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.

Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster


The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extra­or­di­nary to watch. As with their break­through The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feel­ing that you’re see­ing some­thing new; not just emer­gent tech­nolo­gies but a whole new style of moviemak­ing. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why under­take such huge effort and expense just to repli­cate the essence of a poorly writ­ten and cheaply ani­mated TV series that no one, not even the geeki­est Japan­ese animé otaku (fan­boy), really misses? This film might have been so much bet­ter if they had jet­ti­soned the bag­gage of the intel­lec­tual prop­erty (a mis­nomer in this case) and told an orig­i­nal story in this rad­i­cal new style.

The movie incar­na­tion of Speed Racer has inher­ited the visual quirks of the orig­i­nal 1960s car­toon, cross-bred with the information-rich com­put­er­ized motion graph­ics of mod­ern tele­vised sports. The color scheme is dom­i­nated by bright, pri­mary col­ors like War­ren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before com­puter graph­ics and dig­i­tal color grad­ing). Talk­ing heads lat­er­ally pan across the screen, usu­ally redun­dantly nar­rat­ing the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watch­ing ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also mod­eled after video games and Japan­ese animé in gen­eral. Huge sequences are entirely com­puter gen­er­ated, with what lit­tle live action pho­tog­ra­phy there is most likely shot against green­screen sound­stages. The Wachowskis’ res­i­dent spe­cial effects mad sci­en­tist John Gaeta metic­u­lously stages the many incred­i­ble car chases like bat­tles in a war movie from an alter­nate uni­verse. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars pre­quel trilo­gies, the movie prac­ti­cally is ani­mated. Just watch­ing it, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every sin­gle line of dia­log is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car dri­ver, a lone hon­est man in a cor­rupt indus­try. Yes, his name is actu­ally Mr… Speed… Racer. His dis­graced older brother Rex died a mys­ti­fy­ing death years before, pro­vid­ing Speed with the moti­va­tion to prove him­self both as a dri­ver and as an hon­est man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Saran­don and John Good­man) some­times appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoy­ing lit­tle brother with a Brook­lyn accent and, god help us all, a mon­key. The odd­ball extended Racer fam­ily also includes the Aus­tralian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s heli­copter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endear­ing baby fat and now seems star­tlingly skinny). The whole gang appar­ently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the liv­ing room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehic­u­lar vari­ety, the Wachowskis wisely scat­ter about a few awe­some wire-fu fight sequences designed (appar­ently not designed by The Matrix’s genius chore­o­g­ra­pher Woo-ping Yuen). The most excit­ing and visu­ally impres­sive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow pro­vid­ing manga–like motion lines (a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Japan­ese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Good­man gets in on the act, and one under­stands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for rea­sons other than a big stu­dio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audi­ences world­wide, Emile Hirsch is a lit­tle over­whelmed by the visuals

If I were to sin­gle out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suf­fers, like Richard Kelly’s South­land Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much back­story. Over­long for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adver­saries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop­star Rain) to accom­plish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injus­tice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has some­thing to do with vet­eran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remem­ber details after two-plus hours of sheer sen­sory over­load? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dan­gling (mostly involv­ing the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypo­thet­i­cal third episode.

For any num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons, this very expen­sive folly bombed and we almost cer­tainly won’t see that tril­ogy. The Wachowski broth­ers were per­ceived to have fum­bled the wildly pop­u­lar Matrix fran­chise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minor­ity opin­ion that the sec­ond, The Matrix Reloaded, is actu­ally their mas­ter­piece), they pro­duced the thick­headed V for Vendetta (mud­dy­ing up and widely miss­ing the point of the pow­er­ful anar­chist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not sur­pris­ing that the moviego­ing pub­lic, even the genre-loving fan­boys that make up and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the orig­i­nal Speed Racer car­toon is excep­tion­ally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embar­rass­ment by issu­ing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crap­pi­est movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc pack­age padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added mate­r­ial. There’s noth­ing at all on the DVD about the obvi­ously ground­break­ing spe­cial effects. Instead, the film­mak­ers decided that what audi­ences wanted was more mon­key (the vile beastie stars in the clos­ing cred­its sequence) and more annoy­ing kid brother (who costars in a mock­men­tary fea­ture with an embar­rass­ingly poorly acted appear­ance by pro­ducer Joel Silver).

Offi­cial movie site:

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