The fourth and weakest film incarnation of the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" tale proves one of the year's more notable disappoinments. It's a real shame considering the cautionary tale's paranoia allegory seems ripe for fitting in with the fear mongering of terrorism that pervades today's global political enviroment.
Of course much of that disappointment comes from the behind-the-scenes fiasco caused during the film's production. Acclaimed German director Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Downfall") completed a cut of the film which the studio disliked as being too low-key and arthouse for their taste. As a result they hired the Wachowski Brothers and cohort James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") to reshoot of around a third to a half of the film's runtime to make it more 'mainstream' and faster paced.
The trouble is that neither of them have done a particularly compelling job with their individual scenes, whilst their styles are as different as oil and water. The final hybrid that has resulted of this blending has a tone that frequently shifts in radical directions, whilst the narrative falls apart thanks to increasingly bad diversions into acts of complete idiocy.
It's a real shame as within the resulting run of the mill sci-fi actioneer there lies glimmers of an effective slow-burn psychological thriller under the bombast. From Veronica Cartwright's small role as an abused wife disturbed by her husband's sudden lack of violence (aside from his increase in dog murder) to interesting banter over an embassy dinner between ambassadors, there are some quieter moments of Hirschbiegel's work which stand out and effectively inspire unease and thoughts on subjects like plague-resistant pandemics.
Granted the German helmer makes some pretty common mistakes that all foreign directors do on their first big budget American movies - there's some clumsy handling of the performances which yields awful work from Jeremy Northam and wastes greats like Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright. Also, whilst the script is decent at times, it will often fall back onto some very amateur cheats to move the narrative along - one of the most notable being how the infection first spreads and then later the all too easy wrap-up of what has transpired.
Yet those cheats seem tame compared to some of the blundering decisions made during the more action oriented scenes that McTeigue and the Wachowski's have crafted. Much of the film's reshoots obviously come in the film's last act which is essentially one long chase scene with Nicole Kidman trying to find her kid and then get him to safety. The pacing keeps things moving along, for all its outright clumsiness it's certainly not a dull film as such, but as the ending approaches things get more and more silly and laughable.
When Kidman is racing down a street, her car fully on fire but somehow driving for miles without exploding, what should've been tense and gripping has long ago become comedic. It isn't helped that the actress herself, who has been stuck in a glut of bad films for years now with only the occasional strong effort shining through (eg. "The Interpreter"), is stuck playing a character that veers between emotionless automaton and the harried gun-toting single mother routine that Jodie Foster has been milking for the last few years.
Attempts to insert some contemporary relevance into the story, the factor that could've really lifted this into another league, is restricted to one or two off-hand references to Iraq, Darfur and even Hurricane Katrina. The gloomy but interesting lit suburban settings make it a visually interesting film, and the often tight frames and confined spaces help boost the tension. However, because much of the potential has been wasted, the film is understandably getting slammed in the media as it should. It's certainly not as bad as that, but what is here is very disappointing considering that what could've been a great paranoid thriller that would've only pleased a limited audience has now become a rather lame generic action drama that won't really please anyone.