'The Invasion' Invades the Multiplex (film review)

September 6, 2007
by Seth Shostak

Bad news for the NASA Administrator - the Space Shuttle has blown up again. But this time the cause is not foam-fretted tiles, it's alien hitch-hikers. That's right: aggressive extraterrestrials have bummed a rocket ride to Earth to take over our planet. It's a familiar theme, indeed, but there's a silver lining to this interstellar cloud: the invaders are doing it for your own good.

After years of enduring war intended to bring the delights of democracy to Iraq, it shouldn't shock and awe you that Hollywood has concocted an analogous tale in which extraterrestrial beings traverse the seas of space to save us from "war, poverty, and rape." Their efforts unreel at your local multiplex as "The Invasion," a lumpy broth boiled up from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Night of the Living Dead," and a few other familiar cinematic carcasses.

The film's dramatic beginning is tantalizingly macabre. The aliens - intelligent, and yet smaller than a breadbox - engineer their arrival by somehow glomming onto the outside of the Shuttle, thus provoking an explosion that sends shards of expensive taxpayer hardware to Earth in a two-thousand-mile long spray of infectious debris. It quickly becomes apparent that, despite access to about a million terrestrial species, there's only one species that these microscopic meanies from space intend to sicken: namely, us. That probably doesn't surprise you either.

Once landed, the virulent space invaders set about remaking humanity. The good news is that they're not here to kill us. The bad news is that they want to improve us. On the basis of some genuinely hokey molecular biology, the aliens reprogram our DNA, thereby turning us all into worker bees in a peaceable hive culture. Externally, everyone looks the same, but emotions are out and group think is in. No one sweats, no one smiles, and no one has any spring in their step.

Without getting into spoilers, suffice it to say that the process of transformation - which only takes a day or so - is yucky enough to make you yearn for Ebola. First you become infected (this usually happens when someone vomits in your face, a messy mode of reproduction that, thankfully, few higher species on this planet have adopted). Once exposed, and after you fall asleep, the aliens work their bioengineering magic, and your body becomes covered in a slimy glaze, reminiscent of wet doughnuts. This is referred to as "cellular condensation" (there's a fair amount of bonkers techno-babble in this film, so it's mumbled quickly to avoid colliding with any expertise that audience members might have). After a few hours of looking like a Krispy-Kreme, the doughnut complexion fades, and you become a zombie, with less emotional range than Spock or Data. From glaze to daze.

It's not pretty, but at least it's quick. After enough alien infections have taken hold, a strange thing happens: the world becomes tranquil. The Iraq war ends, President Bush and Hugo Chavez embrace, Darfur cools, and America adopts universal health care. Well forget that last bit: all the top medicos are working on beating the alien virus. Who has time to worry about heart disease when "Daddy is no longer Daddy."

So the aliens have brought peace. But at what price?

As it turns out, that's not terribly important in the context of this film. In fact, "The Invasion" is not about how to save humanity from a bad lot of alien pond scum, but rather how to save ever-so-cute Nicole Kidman and her bucktoothed spawn. The rest of the planet is only an afterthought.

Nonetheless, somewhere deep in its dramatic folds, this film has a seed of possible truth. Should we worry about disease from space? Well, any malignant microbes at the altitude at which the Space Shuttle flies would float to Earth in months or less. And since they haven't, that's hardly a concern. But what about meteors from distant worlds - possibly even from other star systems?

Some proponents of the idea known as panspermia argue that life is indeed spreading throughout the Galaxy via errant rocks. But the evidence for space infection has, at least so far, failed to convince the majority of astrobiologists. Recent research by scientists such as Rocco Mancinelli at the SETI Institute implies that, while microscopic life could survive a joyride from planet to planet within the solar system, the million-year trip from another star would - thanks to the damaging effects of radiation - sterilize even the hardiest biology.

All of which means that if you really want universal health care, you'd better not count on the aliens to wave their molecular wand and make it so.