Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

*. The pods are back, but we’ve moved on as a culture from the cozy white-picket fence community of Santa Mira to the dirty streets of San Francisco. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen San Francisco, which is a pretty city, ever look this grungy. But then we’re following a Health Inspector (Donald Sutherland) around as he finds rat turds in restaurant kitchens. Hell, not just in the kitchen, but in the food! This San Fran is a creepy, run-down place. When do you think Matthew is going to get that windshield fixed? And sure there are kids picking flowers in the park, but what’s up with that weird priest playing on the swings? And Robert Duvall no less! Immediately we’re on our guard. Things can’t be what they seem.
*. So it’s a pretty place, but run-down and full of weirdos. Like this cast. Brooke Adams is the only conventional-looking movie star. The others appear alien even before the spores land. Donald Sutherland’s hair mimics that hanging moss in the opening shots of the park (even director Philip Kaufman thought it a bit much), and his nose (which Kaufman seems to delight in exaggerating) is definitely out of this world. Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully cast and manages to steal every scene he’s in, but as Gene Siskel remarked, if aliens ever landed “Leonard Nimoy would be the last person I’d go to for advice.” Veronica Cartwright is wonderful, and would have more alien trouble just the next year, as well as a small part in The Invasion in 2007, but is she the one you’d expect to have kept her shit together at the end?

*. And Jeff Goldblum. Pauline Kael, who raved about this movie, crushed on him, commenting of his performance that he “knows enough to disregard his handsomeness.” That struck me as odd, but I guess compared to his castmates he seems the least odd, all 6’4″ and 170 pounds of him (he would bulk up to a very buff 185 for The Fly). In 1978 I might not have suspected his subsequent career appearing in many of the biggest box-office hits of the next several decades. His character is such a perfect antiheroic type. The going gets tough and he (1) gets a bloody nose; (2) starts to cry; (3) falls asleep; and (4) is fascinated by the pretty pink flower. Poets get no respect. Though I guess he redeems himself a bit near the end.
*. Yes, Kael loved this movie. She had days, a lot of days, like that. Here’s how her review begins and ends: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more sheer fun than any movie I’ve seen since Carrie and Jaws and maybe parts of The Spy Who Loved Me. . . . it may be the best movie of its kind ever made.”
*. Of what kind would that be? Not thought-provoking social commentary but popcorn thrills like Carrie, Jaws, and James Bond. But is that really the kind of movie this is? I mean, to take the most obvious point, it has that real downer of an ending. They get rid of the upbeat frame story the studio insisted on in 1956 and doubled down with a bitterly ironic twist (albeit giving Matthew a moment of heroism in destroying the grow-op). I love the ending here, even though I’m not sure Kaufman helped things by taking such an iconic shot as Sutherland’s scream and zooming straight into his mouth.

*. It was the ’70s, that great decade of paranoia in American cinema, so we feel right at home when Cartwright starts on about how “It’s a conspiracy, I know it.” And she’s right. But since we’re no longer in the grips of a Red Scare, who or what is the enemy within? The Red Scare hadn’t turned into the Fed Scare yet in America (that would have to wait until 1993’s Body Snatchers, and even more emphatically with 2007’s The Invasion), so what anxiety is being addressed? The counterculture? But surely that spirit of nonconformity and individualism is what the pods are seeking to erase. What are the politics of this movie? Or does it have any?

*. Muddying the waters further is the matter of how we can tell who is and who isn’t “one of them.” Take the question of when Kibner is taken over. The short answer is we don’t know, we’re not told. But when do you think? Was he already one of them at the book signing event? Or is that just the way he is? Cinematographer Michael Chapman remarked in an interview that it’s “hard to tell if someone is a pod or just a ’70s asshole.” So were ’70s assholes the target here? And what kind of assholes? The “cloying sympathetic” (Kaufman) Kibner? On the DVD commentary track Kaufman says that he hasn’t been transformed yet at the book signing (note his one angry outburst after they leave the bookstore), but that Robert Duvall was already a pod priest.
*. Is the point then that we can’t really tell if we’ve lost our humanity, either because we’re not connected well enough anymore to notice or because modern people are less human anyway? There seems to be a connection here, at least in my eyes, to the zombie apocalypse movies that followed. These would ultimately result in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Juan of the Dead, where jokes are made about how you can go outside and walk down the street after the zombie apocalypse and not know if the people you meet are alive or dead. This is another way of thinking about something Kaufman says during the commentary: “I feel like everything that is talked about in Body Snatchers has come to pass, and that we are now living in a world largely controlled by pods.” This is apocalypse in its literal meaning of revelation, not a fantasy but a realistic depiction of the way we live now.

*. Again I wonder what the pod people are up to, what their end game is. To devolve into a lower form of plant life, parked in front of their TVs like Art Hindle, headphones on and listening to music? Plants like music, Cartwright has told us. And why are they still going to work, and keeping their regular hours even after they’ve obviously taken over the city entirely? Are they actually doing anything in the lab, or just instinctively going through the motions, like the zombie mallwalkers in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? I like how Elizabeth’s husband says, in trying to reassure her about being transformed, that “Nothing changes: you can have the same life, the same clothes, the same car.” These things are important! But does that mean he’s still a dentist? And what if Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to the lab?

*. There are some new curves thrown in to the mix that are so good they’d be held over for the next instalments. Two stand out. The first is the alien scream and their pointing fingers. The ultimate j’accuse, signaling banishment from the new in-group, and a nice set-up for the flourish at the end. The other new wrinkle is the way the old human bodies are removed by garbage trucks. Proving once again the old adage that one man’s waste is another man.
*. People who talk about this movie inevitably get drawn into arguments over which of the two Invasions is better. I think they’re both great movies, but I’d have to say I enjoy Siegel’s version more. Not just because it’s less gloomy, but for its snappier pace (Kaufman’s movie is nearly 40 minutes longer). But really they’re two very different movies, reflecting entirely different styles and different Americas. Kaufman references Hamlet in his commentary, talking about how that play has been adapted in different productions reflecting new contexts and ways of interpreting and understanding its characters and story. I think that’s what happened here.
*. In itself, it’s good entertainment. The effects have held up very well. Even the dog with the human head still works. I believe Denny Zeitlin’s score was a one-off, but it’s effective. There are lots of cameos, from Kevin McCarthy to Don Siegel as the cab driver and Kaufman himself as the man waiting outside the phone booth. In some ways it feels like a very freestyle production, with Kaufman letting himself go in a way that you wouldn’t be expecting in a big-budget production today. You might think of it as coming at the end of the burst of maverick American filmmaking of the period. After this, the pod people were going to take over and everything was going to look pretty again.

18 thoughts on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Nice review, there’s so much to say about this film, saw it on tv circa 82, much discussed at school on Monday morning. Ran uncut on tv, which was quite a thing. I think this is better than the original, rises to some big shocks, pervasive atmosphere, and when you’re an adult, a great take on 70’s psychology. That’s the great thing about this idea, you could literally make it every year and relate it to a current news story. Kaufman was no slouch, and that’s a great cast too. And as you say, the freestyle is very 1978, Star Wars knocked this kind of adult film-making on the head…

    1. Alex Good

      There are a lot of ways in which it’s superior to the original. In the end there really hard to compare. It’s true what you say about the idea being so recyclable. Though I wish they’d stopped before the got to The Invasion.

      1. scifimike70

        Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is timeless for having the most cautionary message in the SF cinema. Namely how valuable our human identities are and how important our protection of them will always be.

    1. scifimike70

      Jeff Goldblum may appear more handsome depending on some given roles, considering how handsomely charismatic his acting presence was on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

      1. scifimike70

        I can have standards too when it comes to an actor or actress being facially attractive enough in their own right and clearly being okay with that.

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