The artsy European director of Downfall and Das Experiment made an alien invasion flick starring Nicole Kidman. Who could have thought it?

The best horror movies deals with everyday fears and phobias we have.

The Exorcist for instance may be a movie about little girl possessed by an evil demon, but the film’s most telling sequence is a scene in which medical doctors examine the girl for what could be ailing her. (The tests themselves are almost more excruciating to watch than any of the horror scenes that later follow.) Obviously they find nothing wrong the girl should be fine. But she isn’t. In this way The Exorcist effectively plays upon our very modern fear of being diagnosed with some disease or ailment for which modern medical science has no cure. After all, in this day and age how many people are genuinely afraid of being possessed by Satan? But cancer? That’s very real. . .

There are loads of other examples. Christine, based on the Stephen King novel, for instance isn’t about our fear of buying a possessed car that’s going to drive over your friends at night. No, it is actually about our modern-day fears that come with buying something as financially draining as a car: what if the car ends up giving you problems and costs you a fortune in mechanic’s fees? And so on.

One story which plays on an even more primeval fear is Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, which describes Earth being invaded by seeds which have drifted to Earth from space. The seeds take over human bodies and replace them with simulations grown from plant-like pods, perfect physical duplicates that kill and dispose of their human victims.

Finney’s story plays upon the subconscious fear we have, not of people mysteriously changing but discovering that perhaps we never knew them at all. Ever found yourself looking at a loved one or colleague in surprise when you discover an aspect of that person’s personality which you never thought existed at all? Sure, the person may be angry or in a crisis situation or perhaps inebriated, but their behavior is unexpected. Of course you have, and Finney’s novel taps into our suspicion that we may not know certain people in our lives at all.

So it is no wonder that Finney’s novel has been made into movies several times, each movie in turn tapping into the era in which it was mode’s zeitgeist or spirit. The first adaptation was in 1956 (see, Hollywood wasted no time in bringing this story to the big screen the film was made within a year of the story’s publication!). In this Black & White version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, actor Kevin McCarthy starts noticing strange behavior in his fellow American small town (replete with white picket fences) residents. The movie ends hopefully with the authorities promising to look into the alien invasion, reflecting Americans from that era’s trust in authority and government.

"Won’t be the first time that Hollywood would coerce some poor European director into selling out . . ."

By the 1970s that trust in government has eroded as is witnessed in same Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry in which a hardened cop played by Clint Eastwood finds the system no longer works and takes the law into his own hands. By post-Watergate 1978 when the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake hit the screen, the aliens were in government. In this version Donald Sutherland watches on helplessly as the alien pods not only “take over” friends, colleagues and loved ones but also every level of government. The movie, directed by Philip Kaufman (Unbearable Lightness of Being, The The Right Stuff) is a paranoid Kafkaesque affair in which no one can be trusted. The ending is suitably bleak and downbeat. The hippie dream was over and dead it seemed to say. All that lay ahead for America was the stultifying conformism of the conservative Ronald Reagan years.

The third version of the story appeared in 1994 as simply Body Snatchers. Directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Meg Tilly, Gabrielle Anwar and Forest Whitaker, it was set in a U.S. military base which sort of negated what the point of the story was in the first case: the military is about conformism in the first place. If a group of soldiers start acting similarly and as a whole, well, it probably just means that they’re acting like they’re supposed to.

Each version of the story reflected the concerns and issues of the era in which they were made. The 1950s version shows either a fear of the encroaching communist threat (“red menace”) or dread of McCarthyism (during which the crusade of a right-wing U.S. politician led several people to denounce their friends and colleagues as so-called “communist sympathizers” back then you never knew who you could trust). The 1970s version was a lament for the end of the “Flower Power” 1960s hippie era and its ideals and hopes. Tellingly the 1970s remake was set in San Francisco (“if you’re going to San Francisco”/”Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” as the song goes). By the time the 1990s version set in a military base rolled around, it was a post-Gulf War America in which a newly conservative U.S.A. thought it had made up for the mental wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War. America was ready to be the world’s GloboCop again – thanks to its renewed trust in its military following their victory over Iraq in Gulf War I.

Now in 2007 there is another version of Finney’s tale heading our way. Unfortunately the film has a history as chequered as that of all the various Body Snatcher films put together. Eventually titled The Visiting, it was soon renamed The Invasion as the film underwent several re-edits and release delays. How long ago was this made? Actor Daniel Craig heard that he got the role of James Bond while he was working on The Invasion!

In the meantime Casino Royale not only got made, but has made its way to the cinemas and DVD while a release date for The Invasion is still being shuffled around endlessly. In this version a mysterious epidemic is thought to be altering the behavior of human beings. When a Washington D.C. psychiatrist (Nicole Kidman) discovers the epidemic's origins are extraterrestrial, she must fight to protect her son, “who may hold the key to stopping an imminent invasion” according to the official plot synopsis. Willing to bet that the aliens in this version will be stopped? An edgier ending would be one in which the aliens win of course (like in the 1970s) version. So will this latest version take the Hollywood route and sell out?

One positive sign that it won’t is that The Invasion is the Hollywood debut of respected German director Oliver Hirschbiegel.

Hirschbiegel is perhaps best-known for his uncompromising Downfall (criticized for sketching an almost sympathetic Adolf Hitler during his last days in the bunker) and Das Experiment. Has Hirschbiegel been bullied into making a standard cookie cutter Hollywood product? Who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time that Hollywood would have coerced some poor European director into making the sort of movie that would never have gotten them hired in the first place. In 1994 for instance Dutch director George Sluizer tagged on a typical Hollywood happy ending to The Vanishing (starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland), a remake of his much superior 1988 Spoorloos thriller (also known as The Vanishing). After all, The Visiting is a major studio (Warners) production starring an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman and the now famous Daniel Craig). The pressure on Hirschbiegel must have been huge and one can only hope that he stood up against any such pressure and deliver the sort of movie one expects of this respected film director.

(Note: Latest news reports indicate that several scenes were added to The Invasion under the auspices of the Wachowski Brothers and V for Vendetta director James McTeigue after principal shooting had finished on the film. Insiders claim that apparently the scenes were added to crank up the film’s action quotient after preview audiences found the film to be too “dull”. Director Hirschbiegel and Warner execs have apparently denied these reports, but it would appear that The Invasion was in fact taken out of the famed German director’s hand to undergo a major overhaul.)



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