my husband is not my husband" leads to dozens of reports from people talking about how family members aren't acting like themselves any more (and we get a montage of things that Dr. Bennell saw over the last ten minutes or so of screen time, in case we forgot). Her receptionist brings in a nice cup of tea to help her nerves. A call from Dr. Driscoll at just the right second means that she doesn't drink the Alien Infection Tea (though it's supposed to taste just like orange pekoe, so that's nice).
Over at the hospital where Driscoll works, Jeffrey Wright shows up to be awesome and explain that the weird fleshy thing that Dr. Bennell brought in is made up of hormones and dead white blood cells; there's also some spores that are incredibly tough to kill (a 700 degree heat bath didn't hurt them). In one sentence of Science Talk, Wright's character explains that the spores are intelligent beings that invade and rewrite DNA when they come into contact with it, and that explains the slimy film over Tucker's mouth earlier in the film (sort of, I guess). Doctor Exposition says that Japan and Europe have spotted enough cases to consider it an epidemic while the American medical authorities are just telling people to worry about the flu.
Dr. Driscoll gets a call from the Hungarian ambassador's wife and he speeds to the scene (accompanied by Dr. Bennell, since they're the leads of the film and that's that). Doctor Exposition walks through the embassy door with them, but I don't think I saw him in the car while they were speeding to the scene. Turns out the Russian ambassador is out cold in the Hungarian embassy's guest bedroom with his skin covered with alien crud. When Dr. Bennell takes a phone cam picture of him he leaps out of bed and smacks her into a wall before crawling away down a hall (without ever opening his eyes, which looks even goofier than you'd think). The Russian goes into convulsions and Dr. Exposition says that interrupting the dream state while he was in Takeover Mode gave him a heart attack.
Dr. Bennell speeds over to her ex-husband's place and looks for Oliver; she says that her son is coming back with her and getting the hell away from his dad. There's also a line of dialogue here that says there were huge lines of people getting vaccinated (which must be one of the things Dr. Bennell looked at during the drive to the embassy but the film doesn't really call any attention to it or explain what you're seeing when it happens). Tucker and his silent looming colleagues surround Dr. Bennell in his house and won't let her out and he says when the takeover process is over she'll still be the same as she was before. Then we get a "spitting alien goop on the protagonist's face" scene shot to look like a sexual assault. You know, I didn't think I could dislike this movie much more than I did, but it keeps finding new ways to irritate me.
Dr. Bennell flees her ex's house in a car, and then on foot. She winds up being one more screaming lunatic on the road pounding on car windows for a while, then beats feet for the subway (where there's a truly ill-conceived shot of two black people looking at her that seems to be making them out to be EVEN MORE! of a threat than all the white pod duplicates that showed up earlier). Some of the people on the subway look terrified and paranoid, and Dr. Bennell's mental state isn't helped any when she gets a whispered video message on her phone from Oliver, saying he's been kidnapped and wants her to rescue him. It turns out that the black dude on the subway knows what's what and tells Dr. Bennell to look calm and not show emotions; the pod people can't tell if you've been taken over or not if you aren't panicking and running around. His girlfriend (it's the woman who freaks out, of course) fails to heed this advice and everyone on the train gets a face full of alien contamination puke when they get found out.
Dr. Bennell runs after someone hits the emergency stop button and escapes down the subway tunnel. In a choppily edited sequence she flees into a panic room, finds a gun, shoots a dude who tries to take the gun from her and then gets outside. Where things are deteriorating significantly--I'm guessing that the total number of duplicates has reached a tipping point where they can move openly to snag people who haven't been taken over yet (we see three people get snagged by Pod Person cops in under twenty seconds--but an as-yet unduplicated police officer tells Bennell that she's sweating, which makes her a target--so there are still some people willing to help). She manages to navigate the physical and emotional minefields of acting like a pod person and get back to her house without further incident.
That night Dr. Bennell goes to the Hungarian embassy, which appears to be inhabited by non-pods at this point. Dr. Exposition mentions that a biohazard lab at Fort Detrick has locked itself down to avoid contamination. According to him, tens of millions of Americans have already been taken over. The plan is to not sleep and get to Fort Detrick; they'll let Dr. Exposition and his non-infected friends in. Dr. Bennell says she won't leave Washington, D.C. without her son (but doesn't tell everyone she's already got the alien crud in her system). The missing Hungarian ambassador returns to his wife, now obviously a pod person, and lets a half dozen pod people in to search for other uninfected humans in the facility. An actually really neat shot pans from the doorway of the security room (where a pod person is walking by) to a monitor that shows the three doctors and a probably-doomed woman who hasn't shown up previously fleeing down an alley outside.
While walking past a large knot of pod people, the group sees Wendy, one of Dr. Bennell's patients, get hauled into a cop car while she protests that she's already slept and should be infected. Dr. Bennell and Dr. Driscoll decide that it's time to pick through Wendy's file at the psychiatric office and see if they can guess why Wendy is still able to freak out and panic after the alien spores have been in her system. They half-ass an explanation about the way Wendy had an attack of encephalitis when she was a kid, which structurally altered her brain to the point where it's accidentally incapable of being taken over by aliens. Surprise surprise, Oliver also had encephalitis when he was younger and is thought to be naturally immune to the alien goop as well. Driscoll decides to call Dr. Exposition with the news, although it's hard to say how that's going to help (since giving all the uninfected people in the world encephalitis doesn't sound feasible in the least). During the call, Dr. Exposition lives up to his name again by saying the Fort Detrick virologists have already figured out a test for Pod Person Syndrome and with the knowledge about the particular type of encephalitis that Olive and Wendy had, they could create a vaccine or even cure the people who have been taken over (there's enough scientific-sounding gibberish in this scene to bring joy to the heart of any Fifties movie fan).
After the exposition storm, Dr. Bennell finally tells her best friend in the whole entire world that she's been exposed to the alien schmutz and can't go to sleep. She gets a text from Oliver saying where he is, and Dr. Driscoll busts through the quarantine barricades in a stolen police car, the least conspicuous of getaway vehicles available. He tricks Dr. Bennell into getting out of the car in an alley and zips away in a suicide run to distract the pursuers so she can find her son and get to Ft. Detrick to help develop a cure. I'm certain he will not be showing up later as a pod person to tell Dr. Bennell that she should just give in and join the world of alien parasite victims at all.
Dr. Bennell nods off on the train to Baltimore for a second and has a nightmare about being duplicated, which wakes her up. Oliver's friend Gene is there on the train, and tells her that she's not fooling the aliens well enough to pass for one of them. Bennell convinces the weird alien kid that she'll transform like a good duplicate and apparently fools him with the application of some alien goop when he comes back to check on her. At Tucker's sister's apartment, everyone has a really unemotional lunch while a succession of news clips play in the background (among other things, every country on Earth has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty, which is actually good news other than the "alien spores lobotomized everyone" factor). During the meal she gets a call from Dr. Driscoll and successfully pretends to be a pod person while letting him know where she is and that she can't talk openly.
Oliver turns out to be about two rooms away from the kitchen; he tells his mom that he's slept twice since being exposed to the contamination and she tells him that he's immune to takeover. Gene shows up and gets knocked out in a pretty ridiculous and unconvincing manner. Dr. Bennell and Oliver make it outside the apartment complex but security notices them and soon enough they're running from aliens (who are also running after them, but the filmmakers aren't clever enough to have the pursuit ruined by pod people who grab the wrong participants in the chase). Tucker shows up in the room where his ex-wife and son are hiding and gives one of those "join us because we're not so different" pod person speeches in which the screenwriter comes out against psychiatric medications; I wonder if any Scientologists worked on the script. There's supposed to be a lot of them in Hollywood.
Dr. Bennell clubs her ex unconscious with a hammer when he grabs Oliver (which probably killed him, but maybe not) and they break into a pharmacy so Bennell can fill a syringe with adrenaline (which her kid is supposed to jab into her heart if she does fall asleep). She gets a call from Driscoll, who is out looking for a way to swipe stored blood from a hospital to help Dr. Exposition with the possible vaccine creation. Back at the pharmacy, Dr. Bennell takes the gun from a transforming cop and hunkers down in the drugstore to wait for Driscoll. And that means that the movie's going to loop around to the first couple scenes of Dr. Bennell shotgunning a handful of wakeup pills with Mountain Dew. Shortly after she tries better living through chemistry, Bennell hears the newly created duplicates kicking at the door and eventually falls asleep (cue the scenes of alien spores attacking her cells). Oliver tries to wake her up and then resorts to the syringe to the heart, which somehow does not kill Dr. Bennell when it's administered.
Post-wakeup, does that "splash a little water on your face" thing in the pharmacy bathroom and then walks out to see Dr. Driscoll is there. And, yup, he's been spored. And he's decided that the spore-ridden duplicates are in the right (the quisling human character is in the 1956 and 1978 versions of the movie; I haven't ever seen the 1993 one but I bet there's one in there too). Daniel Craig does what he can with the stock character, but the script doesn't give him all that much to work with. He sounds pretty reasonable about how a pod-person world is one that can sing in genuine harmony, but unfortunately for him he's honest when he says that the immune people can't stick around. The day-player pod people all get shot to death when they make a move for Oliver, but Dr. Bennell only kneecaps Dr. Driscoll.
Dr. Bennell learns that you shouldn't talk on the phone during a car chase (I hope all those pod-person drivers have insurance). It's too close to the end of the movie for that many more incidents, so when the duplicates swarm the car she just drives away while they pile on top of her ride. Dr. Exposition turns out to be in a helicopter and rescues her and Oliver once they get to the top of a skyscraper (although right before she gets there, a pod person chucks a Molotov cocktail at her car, which is a little extreme for a being that's so placid most of the time). The running-through-the-parking-garage sequence is inferior to the one in 28 Days Later, which is to be expected, but it's not even as good as the one from the largely forgettable Dawn of the Dead remake. The soldiers protecting the helicopter don't shoot all the various pod people when they take off, which I didn't expect.
A montage of news reports show the cure for pod personism being given to the afflicted all over the world and Dr. Exposition gives a quick press conference where he says that all the cured pod people won't remember anything that happened to them when they were under alien control. The last scenes show Dr. Bennell seeing Oliver and Gene (who she apparently adopted) while Dr. Driscoll reads the morning newspaper at the breakfast table. War has returned and people are killing each other all over the place, which means that we get an echoey voiceover from the Russian ambassador's speech back in the first act, and then the credits roll.
What the hell was I thinking? This movie fails on virtually every possible level, because it's a Body Snatchers movie where everything turns out all right in the end and there aren't any pods in it. I don't understand what compels movie producers to make an adaptation of something but leach everything important out of it when making the actual film. This was a completely misbegotten effort from start to finish and justifiably flopped. Maybe the next time someone decides to adapt the source novel they'll take a good long look at the world, decide what to respond to when crafting the screenplay and actually put some goddamned alien pods in it. Or, at the very least, not have characters do things they know they shouldn't from the first minute of screen time.
There's a few moments of tension where the pod people turn and look at someone in unison, but from the lack of main characters in those sequences it seems likely that the 2nd unit crew knew what they were doing more than the director. I'm not sure who deserves all of the blame for this, but it was a complete waste of the audience's time and the financiers' money.
Well, I can hope. At least they've all got to get better after this one. See you at the next HubrisWeen when I get to see Abel Ferrara's take on the same material.
This is part of the HubrisWeen review roundtable, wherein five B movie blogs go through 26 movies in alphabetical order during October. Click the banner to see what the other four guys did for today's film.