The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

The Pod People Film Festival

Wel­come to The Pod Peo­ple Film Fes­ti­val, The Dork Report’s third mini movie ret­ro­spec­tive. After catch­ing up with Rid­ley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adap­ta­tions of Jack Finney’s nov­el The Body Snatch­ers, plus one unof­fi­cial homage / satire.

  1. Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers (1956)
  2. Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers (1978)
  3. Body Snatch­ers (1993)
  4. The Fac­ul­ty (1998)
  5. The Inva­sion (2007)

The Invasion movie poster


Nicole Kid­man must be one of the unluck­i­est stars in Hol­ly­wood, hav­ing recent­ly starred in at least two big-bud­get cat­a­stro­phes. Frank Oz’ The Step­ford Wives (2004) was sab­o­taged by cast mem­bers drop­ping out, exten­sive reshoots, and com­pet­ing script revi­sions that left sig­nif­i­cant log­i­cal plot holes in the fin­ished film. Sim­i­lar­ly, Inva­sion is best described as quite sim­ply a bro­ken movie. One full year after the com­ple­tion of prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy under direc­tor Oliv­er Hirsch­biegel (Down­fall), pro­duc­er Joel Sil­ver con­tract­ed Andy and Lar­ry Wachows­ki (The Matrix, Speed Rac­er — read The Dork Report review) to write new scenes to be direct­ed by their pro­tégé James McTeigue (V for Vendet­ta — read The Dork Report review). Warn­er Bros. expend­ed $10 mil­lion on 17 extra days of shoot­ing in an attempt to reshape what was report­ed­ly a more inter­nal, psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense piece into more com­mer­cial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionDo you ever get the feel­ing that you’re in a ter­ri­ble movie…?

After a brief, promis­ing open­ing scene (a flash-for­ward, we lat­er learn, to a world almost fall­en to an alien attack), Inva­sion quick­ly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shut­tle dis­in­te­grates on re-entry, car­ry­ing a pay­load of vir­u­lent spores bent on world dom­i­na­tion. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shut­tles Chal­lenger (1986) and Colum­bia (2003), this spec­tac­u­lar spe­cial effects sequence is about as taste­ful as watch­ing CGI sky­scrap­ers crum­ble.

One of the Wachowski’s late addi­tions was a ridicu­lous­ly long car chase through the streets of Wash­ing­ton DC (filmed in Bal­ti­more), with psy­chi­a­trist Car­ol (Kid­man) behind the wheel of a lit­er­al­ly burn­ing Mus­tang. It’s beyond implau­si­ble that a shrink would have the dri­ving skills of a mod­ern-day Bul­let (Steve McQueen) or Pop­eye O’Doyle (Gene Hack­man in The French Con­nec­tion). In fact, Kid­man dam­aged more than her career: she broke sev­er­al ribs dur­ing an acci­dent incurred while shoot­ing the sequence.

The biggest prob­lem is not the clum­si­ly graft­ed-on action spec­ta­cle but the chop­py screen­play. It’s painful­ly obvi­ous to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s orig­i­nal script, which one can infer would have made for a more sub­tle hor­ror sto­ry about an alien inva­sion accom­plished with­out bul­lets or the explod­ing of infra­struc­ture, and The Wachows­ki Broth­ers’ reduc­tion to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor. The movie is at its best when Car­ol sens­es the sub­tle changes of her city’s dai­ly rou­tine as the inva­sion spreads. It’s also inter­est­ing as she encoun­ters oth­er unin­fect­ed sur­vivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veron­i­ca Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 ver­sion, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is appar­ent­ly nat­u­ral­ly immune. She coun­sels her to pre­tend to be a Step­ford Wife in order to avoid detec­tion by the dis­pas­sion­ate alien intel­li­gences that have tak­en over most of the pop­u­la­tion. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chas­es and explo­sions.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionOur world is a bet­ter world”

A huge chunk feels miss­ing from the mid­dle; the sec­ond act should be a slow dis­cov­ery of the details of the inva­sion and a grad­ual esca­la­tion of the con­flict. But Car­ol and her doc­tor para­mour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accu­rate con­clu­sion of an alien inva­sion based on only a few observed cas­es of mild weird­ness around them, clear­ing the rest of the movie’s run­ning time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet anoth­er crim­i­nal mis­use of poor Jef­frey Wright (reunit­ed with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a bril­liant actor sad­dled with most of the script’s laugh­able tech­nob­a­b­ble that leaves no room to the imag­i­na­tion (the orig­i­nal 1956 Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers was arguably not spe­cif­ic enough, but the 1978 ver­sion found just the right lev­el of gory detail with­out get­ting bogged down in tedious pseu­do­science).

Jack Finney’s clas­sic sci-fi nov­el The Body Snatch­ers has been adapt­ed over and over into movies that illu­mi­nate the con­cerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 orig­i­nal was a thin­ly-veiled cri­tique of McCarthy­ism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Viet­nam and Water­gate era. Abel Fer­rara applied the metaphor to blind obe­di­ence and con­for­mi­ty in the mil­i­tary in his 1993 Body Snatch­ers. Robert Rodríguez found the most per­fect set­ting yet, as he sat­i­rized teen peer pres­sure in high school in The Fac­ul­ty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatch­ers tale mean today? Inva­sion is the fourth ver­sion of nov­el, and the sec­ond to ditch the notion of replace­ment bod­ies. As in The Fac­ul­ty: the aliens are pup­pet­mas­ter-like par­a­sites that take over human bod­ies with­out per­ma­nent­ly harm­ing them. Inva­sion makes a fleet­ing ref­er­ence to oth­er nations pub­licly com­bat­ing the alien insur­gents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cov­er sto­ry that has the oppo­site intend­ed effect, only fur­ther enabling the inva­sion to suc­ceed. Inva­sion might have been a bet­ter film if it had focused more on this glim­mer of polit­i­cal satire than on Shut­tle dis­as­ters and burn­ing Mus­tangs.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale movie poster


Para­dox­i­cal­ly for one of the fresh­est James Bond films ever made, Mar­tin Campbell’s Casi­no Royale (2006) is actu­al­ly the third adap­ta­tion of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 nov­el. After a large­ly for­got­ten 1954 TV movie in which “Jim­my” Bond was awk­ward­ly Amer­i­can­ized, the same premise was par­o­died in a 1967 farce bear­ing the same name, a expen­sive all-star dis­as­ter fea­tur­ing good sports David Niv­en, Peter Sell­ers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Mean­while, the par­al­lel and ongo­ing flood of prop­er Bond films aban­doned the taint­ed Casi­no Royale, leav­ing it nev­er sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly pre­sent­ed on film. For most, Bond seemed born ful­ly-formed as Sean Connery’s supreme­ly suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruth­less ser­vant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond fran­chise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just count­ing the canon­i­cal install­ments), tes­ta­ment enough that it has been no stranger to inno­va­tion. The most recent over­haul was Gold­en­eye (1995), which intro­duced Pierce Bros­nan along­side an incre­men­tal­ly more pro­gres­sive atti­tude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dan­ger­ous­ly sexy, but as adept with salty dia­logue, grap­pling hooks, and AK-47s as the title char­ac­ter him­self. Bond could no longer cheer­ful­ly ignore his stuffy bureau­crat­ic boss M when played by the impe­ri­ous Judy Dench, and Miss Mon­eypen­ny (Saman­tha Bond) was no longer a frump long­ing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rock­ing the sexy sec­re­tary look. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond him­self. The many women in his life may have gained greater lee­way to sass and kick ass, but he him­self was still the same old sex­ist dinosaur. In ret­ro­spect, the Bros­nan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleSay hel­lo to my lit­tle friend

Prop­er Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the fran­chise was very near­ly ren­dered obso­lete by two very dif­fer­ent spy trilo­gies: Austin Pow­ers (whose satire was whol­ly redun­dant after the 1967 Casi­no Royale) and Jason Bourne. Start­ing in 2002, the lat­ter did Bond one bet­ter, per­ma­nent­ly super­charg­ing the secret-agent genre with vis­cer­al urgency, per­sis­tent action, mod­er­ate­ly real­is­tic psy­chol­o­gy, and most cru­cial­ly, grant­i­ng the main char­ac­ter a capac­i­ty for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of con­science, wracked by crip­pling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capa­ble of spec­tac­u­lar feats of killing, but resent­ed the cir­cum­stances that forced him to use those skills in order to sur­vive, or more impor­tant­ly, to pro­tect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manip­u­late women for intel­li­gence and sex­u­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion as Bond rou­tine­ly would, but rather formed an emo­tion­al attach­ment with one in par­tic­u­lar that would moti­vate his actions for an entire tril­o­gy.

Once the def­i­n­i­tion of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defen­sive. The time was right in 2006 for its most rad­i­cal reboot yet. The pro­duc­ers retired Bros­nan (The Man With the Gold­en Para­chute?) and under­went an exten­sive retool­ing of not just the series’ visu­al style but its core char­ac­ters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The tra­di­tion­al pre-cred­it action sequence still exists, but Casi­no Royale dis­cards can­dy-coat­ed Tech­ni­col­or for a grainy, styl­ized black-and-white noir style. Start­ing chrono­log­i­cal­ly at the begin­ning, we see Bond exe­cute his first two kills, ful­fill­ing his final qual­i­fi­ca­tion for “dou­ble-oh” MI-6 sta­tus. Long­time Bond fans were also mol­li­fied by anoth­er grand tra­di­tion that imme­di­ate fol­lowed: a motion graph­ics title sequence fea­tur­ing a bevy of semi-nude female sil­hou­ettes. This par­tic­u­lar ani­ma­tion, with its stark red and black vec­tor graph­ics, may have pro­vid­ed inspi­ra­tion for the open­ing titles of the 2007 tele­vi­sion series Mad Men. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Chris Cornell’s lame, tune­less song “You Know My Name” near­ly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino RoyaleYou noticed…

Fur­ther com­fort­ing con­ti­nu­ity with the pre­vi­ous instal­la­tions comes via ridicu­lous amounts of high-end prod­uct place­ment (cars, watch­es, sun­glass­es, etc.) and a globe-trot­ting series of loca­tions (Ugan­da, Mada­gas­car, Bahamas, Mia­mi, Mon­tene­gro, and Venice). Casi­no Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pud­ding in terms of its vil­lain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asth­mat­ic, with irri­tat­ed tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to sig­ni­fy evil in the old days that the bad­die mere­ly have met­al teeth or a fluffy kit­ty cat.

But that’s where the con­ces­sions to Bond tra­di­tion end. To dis­cuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond him­self. No mat­ter how much testos­terone fan-favorite Sean Con­nery exud­ed, he could still be slight­ly effete, fuss­ing over van­i­ties and crea­ture com­forts like a well-pre­pared mar­ti­ni. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gor­geous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implau­si­ble at best. The suave Bros­nan was born to play the clas­sic ver­sion of Bond, but he wasn’t get­ting any younger as his films became as overblown and sci­ence-fic­tiony as the worst excess­es of the Moore peri­od. (I haven’t seen any of the Tim­o­thy Dal­ton or George Lazen­by films, so I can’t com­ment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Con­nery remains fandom’s favorite, for good rea­son), but he is clear­ly the most brutish and mas­cu­line. Younger, furi­ous, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilar­i­ous­ly clever inver­sion of tra­di­tion, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female com­pan­ions, espe­cial­ly in an instant­ly icon­ic shot of him strid­ing out of the ocean just bare­ly wear­ing a scanty swim­suit. This Bond is almost absurd­ly phys­i­cal­ly fit, a park­our expert, and gets painful­ly bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walk­ing away from fisticuffs and fire­balls with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino RoyaleWait… there was anoth­er Bond girl besides Eva Green?

21st Cen­tu­ry Bond Girls are smarter and more proac­tive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gor­geous and at least half the age of the cur­rent lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s esti­ma­tion, Eva Green as Ves­per Lynd ought to go down in his­to­ry as one of the great­est yet. She may not be as phys­i­cal­ly adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beau­ti­ful. Best of all, she’s enjoy­ably con­ceived by writ­ers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Hag­gis as a true foil for the naughty dou­ble-enten­dres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impres­sion on me, that when rewatch­ing the film on DVD, I real­ized I had for­got­ten all about the oth­er Bond Girl, Cate­ri­na Muri­no as Solange Dim­itrios. Her char­ac­ter pro­vides for a quick throw­back to retro Bond; he flirts with her sole­ly for infor­ma­tion and then cru­el­ly aban­dons her to cer­tain death.

The thrilling film down­shifts for a long pok­er sequence, with no mer­cy shown for any­one who doesn’t under­stand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a mis­cal­i­bra­tion how­ev­er, dur­ing one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was dou­ble-bluff­ing an obliv­i­ous Bond.

Dench is the only return­ing play­er from the Bros­nan era, but her char­ac­ter is now part ruth­less boss and part tough-love moth­er fig­ure. The one con­ven­tion of the clas­sic, sil­li­er Bond sto­ries that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewe­lyn) and his won­der­ful inven­tions. The high­light of every Con­nery, Moore, or Bros­nan film for me was always the cus­tom­ary stroll through Q’s lab as his lat­est pro­to­types mal­func­tion in amus­ing­ly lethal man­ners. I would cheer­ful­ly recite along with Q’s scold­ing catch­phrase “Oh Bond, do pay atten­tion.”

When­ev­er I see any Bond film, I’m always sur­prised at how enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly he lives up to his “license to kill” rep­u­ta­tion. The body count is always high, but Casi­no Royale is even more vio­lent than most. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates it is the time spent dwelling on the after­math, includ­ing Bond hav­ing to hide bod­ies instead of sim­ply strolling away from the car­nage with­out reper­cus­sions. There’s also a fleet­ing dash of crude moral­i­ty rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awk­ward­ly com­fort Ves­per, trau­ma­tized by her cul­pa­bil­i­ty in one of Bond’s kills. And where­as old-school Bond vil­lains would mere­ly threat­en bod­i­ly harm with laser beams and taran­tu­las, Bond must now must face ugly, raw tor­ture (which is A-OK with the hyp­o­crit­i­cal MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, appar­ent­ly — but that’s a rant for anoth­er time).

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.