29 June 2009

The Invasion versus War of the Words

The Invasion versus War of the Worlds
By Kristin Battestella

What are the odds that once golden couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would both star in remakes of science fiction classics within two years of each other? Though delayed and quieter than Cruise’s 2005 blockbuster action yarn War of the Worlds, Kidman’s 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fairs somewhat better…maybe.

The InvasionPsychiatrist Carol Bennell (Kidman) begins to notice strange behavior and bizarre stories from her patients, including abused wife Wendy (Veronica Cartwright, also in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Carol has misgivings about her sickly son Oliver (Jackson Bond) visiting with his father-her ex husband and CDC administrator Tucker (Jeremy Northam)-for he and his colleagues are also not themselves. Carol consults with her boyfriend Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and his coworker Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) as more and more people go to sleep and wake up completely devoid of emotions. When violence and totalitarian rule escalate in the city, Carol and Ben attempt to rescue Oliver from his father and escape to a military base where Stephen works on a cure.
In War of the Worlds, Ray Ferrier (Cruise) hopes for quality time with daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) while his ex wife Mary Anne (Miranda Otto) and her new husband visit family in Boston. Ray’s family troubles are quickly mended when strange phenomena mysteriously occur. Monstrous alien tripods rise from the earth, destroy massive buildings, and kill all in their path, sending Ray and his family on the run.

If I had to choose, I have to admit I’d take Kidman over Cruise. When Cruise was riding high in Top Gun and Kidman was scared in Dead Calm, my feelings might have been reversed. Recently, however, I could careless about Cruise and his off screen antics. He’s become a parody of himself, and War of the Worlds only adds to this feeling. Despite the heavy action and extreme circumstances presented, Ray continually comes out a-okay. He’s never that roughed up, and the viewer can only suspend belief for so long. Help, coincidence, and deus ex machina preposterously aide Ray again and again. At some point, I found myself saying, ‘I just don’t care! Take him!’

By contrast, The Invasion turns our favorite pod people tale into a maternal vehicle. The execution is not perfect-Kidman looks too pretty for too long in skirts and high heels-but a science fiction family female is unusual enough. Instead of an action hero, Carol is intelligent and believable. She keeps her wits as instinct and emotional attachments drive her to a realistic course of action. Though a spotlight for Kidman, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Five Minutes in Heaven) and his replacement (not a good sign in itself) James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) never quite get the right balance between serious psychological drama and hard science fiction thriller. Had more time been spent on the dark places for Carol, The Invasion might have been an exceptional film.

I still can’t put my finger on new Bond Daniel Craig. In his brief but memorable roles in Tomb Raider and The Jacket, I find myself wanting more of him. As Bond however, I don’t think he’s on par just yet. The Invasion falls in the previous: Craig’s Ben Driscoll simply doesn’t have enough to do. It’s not the pairing with Kidman-maybe they do have chemistry here and in The Golden Compass. The duo is just never on screen enough to find out. We’re supposed to care about these characters because The Invasion’s summary lists Ben as Carol’s potential love interest. Like all the other soft spots in The Invasion, writer David Kajganich (Town Creek) and clean up men Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) don’t make use of Craig and all the scientific or romantic possibilities.

Unfortunately, Lord of the Rings alum Miranda Otto fairs no better in War of the Worlds. We can’t have our romantic interests be equal to their onscreen star partners, now can we? She’s successful and well-known Down Under, but Otto hasn’t faired well in supporting parts stateside. Cashmere Mafia, The Starter Wife, and War of the Worlds don’t do her justice. Mary Anne is practically an absent MacGuffin, and son Justin Chatwin (The Invisible) is cast aside in favor of supposedly touching action between Cruise and Dakota Fanning. They say never act with kids or dogs, and she is why. The Taken charmer steals the spotlight from Cruise-unlike Jackson Bond (In Case of Emergency) in The Invasion. Like everyone else besides Kidman, we simply don’t see enough of him to care.

For me, science fiction and people go hand in hand. Whether sociological or hard science, the genre works because it places a mirror of the human condition in outlandish situations-we feel for the aliens with issues, struggle with the technological debates. Unfortunately, both The Invasion and War of the Worlds excel at neither. Kidman’s maternal action is good, but not as mind blowing as Jack Finney’s source book The Body Snatchers or either the 1956 or the ‘78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. Even 1993’s Body Snatchers gives us the military and scientific aspects of such an invasion. For a film packed full of scientists- including a wasted Jeremy Northam (The Tudors) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale)-there isn’t a lot of science in The Invasion. One might just think it a disaster thriller, not even science fiction. I would rather have seen a picture with Kidman and Craig trapped on a military base struggling with viruses, cures, and quarantines. You know, sf that’s not so far from the scary truth. Why get iffy with all this modern political intrigue and statements?

War of the Worlds (Widescreen Edition)Of course, War of the Worlds swings at the opposite end. Trading time, place, and words of warning from H.G. Wells novel; Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) update to contemporary New Jersey and sacrifice people for every blockbuster effect in the book. Remember when blockbuster meant that a film was a hit-box office success, awards sweeps, advances in the technology of motion pictures. Today the term ‘blockbuster’ is any attempt at the formula. If we have big people, big hype, and big CGI, then we have a blockbuster! Maybe some like War of the Worlds, but it does not capture its source material any more than The Invasion. Both are too full of themselves instead of the potential story at hand.

Yes, Cruise and Kidman are imperfect in their respective science fiction vehicles. Against classics of the genre both quickly falter as vanity films. For a mindless spectacle and Cruise funfest, by all means spend a night in with War of the Worlds. For more intelligence and suspense, The Invasion is what’s watchable. Of course, for really bad comparisons we could check out Cruise and Kidman’s Eyes Wide Shut or The Golden Compass for more Kidman and Craig. But why would anyone want to go there?


Anonymous said...

You should get a copy of the script that was shot and get a clear sense of what Hirschbiegel/Kajganich were after and what McTeigue/Wachowskis amended. Only 40% or so of the original cut appeared in the theatrical release. That would make for an interesting critique.

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Thanks for stopping by!

I agree looking at original scripts are intriguing. It seems like The Invasion had much more promise. Who knows what mix of script would have made it better.


Ron M said...

WOw really good analysis. I agree Kidman is better right now, cruise has really lost a step, except i liked him in Tropic Thunder.

This post has been nominated for a BoB award where the winner gets 1000 dollars.

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Ron, thanks for stopping by!

I'm working on a review of Dead Calm, and yes Kidman has definately matured since! Cruise I feel needs another person to raise him up, as in Rain Main or Collateral.