Correction to This Article
The Aug. 17 Style review of the movie "The Invasion" incorrectly said that there have been two previous films based on Jack Finney's novel "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." There have been three: Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Abel Ferrara's 1993 "Body Snatchers" and Philip Kaufman's 1978 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

You're Too Kind

Nicole Kidman stars as a psychiatrist who comes to realize that people are changing into virtual zombies in
Nicole Kidman stars as a psychiatrist who comes to realize that people are changing into virtual zombies in "The Invasion," a reworking of the 1950s classic. (By Peter Sorel -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

There are gun thrillers and terrorist thrillers and car-crash thrillers. There are plenty of commando thrillers and nuclear thrillers and even a few eco- or biotoxin thrillers. Most are fun, all are loud, a few make sense. Here's what there aren't enough of: idea thrillers.

That's why "The Invasion" is such a hoot. It's far from perfect, and for reasons that have less to do with mistakes in D.C. geography than an uncertain production. It's clearly a patch job with a few reshoots shoehorned in here and there to up the wattage. Daniel Craig never seems to get beyond lockjaw, there's too much science-medico mumbo jumbo that seems to come from an animated Disney documentary on hemoglobin, and the ending arrives as if dropped from a passing truck. And while I appreciated the early sight of Ms. Nicole Kidman in a transparent nightie-thingy, I fear I missed the next 20 minutes owing to a rather intense fantasy in which the two of us -- well, you get it.

The good parts of "The Invasion" are its ideas. The movie makes an honest argument, arrives at a resolution and makes a final comment on the meaning and cost of that resolution.

Based on Jack Finney's classic novel of paranoia, "The Body Snatchers," and the two movies derived from it (more notably the black-and-white '56 version, directed by Don Siegel), it recounts the arrival on Earth of some kind of space-borne agent that rapidly infects human beings by working through bloodstreams -- magnificent Mr. Hemo proves no match for the space nodules -- and rewiring DNA.

I suppose you could call it "Attack of the Killer Antidepressant From Outer Space," but along with depression, it kills emotion, creativity, ambition, love, progress, hope, dreams. Yet under its influence, you can walk the streets at night. It mutates tragic, scabby, violent, disputatious, striving, desperate man into a herd animal, a drifting, mulching zombie that represents only the will of the collective, set behind opaque eyes, a slack, dull face and the slow lurch of a film critic on his fifth bourbon of the night.

Kidman plays Carol Bennell, a psychiatrist who notices suddenly that a kind of strange, even spooky benevolence has settled over the land, except for the dogs, who immediately sense strangers among us and suddenly attack every third or fourth person. The proximate cause of this development is the return and tragic disintegration of a NASA vehicle, spewing parts from the mid-Atlantic to Dallas. In its tracks, and in ever widening ripples, niceness and dog bites are breaking out. Why, her ex-husband (Jeremy Northam), a government physician, even calls to volunteer to take charge of their child, the adorable Oliver (Jackson Bond), for the weekend, so that she can have time with her new boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Craig, a.k.a. James Bond, though not the father of Jackson Bond).

It has been reported that the Wachowski brothers, of "The Matrix" fame, were brought in to reshoot some of the action sequences, most of which involve Kidman in an automobile, trying to get away from hordes of the newly enlightened. Whatever -- the car sequences are terrific and, though it's hard to believe, whoever was behind the camera found new ways to send large, carbon-powered metal gizmos sailing through the air and fling graspers off into the night. I should add that as a plot gimmick, it turns out that Carol's son has a weird medical pedigree (not the right schools but the right diseases), so his DNA can be used to develop an antidote to the micro-invaders. The pod people (actually, there are no pods) know it and try to stop them from getting to Fort Detrick, where a counteroffensive is being organized.

You can certainly see what may have attracted the Wachowskis to the project; the idea of the film is similar to the idea of "The Matrix," in which humans have traded in messy reality for cyber-sleep in which they dream of a cyber-utopia as machines harvest energy from their dozing, entombed bodies. And possibly you can see what attracted the original director, Oliver Hirschbiegel. His great film was "The Downfall," about the end of the Nazi era in Berlin, and with his sense of history, he'd see that the movie was, in a way, plumbing the decision the German people made in the early '30s to give up on the fragile reed of democracy and opt instead for the promises of a racially pure utopia as envisioned by a paperhanger from Austria.

"The Invasion" is based on that philosophical chestnut, which pitches the dangers and the opportunities of freedom against the peace and soul-killing results of dictatorship. Or call it free will vs. necessity. In fact, you can plug in any individual system vs. any collective system you want and the movie still works.

What I like about the film, however, is that as an intellectual tiff, it argues fairly. That is, it doesn't give us an idealized version of "freedom," as off a Norman Rockwell magazine cover in the '40s. No, no, it says: Freedom will be squalid, violent and dangerous. The key moment in the film comes when Carol faces freedom's ultimate challenge, which is defending it. She faces six men who want to take her down and "cure" her. They have totalitarian will and little regard for their own lives. She has a gun. But does she have the will to use it? Very interesting question, not only within the movie but within the world. The movie, at least, has an answer.

Another excellent moment: After making her decision, there's a wonderful scene that finds her in the kitchen as she has a crisis of the spirit: Did she make the right choice? Why was she so sure? Maybe her primal instincts were wrong?

Her ambiguity is the best coda to a movie that really asks the hardest question of all.

The Invasion (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company