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Movie Review

Creative compromises are the real enemy in 'Invasion'

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 17, 2007

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Buried somewhere within the bipolar extravaganza that is ‘‘The Invasion’’ is an awfully good movie that got away.

The Nicole Kidman thriller is the fourth film version of the alien-paranoia classic ‘‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’’ — previously filmed in 1956, 1978, and 1993 — and to understand its problems, you have to know some Hollywood back story.

Written by hot young screenwriter David Kajganich and directed by German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (who made the 2004 Hitler’s-last-days movie ‘‘Downfall’’), ‘‘The Invasion’’ was filmed in 2005. Producer Joel Silver, that purveyor of commercially successful wham-bam, decided Hirschbiegel’s cut didn’t work and put it on the shelf for a year, ultimately bringing in the Wachowski brothers (‘‘The Matrix’’) to dream up some action scenes and James McTeigue (‘‘V for Vendetta’’) to reshoot them last fall.

Memo to Silver: This never works. It never has. Get it through your head — trusting the original vision is always the better idea. As an example of creative (or desperate) editing meant to salvage a compromised project, ‘‘The Invasion’’ is a fascinating object lesson. As a sci-fi thriller, sadly, it’s a mess.

From what I can tell, Hirschbiegel and Kajganich’s original had two great notions. The first is that Kidman already seems like an alien replicant. ‘‘The Invasion’’ is set in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Carol Bennell (Kidman) is a psychiatrist and single mom with a young son named Oliver (Jackson Bond). The action kicks in seconds after the opening credits, with the unexpected crash landing of the space shuttle bearing alien spores. Within hours — or days, or weeks; it’s hard to tell — people start behaving oddly, emotionlessly. They’re no longer who they were but part of an eerie hive mind.

The gimmick is that Kidman’s heroine starts the film as a cool, maternal zombie — never has the actress more resembled a porcelain doll — only to fall apart and become a stressed-out human as the virus takes root in the population. She has to lose control to remember she has a soul. There are no pods this time; as Carol’s ex-husband (Jeremy Northam) demonstrates, the spores are passed from person to person in an icky spew of green bile. Then you go to sleep, your DNA is re-engineered, and you wake up part of an alien ant colony.

The movie’s other brilliantly perverse idea: This might not be such a bad thing. In shards of overheard news footage, we realize that peace is breaking out all over the planet: Iraq, Israel, North Korea. Why fight when we’re all one big organism anyway? Is individuality a fair trade for global harmony? As ‘‘The Invasion’’ hurtles forward, fraying at the seams, the audience is put in the extremely odd position of rooting for both the humans and the aliens.

That’s the intent. At least, I think it is. There are two movies here, and the more simplistic one ends up in charge. Carol’s friend and brooding love interest, a doctor named Ben (Daniel Craig), gets a fair amount of business, but other characters have been thwacked back to brief appearances: Josef Sommer and Celia Weston get one good scene as Ben’s aging Eastern European friends, the Belicecs, as does Roger Rees, playing a cynical Russian diplomat. The gifted Jeffrey Wright is handed chunks of exposition as a lab researcher, then hustled off-screen.

Also present is Veronica Cartwright — nice to know she survived the 1978 version — as one of Carol’s patients. Her failure to go alien on schedule tilts ‘‘The Invasion’’ into an increasingly preposterous final 30 minutes, where characters hastily theorize about immunities and embark on long, frenetic car chases. The spectacularly eerie vibe the earlier scenes have built up, almost in spite of themselves, dies in a din of crushed fenders and gunshots. The film’s rewritten ending is — there’s no other word for it — pathetic, a laughable attempt to patch closure onto a nightmare. Is there irony intended? Are we supposed to mourn the serene, dull alien Earth that almost is? By now, the storytelling’s much too confused to tell.

In the way that certain baseball games become pitchers’ duels, some movies are cutting-room battles. The credited editors on ‘‘The Invasion’’ are Hans Funck and Joel Negron; the first cut ‘‘Downfall,’’ the second movies like ‘‘Man of the House’’ and ‘‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.’’ One is Hirschbiegel’s man, the other Joel Silver’s. At times, you can actually see their two versions of the film wrestling, as scenes leap forward in time and then suddenly jump back.

At other moments, you sense the stately, almost monochromatic dread of Funck’s cut between the sutures of meat-and-potatoes suspense, the nip-and-tuck of the hired plastic surgeon. Who knows what this movie could have been? ‘‘The Invasion’’ died on the operating-room table, and we’re just watching the wake.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr%@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.