Can't Trust the Military

Body Snatchers (2007)

There's a weird trend in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. Namely, are they sequels to each other or remakes. The way the films play out, with the 1978 film using an actor from the previous 1956 version, it's possible that despite it following similar beats, it could have been a sequel. And then, when you had the next version from 1993 come out, the subtitle was "The Invasion Continues" (at least in posters and print materials). Does that mean all these films exist in the same world? Maybe. It could be like the Romero films, each one exploring an aspect of the invasion through a lens of their own era, building a concept of this alien apocalypse that stays updated through the eras.

Now, in fairness, this doesn't apply to all the films in this loose franchise. 2007's The Invasion is very much a reboot of the franchise, which a new explanation for how the aliens get to Earth (as well as a new version of what they even are). And that doesn't even get into the two different TV shows as well, each doing their own thing with the material (to, arguably, limited success). But there was a sense of continuity among the early films, and it was interesting to see the idea evolve, change, and adapt... not unlike the body snatching aliens themselves.

This third version of the story takes a different tack from the previous two. Instead of the Body Snatchers being discovered by someone (more or less) in the health and medical industry, the main character is Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar), the daughter of U.S. EPA health inspector Steve Malone (Terry Kinney). Assigned to a military base to check the state of bio-weapons and other chemicals, Steve brings his whole family -- not just Marti by wife Carol (Meg Tilly) and younger son Andy (Reilly Murphy) -- so they can all be together while he does his work. Marti is unhappy being forced to move to a new place with a bunch of people she doesn't know, but she does manage to make a new friend, rebellious teen Jenn Platt (Christine Elise), and a potential boyfriend, helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth).

But things start to get weird on the army base very quickly. First it's Carol, who stops acting like her normal vivacious self. Andy walks in to her bedroom one night to find her collapsing into a pile of dust, while her copy walks (naked) out of a closet, and Andy starts crying about how is mom is dead, although no one else believes him. But then it's not just Carol but a bunch of other people on the base as well. As this mysterious (or, really, not so mysterious since the movie quickly shows us what's going on) change spreads, Marti and the people that are left all start to realize they have to run. But can they escape before these duplicates catch up to them? And even if they do escape, where can they go? Who do they trust? How far as the body snatching spread?

As far as versions of this story are concerned, I will freely admit that this isn't the most effective retelling of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers concept. I saw it on basic cable soon after it was done with its run in theaters and I liked it at the time. I hadn't seen any other version, though, so the film's twists and turns were effective and surprising. With that said, having seen all the versions available now, I will admit this film falls a little flat. It rushes some points, and doesn't quite build the effective scares it needs to within the story.

A bit part of the problem is that the film isn't coy about what's going on. It barely hides its mystery at all, revealing very quickly that the pod people menace has been spreading even before Marti and her family show up. The previous two versions tried to bury the lede, letting you suss out what was going on from people saying, "this person is themself but isn't themself." The dread creeps up slowly there, but here it's just, "oh look, these people really are acting odd. And it's everywhere." No mystery there.

By the same token, this rush to get the aliens spreading means the whole pace of the film is hurried up. Where the 1973 film clocked a solid two hours to explore its story, the 1993 version doesn't even clock a full 90 minutes. It's a right 87, which is nice in some regards as the pace is quick and nothing drags, but you also end up feeling like the characters aren't really there to be characters, they exist simple to get swapped and be bad guys.

Of all the major characters, from Carol to Steve, Andy to Jenn, all of whom you'd expect to be body snatched eventually, it's hard to say any of them really make an impression. Carol has no personality that we can tell, not even getting development as a "mean" step-mother to Marti. Steve barely exists outside of his job and fighting with Marti over her being a disobedient teen. And Jenn gets to be a template "rebellious" teen, but there's nothing of substance behind it.

Hell, even Marti fails to really be a solid lead. We accept her as the protagonist as she's in practically every scene, but that doesn't really make her a character. Her whole personality is, "I hate being here so I'm going to be angry about it." She doesn't have an arc, though, because it's not like she grows to accept her life on the military base. Because of the Body Snatching she's proven right, "don't be there." And then she escapes. In a different story, she'd had some connection to the base, some reason to try to save it before finally fleeing. Really, she'd be Jenn, the girl that lives on the base and has roots there. Jenn could have an arc in this movie if she was written right. Marti doesn't get one by design.

At the same time, it's also hard to accept the military base as the setting. Is there a political message behind it? Like all military men are mindless grunts taken over by the system? Not exactly a bold statement to make there if that was he intent, and if it wasn't then it was really bad planning on the part of the writer. But because a military base is this place where people go due to assignment and not because it's their home, it doesn't have the same lived in quality as the setting for the first two films. We don't get the feeling that anyone cares to save the base, just that they want to stop the invasion, which is very different from how the characters tried to save their friends, families, and cities before. Everything is off by this change in setting.

With that said, the film does still have its effective moments. The acting from the cast is good, even with their underwritten characters. Gabrielle Anwar does what she can with Marti in only her second lead role (after Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken). Marti may not be an effective lead on her own, but Anwar does all she can to make her feel like a more fully realized character, and that goes a long way towards making this film watchable. Some other teen in the lead, someone with less skill in the craft, would have sunk this film entirely.

The film also wisely cribs one of the most effectively moments from the previous version, having the bodies crumple away into dust as they get absorbed completely. This once again sells the idea that there's no way to restore anyone after they're snatched (unlike in the far less effective The Invasion), letting the horror build further. .There is still some kind of a "happy" ending, which the invasion maybe, possibly, being stopped in the last section of the last act, but at least for the characters that survive, nothing will end up being the same after this.

If we accept Body Snatchers as a sequel of some kind to the 1978 film (and considering it has the same producer as that previous film, Robert H. Solo, maybe we should), then some of the flaws can be explained away as simple exploration of a continuing world. And maybe as a sequel it does an effective, if simple, job of keeping the idea alive. But with 15 years between movies, and an underdeveloped concept on its own, Body Snatchers isn't strong enough to stand on its own. It's a fine film, but not great, and it only works if you really want it to. It is a film designed for late night runs on cable, which is where I discovered it, and maybe that's all it could ever be.