Supermom Returns

Even a really bad science fiction movie can have something to say, stumbling on critical issues as it strains for coherence.

I love old school science fiction films for this reason. Sometimes they’re a guilty pleasure (think Invaders from Mars). Other times not so guilty—The Thing from Another World, Them! or War of the Worlds. At their worst, they’re funny as hell. At their best, they make clever commentary on the cold war, suburban living, the American family, etc. The phenomenon extends to recent sci fi movies, as well. I found it with, I kid you not, The Invasion, which I rented on a quasi-academic lark. This latest in a series of remakes of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a gross, uneven, blandly acted film. It also, somehow, taps into the contemporary woman’s struggle juggling career, romantic love and motherhood.

The Invasion features Carol Bennell, a single mother and private psychotherapist played unremarkably by Nicole Kidman. Like her male counterparts in the 1956 original and 1978 remake, Dr. Bennell discovers alien invaders. In this case, they are not the notorious giant seedpods that duplicate human beings, but an infection in which virus-like aliens replace the minds of human hosts. Alien-infected people infiltrate every corner of society, surrounding Bennell with hostile strangers as she strives to save her son Oliver from the clutches of his pod father, her absentee ex-husband. Oliver’s blood also happens to hold the promise of a cure for the alien infection, if Bennell can get him beyond quarantine to a government lab. Like its predecessors, it’s a movie about the threat of conformity, social alienation and the lamentable faults of humankind. But there’s something else going on, as well.

The Invasion joins a tradition in sci fi movies where a woman’s status as hero depends on her role as a mother or mother figure. Terminator 2 and Aliens, two of my all-time favorites, come to mind. Bennell —like Sarah Connor—is a hero only in relation to her son, who is destined to save humanity. Mom becomes a vessel for the male savior, a bodyguard for the real hero. Her mission is to protect the son at any cost. Bennell, though significantly less bad-ass than heroes like Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley, takes the single-minded focus on mothering even further, to a maniacal level. This may be a failing of both the script and the acting, but Bennell shows none of the conscience of Connor, who is ultimately reluctant to take lives. Bennell impassively kills eight people over the course of the movie, all of whom have what amounts to a curable disease. Heartless much? Her motherhood might make her a hero, but it also makes her a monster.

While Bennell’s mothering defines her, she also struggles to reconcile competing desires and responsibilities. In one scene, the ex-husband says: “Do you know why our marriage failed, Carol? ‘Cause I was third. The thing you loved the most was your son. After him came your job. After that came me.” This is, perhaps, the crux of the contemporary woman’s predicament: struggling to be everything to everyone, she will ultimately disappoint someone. The Invasion constantly highlights Bennell’s failure to play all her roles well. In order to save Oliver, she fails to help several distressed women over the course of the film, betraying her mandate as a woman-focused therapist. She shoots her love interest, played by Daniel Craig, in order to save Oliver. To be the mother-protector, it seems, Bennell must sacrifice both her vocation and romantic love.

The movie comes to a fragile resolution. All returns to normal, Oliver is safe, the ex-husband is dead, the world is saved, and Bennell earns a new husband (a recovered Daniel Craig) for her trouble. But how long will it be before Bennell is forced again to choose between her competing priorities and desires? Will her new husband accept being third on her list? The invasion may have been halted, but the real conflict of the film remains unresolved. Even in a science fiction world, supermom is plagued by the specters of failure, and the house of cards always threatens to come down around her.

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