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Another 'Invasion' of . . . you know

A horror classic is replicated again, but the result is no clone: With top talent, it's stylish and smart.

August 17, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Help me," the young woman screams. "They're coming, they're among us." No one on screen is paying attention, but we know what it means.

That's right, the body snatchers are once again on the prowl. "The Invasion," starring the upscale duo of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, is the third remake of what was once a humble B picture, 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Still effectively creepy and surprisingly unnerving despite the occasional misstep and rumors of a troubled production, the new film illustrates why and how the power of the original story remains undiminished more than half a century after its creation.

The core of that tale remains as it was conceived by science fiction adept Jack Finney, screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and top director Don Siegel. Mysterious entities from outer space, pods in the original, spores in the current version, attempt to take over the world by creating zombie-like replicas of everyone and his brother. Gradually a few folks catch on and attempt against long odds to save the beleaguered human race.

"Invasion" has been brought up to the minute with characters who text message each other and references to Iraq, Darfur and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. More to the point, it remains fascinating how effortlessly the story, here written by David Kajganich for German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, manages to dovetail with whatever is troubling in the zeitgeist, which in this case includes worries about global pandemics and the excessive powers of governments gone wild.

Finally, the success of "Invasion" boils down to the crisp execution (Hirschbiegel's last film was the Hitler-in-extremis epic "Downfall") of the film's familiar but still disturbing concept. As a wife (played by Veronica Cartwright, a veteran of the 1978 Phil Kaufman-directed version) says to her psychiatrist early on, "This is going to sound so stupid or crazy or both, but my husband is not my husband."

Given that almost anyone who goes to see "The Invasion" will know its storyline, the film makes the shrewd choice of starting with a flash-forward to the pulse-pounding middle of the film, when heroine Carol Bennell (Kidman) is ransacking a wrecked pharmacy for pills to keep her awake. Because it is while you sleep that the transformation from human to alien takes place, and that is something very much to be avoided.

The plot proper starts with the mysterious crash of a space shuttle, complete with wreckage contaminated by a relentless organism, that causes one scientist to note, with more passion than grammar, "One thing is for sure, it ain't from around here."

Nothing if not industrious, the organism immediately infects Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), a highly placed Centers for Disease Control official who is also Carol Bennell's estranged ex-husband. They have a child named Oliver (the likable Jackson Bond in his feature debut) to whom Carol is completely devoted, which makes her reluctant to give him to Tucker for a few days when her ex mysteriously shows up and demands visitation rights.

Since she was the psychiatrist who heard that troubled wife's confession, Carol has some sense that things are not right with the world. She confides in her hunky best friend, a doctor named Ben Driscoll (Craig), who in turn talks to a scientist named Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), and while the trio gradually figures out what is going on, that doesn't necessarily help them put a stop to the alien invasion or get little Oliver back from his sinister dad.

Inevitably, this "Invasion" does some things differently than its predecessors. There is, if memory serves, greater narrative focus here than in the previous versions on the need to stay awake, and there is also a wonderful counterintuitive speech by one character talking convincingly about how glorious it is to have your mind and body taken over by aliens.

And while parts of the film suffer from either unoriginality or excessive implausibility, "Invasion" does very well, aided by an effective John Ottman score, in conveying the bump-in-the-dark terror of having armies of implacable zombies relentlessly tracking you down like Sherlock Holmes on the trail of an enormous hound.

This "Invasion" is aided considerably by having actors of the caliber of Kidman and Craig in the leading roles. Doing the opposite of slumming, both performers put their considerable talent in the service of bringing credibility to a pulp premise that has kept people up at night for more than 50 years and promises to do so for some time into the future.

"The Invasion." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In general release.

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