My notes on El Año de la Plaga (The Year of the Plague)
‘Am I in a remake?’ exclaims Víctor Negro (Ivan Massagué), a Nick Hornby character trapped in a science fiction film, ‘I hate remakes!’ This Spanish picture, smartly directed by C. Martín Ferrera, is a conscious homage to every version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with an especial debt to the 1978 film (including a variant on that disturbing open-mouthed pointing tic). But it uses the premise of the worldwide replacement of humanity by doubles grown from alien eucalyptus plants to force its main character to redefine his own human nature in extremis and plays at least as much as a slackerish rom-com with barbed observations about a spiralling relationship. It’s also funny, so don’t be put off by the heaviness of the themes.
Víctor has a job in social work, which he admits is an odd choice since he doesn’t like people all that much, and is hung up on Irene (Ana Serradilla), his anestheologist ex-girlfriend, whose nameplate he hasn’t taken off his apartment mailbox. His colleagues – especially the relatively mature Nieves (Silvia Abril), who he ought to pay more attention to – encourage him to have a blind date with Lola (Miriam Giovanelli), who turns out to be funny, sexy and weirdly on his wavelength. Then, just as the couple kiss, Víctor gets a call from Irene – his lockscreen, which Lola gets a cringeworthy look at, shows him snogging his ex – who wants him to come to her hospital morgue to take a look at two near-identical corpses, one covered in vegetable matter and the other half-formed and coated in slime. It’s obviously a set-up from the Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the film nicely builds up to it with those weird plants appearing around the frame and the social workers dealing with an epidemic of Capgras Syndrome (a medical term for a plot point in Jack Finney’s original novel, whereby folks insist loved ones have been replaced by identical but inhuman duplicates) among their clients. Almost subliminally, we note that a few of Víctor’s slob mates from the office and the vinyl store where he hangs out have smartened up and show less interest in BluRays, action figures and 1970s prog rock albums – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that it means the end of the world.
Certain people are immune to being cloned – the very old, the very young, pregnant women, and the terminally ill – and Víctor, who is ahead of previous Body Snatchers protagonists in his Scream-like grasp of the rules of the sub-genre, gets a sinking suspicion why he’s on the list of exceptions. The crux of the film, however, is that the invasion forces the hero back into cahoots with his ex-girlfriend, who admits she’s called him in because she knows he can rely on his doglike devotion and ingenuity rather in a situation when her older, more sensible new partner would be useless. Irene gets some good digs in at the emotionally stunted, adolescent Víctor – who she says doesn’t care about anybody ‘unless they’re in Star Wars’ – but she also cruelly relies on the fact that he’s incurably stuck on her and shows a tough, mean, jealous streak in spinning the alien invasion story to suit her ends by alleging without apparent evidence that Lola has been taken over and should be tied to a chair and tortured until she coughs up the alien masterplan.
The last act relocates to a hospital where the eucalyptus people have penned all the unclonables, and finds Victor becoming more heroic, as both his girlfriends become more demented in amusing, yet disturbing fashion. Screenwriters Ángeles Hernández, Miguel Ibáñez Monroy and David Matamoros – adapting a novel by Marc Pastor – and director Ferrera play a few tricks with familiar Body Snatchers scenes: when Víctor and Irene try to pass as pod persons and walk unemotionally down the street, he gets beaten up by a human thug who takes him for an invader … and when the spokesperson for the aliens delivers the mandatory variation on that chilling speech about how they’ll win, someone finally answers back with a diatribe about the way the parasites will literally mean the vegetation of civilisation.
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