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Non-Review Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a wonderful science-fiction premise, so it’s really no wonder that the story has been taken to the big and small screens so often. It’s a great example of how a story can strike different notes in different eras, and how something can easily be about one thing in one era, and take on an entirely different meaning in a later one. The 1978 adaptation is a wonderful piece of high-concept science-fiction, which skilfully takes the ideas from the original classic film, and shakes them around just a little bit.

It's a scream!

Perhaps the most notable difference between this version of the tale and the one that came directly before it is the change in scenery. The fifties film was a tale of small-town paranoia, the notion that something could happen in the back-end of nowhere without anybody out really ever noticing. On the other hand, this film explores the impact of the urban sprawl on the sense of community. It’s notable, for example, that spouses grow mistrustful of one another over increased contact with others (“Jeffrey was meeting all sorts of strange people”) – how isolated must urban life be for talking to other people to be a worrying symptom?

While the original film seemed to be constructed as an exploration of the fear of communism, this one cloaks itself in a more modern conundrum. The movie’s central concern seems to be the increase of apathy, and the “everything’s okay” philosophy that is fed continuously to people from media and authority. People worried about their loved ones are assured by those in power, those who run the emergency services, or write self-help books, that they are simply worrying too much – they’re making a big deal about it. Repeatedly, they are assured that they simply need to sleep on it, and everything will be okay.

A swingin' priest...

The concerns going around are dismissed as a “hallucinatory flu.” When a woman questions whether her husband is still the man she married, the psychiatrist questions whether she’s just “really looking for an excuse to get out.” A terrifying realisation in the film comes too late, as one of our lead characters figures out that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top. “They’re all part of it,” she remarks as the operator proves entirely unable to help.

This was an era, after Watergate, when people began to worry about what the government was up to, how much control it held, and how it seemed to know everything. “You don’t have any secrets from the Department of Health,” our lead character remarks near the start of the film (before any pod people have started to show up), a line with some disturbingly fascist undertones – if the Department of Health is that all-knowing, what about some of the more serious departments? It’s no coincidence, for example, that the film gets such mileage out of Amazing Grace, including a darkly distorted version over the final scene. We’re told that the alien spores “thrive on devastated ground”, and it’s hard to think of any more devastated ground than post-Watergate America.

Phone home?

The film is clearly very reverent to the original. There are nice touches, like a cameo from Kevin McCarthy reprising the iconic ending of the original scene, but there are other moments that seem just a bit too much. I’m not sure I needed director Don Siegel as a taxi driver, but I’m certainly not complaining.

The cast is great. I have a soft spot for Donald Sutherland, and he’s very entertaining here. It’s also nice to see Leonard Nimoy get a nice role, one which effortlessly plays off the actor’s beloved Spock persona. There’s also two nice roles for Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum as a young couple. I think a large part of the movie’s success is down to the talent involved.

A nice, clean invasion...

There is one slightly disappointing aspect – the ending. I’m not necessarily talking about that final scene, eve though it has been somewhat dampened for me through years of exposure to internet memes (and, let’s face it, similar twist endings), more just the sense that the sequence that preceded it didn’t really need to be there (the sequence involving the murder of a bunch of plants which… well, might seem a bit pointless in context). On the other hand, there are some genuinely creepy moments there, like the scene of the kids being herded into school for “nap time.”

The movie is actually quite frightening. Not necessarily in a “jump in your seat” sort of way, but more in a “food for thought” kinda approach. After all, surely there’s something terrifying about the idea of being duplicated and replaced while you’re asleep? It’s hard to think of a more menacing threat than the rather self-evident observation made some of the pod people about our lead, “He has to sleep some time.” That’s something which is horrifying because it’s something we can’t stop or control – it’s something that gets us when we’re at our most vulnerable, when we’re completely helpless.

A driving curiosity...

Even though we know where it’s going (the clue is in the title), the film builds suspense really, really well. Whether it’s shots of people watching from the background, or people clearly running from something, there’s a genuine sense that things are brewing and building up that our characters aren’t really noticing (because of the isolation of urban living, playing into the movie’s themes). I like the really random Robert Duvall cameo, which seems to exist only to remind the audience to keep their eyes on things that aren’t necessarily in the foreground.

It’s hard to blame the characters for failing to notice the signs until it’s too late. After all, living in a big city long enough is likely to numb you to quite a lot of things. It’s hard not to get the sense that Edgar Wright wasn’t explicitly parodying this through the first half of Shaun of the Dead, with his lead completely oblivious to the increasingly ominous signs of doom in the background.

There’s a reason that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either of the two iconic versions) is regarded as a science-fiction staple. It’s a wonderful allegorical exploration of the nature American society – and one which demonstrates that myths and stories can be continually reinvented with new relevance for each generation.

3 Responses

  1. Always loved this version of this film – it leaves just enough to the imagination to be genuinely creepy. Have avoided recent remakes for this very reason – for me, modern special effects have a way of deadening the imagination (remake of “The Haunting” with Liam Neeson an example)

    Excellent and insightful review

    • Thanks. I actually really like the movie’s special effects. There’s something to be said for stylised practical effects over CGI, I think.

  2. Spock-pod-thing reacts in surprise and utter fear when shut into a freezer, though . . .

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