Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The worst thing about losing your individuality is that once you do, you can’t remember what you lost. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers feels like it’s about Communism but it’s really about what Communism meant to the people who feared it, which is no less than the loss of their national identity (this was a time when this was the same as personal identity). This remake does what all remakes should: it takes the idea between the lines of the old theme and turns that into a new movie. This film is not only about losing individuality, but about the feeling of doing so, about the ideological implications of the loss. It's about way more than a nation. Every slinking dolly shot and dutch angle does what it did not do in The Shining. That was a film about succumbing to madness. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is so much scarier: it’s about succumbing to normalcy.

This film is full of gags (there may be one in every shot) that rely on keeping up with the film’s shrilly, dark irony. Even the opening, of the diaphanous alien wisps rising from their planet into space (is this the true form of the alien, or merely what’s left of the life on its latest planetary conquest?), is both eerie and sexy, like those old educational videos of sperm traveling to its forbidden destination. The foam lights onto plants and starts cultivating. This opening isn’t necessary, as it wasn’t in Predator and wasn’t in The Thing, but it makes for one of the best opening lines of any movie (“There’s some flowers kids. Go pick em’”). You have to wonder if the world is about to be lost, or already is.

San Francisco is jumbled in this film, like it’s massed together by people who can only see one street corner at a time. It’s a free-thinking heap of cliques and high-minded ethos and in-groups. It’s the perfect setting for an alien that threatens life with conformity, since this city can already take any new idea and unify it with the pop culture ennui of the city’s art-life. A pop-psychiatrist’s book-signing is so packed that you can’t get out. “Don’t be trapped by old concepts,” an alien says. He might as well be a city tour-guide.

The normal routines of people on the street become scary because we know that they might be doing this normally, or as a soulless pantomime of being normal (this is probably the only horror film I know that gets scarier every time you watch it – that opening line particularly sets you immediately on edge the second time). In the background, we can often see the bright city garbage trucks, playing like a punchline to someone’s suspicious glance, as we soon learn that they’re carrying around the remains of real people after the pods grow their replacements and suck out their marrow. The most amenable person on the street could doom the human race, because they could be a mouthpiece of the cosmic amenable, a force of life that believes emotions complicate existence unreasonably. It’s essential that Invasion of the Body Snatchers not have this person as the romantic lead, as he was in the 1956 version, as though his comforting normalcy is the best thing we could hope for. Such a man would make forgetting who we are an attractive proposition.

Instead we have Matthew (Donald Sutherland), who isn’t the average hero of this kind of story. He’s bookish and blandly unlikable, not even of the kind that makes him an attractive oddity. He’s a tightened health department worker whose cruelty is practiced to the point of casual (or is it the reverse? It doesn’t make a difference in the world until that’s exactly what it makes). This is his heroism in this story, however: he’s a desk jockey in a city of kooks, fighting the conformity of the alien hive as much as anyone fights the conformity of being among so many special-interests that none are special anymore. So long as he’s brash and coarse, we can comfort ourselves in the belief that he’s human. The 50s version of this character was as much a pod person before as after, being too strapping and agreeable. In the remake, only a jerk could lead the charge against invasive, forceful unity. They could not be too patriotic or too smart, too handsome or too nice; it would be too hard to tell their home-grown goodness apart from the universal brainwashing of a cosmic evil. That’s what makes us so vulnerable to it to begin with.

The Thing (1982) was about this force merely biologically: its monster was a purely organic conqueror, a life that spread life. Invasion of the Body Snatchers accelerates this disease to the metaphysical. It doesn’t merely spread itself, but thwarts the ambitions of other life to exist as anything other than as a part of it. It’s a virus of chicness.

W.D. Richter shows this to us through a script both funny and warily grotesque. Jack (Jeff Goldblum), a brash socialite whose clique is being anti-social, just handsome enough to pretend not to notice, spits in the eye of a world that would rather buy pop psychology trash from a charismatic therapy showman (Leonard Nimoy) than his own excruciating art (he takes six months to write one line of poetry). A battle against cosmic conformity is no less meaningful to him than his everyday struggle against fresh-pressed personalities and blatant routine. The reason we stand to lose against the invasion is not that we don’t have enough rebels, but that the rebellion was so hard in the first place against all these stylish confirmations and pop-idols. Jack isn’t fighting a different battle when everyone around him is turned into a vegetable, in a city where vegetables are in vogue.

His wife (Veronica Cartwright) is a well-meaning loon, a masseuse with a UFO fetish. Cartwright has a weighty, funny intensity, like she’s always about to laugh or cry (and with an incredible hold over our hope to find out which). I’m reminded of her work in Alien, and how she manages to be the most memorable parts of grotesque scenes with her apprehensive sexiness and natural humor. She’s an intrusive, funny presence in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which elevates females in this kind of movie without making a big deal out of it.

When Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) suspects that her husband (Art Hindle) isn’t her husband anymore, she’s not only worried that someone else is present in her life, but that she might not be. Adams has a funny dignity in this movie: her frowny mouth is oddly sexy and evenly ironic. Like everyone in the film, she says penetratingly serious lines with the bounce of a deadpan bit. It has the effect of portraying desperation without ever deflating the horror: it’s the funniness of people so scared that they need to lighten the mood. She confides in Matthew with the loose confidentiality of a playmate. They love each other in an impossible way, a life-got-in-the-way way. That love is present under everything in the film, and not merely in the jagged escape sequences, of people saving each other from silent houses and brutal close angles of eyes peeking around doorframes to see if someone else is still human. Their love is their last rebellion, in a world that no longer needs it any more than it needs hate. The romance doesn’t happen on-screen, but it is as essential and tragic as any that ever did. This is because Invasion of the Body Snatchers breeds its paranoid suspicions into the audience less in the form of on-screen horrors (though those gestational pods certainly provide some) than in the form of what we don’t see.

Those sedate onlookers in the street could be normal folks and we wouldn’t know the difference. But as our uncertainty mounts, these people seem increasingly covert, like walkie talkies come out as soon as the camera passes them. They seem to know where the camera is, and divert its suspicions as they would our eyes; we start to wonder if there are any real people left. People are rarely changed into invaders on-screen. The transformation occurs behind doors, when people are asleep and the camera is somewhere else (later, we might see one of those garbage trucks go by, and wonder if anyone is inside). The fear of what we can’t see creeps in from every border of the frame. It feels like even a single cut away, a single moment of a character in another room or with someone else, can make them as good as dead to us and worse: as good as normal. It’s not just that we can’t tell the difference between humans and aliens: the difference starts to not even matter.

The fear that some of us have of losing these nice things like our unchallenged unity as a people is unwarranted and Richter knows it: that’s all we’ll have left once we do! The camera continually follows that fear, stretching hallways and streets to leery infinities, throwing long shadows over the ground and around the famous architecture of this city of ideas. Every shot in this film is accounted for, and directed to enhance the spaces that the frame doesn’t reach, the true home of conspiracy in the movies (“What’s a conspiracy?” someone asks. Jack replies, “Everything”). The brilliant sound design inflames the feeling into a physical condition, reducing the score to a heartbeat, then accelerating it with piano runs and omniscient humming (this is Denny Zeitlin’s only score, a man who appropriately transitioned from a jazz pianist to a clinical psychiatrist and composed this film somewhere in between). The alien screams are like train brakes squealing mixed with battle cries and they’re scary in that way that thunder and rain are, and never stop being. When I felt scared in this film, I also felt like the scared part of me was ancient and fragile; the monkey in me was scared in this film. Matthew is not able to kill the pinkish new fetuses of his friends but he brings himself to destroy himself. Director Philip Kaufman, an auteur who has turned this trash into a self-image, makes an exhibition afraid of exhibitionism, a monster that is only as scary as we are, a hero that smashes his own face.

At one point in this movie, an aged Kevin McCarthy, who played the lead in the original film, screams in the street that the world is coming to an end. You wonder if it's a clever nod to the old movie, or if we're pod people being replaced by different pod people. Even meta-details add to the mystique of this movie: every inch of it includes the question of what it means to be human, every nod and joke feels like the last we may ever make.

A remake has a right to fear the loss of its individuality. It comes into the world as a pod person, of a kind, a newly produced version of an old man. It can stay docile and copy the features exactly; it can even wander through the streets, barely remembering what it’s like to remember who you are. It can also rebel: it can defy the likenesses of beauty in its heroes and replace them with high-minded brutes. It can turn its world onto a terrible edge, and make its viewers suspicious of even the most harmless images. Among all the films that amount to jack-in-the-boxes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a pitiless shadow. It is the alter ego of feeling good about humanity, a film that makes you wonder if feeling good is the way humanity will end; it even perversely makes us laugh about it. FDR was wrong. The only thing we have to fear is forgetting what it’s like to be afraid.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Philip Kaufman

W.D. Richter (screenplay)

Jack Finney (characters)

Dr. Matthew Bennell Donald Sutherland
Elizabeth Driscoll Brooke Adams
Dr. David Kibner Leonard Nimoy
Jack Bellicec Jeff Goldblum
Nancy Bellicec Veronica Cartwright
Dr. Geoffrey Howell Art Hindle
Katherine Hendley Lelia Goldoni

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