*. Let’s kick things off with a bit of dialogue from 1978. Not from the Philip Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but from the discussion of that film by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews (as their first review show on PBS was called):
Ebert: “Why did they remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers? We’re both movie buffs, I think I’ve seen the original 1956 version two or three times. Sitting there appreciating the film I still didn’t know why it was necessary.”
Siskel: “Well what’s more amazing is that it’s sort of typical of this year. We have so many sequels, part two of this, part two of that, remaking an old movie . . . isn’t it amazing to you as we see these films that here’s this whole colony of filmmakers and they’re bereft of ideas? I don’t understand why it happens.”
*. I’ll repeat, that was 1978. One can only imagine what Gene and Rog would say looking out over today’s landscape, so dominated by sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots. An industry that, at least in so far as the major studios are concerned, is totally bereft of ideas.
*. Or is that a fair conclusion to draw? Since 1978 there were two more Body Snatcher movies to come (with more, I am sure, in the pipeline). But as Kaufman remarked of his version, the original story is sort of like Hamlet, infinitely capable of modern reproductions set in new contexts and having different meanings. And isn’t that what’s going on here?
*. The twenty-first century context is a world in conflict. There are problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, India and Kashmir, and a list of other hotspots that newscasters repeat throughout the film like a chorus of chyrons, albeit with no clear sense of how we’re supposed to feel about any of them (Roger Ebert: “How many references in the same movie can you have to the war in Iraq and not say anything about it?”). As things proceed, the takeover of the pods looks as though it’s going to put an end to all this, ushering in an age of global if not universal peace.
*. This isn’t a good thing because . . . well, because it means we’d no longer be human. The lecture of the Russian diplomat Yorish provides this version of the story with its theme, which is that civilization necessarily involves cruelty and carnage. It’s messy and there’s no cleaning it up.
*. That doesn’t strike me as very nice, or very profound. Nevertheless, the filmmakers (whoever they were, more on this later) thought it so important that they repeat Yorish’s lines at the very end just so we don’t miss the point.
*. The messy messaging doesn’t stop there. The politics are a muddle, as the aliens (they aren’t pod people this time because there are no pods) take over a high-ranking official in the government’s department of health first, who then organizes a mass flu vaccination program, enforced by cops who drive around beating people and hustling them off somewhere. The vaccinations will of course, lead to the spread of the alien virus, in effect making people sick. Wow. It’s an anti-vaxxer, Big Pharma plus Deep State, One World Government takeover fantasy!
*. In short, I’m not sure what the message is here, but it doesn’t feel right. Manohla Dargis thought she understood it well enough to call it “creepy” and “abhorrent,” which sounds pretty apt from where I’m sitting. Though I’d want to note that there’s an uneasiness you can feel in all of the Body Snatcher movies. Only in this one it feels somehow worse.
*. A happy ending, but is it? It’s so ridiculous and pat that I don’t think we’re meant to take it seriously (the infected are cured, with a convenient memory lapse concerning all that happened, with Kidman’s cute son being the golden child immune to their hostile takeover). Plus we get Yorish’s words returning to mock us. Is this what we really wanted? Well, if you’re high-priced D.C. doctors and look like Nicole Kidman or Daniel Craig I would say yes.
*. Not only can you not show any emotion while imitating an alien, you can’t sweat. What? Not even on a really hot day? Come on. Physiologically they’re still human.
*. It’s interesting that right from the start the Body Snatchers story has dealt with broken and imperiled families. In Jack Finney’s novel Miles and Becky are both divorced, but there are no kids involved, which is the same as in the 1956 movie. In the 1978 version it seems clear that Elizabeth is going to be ditching her boring dentist husband pretty soon so she can shack up with her co-worker Matthew, and again there are no children. The subject of dysfunctional families is brought up by Dr. Kibner at one point, but it’s hard to judge how to read him (in part because we can’t be sure if he’s still human). In 1993 the new step-mom is already a replacement before she’s replaced, and now parent-child relationships are the main focus. Which is again the situation here, with Dr. Bennell trying to protect her son from her sinister ex.
*. I bring this up because it’s such an essential part of the mythos and yet I’m not sure what point is being made. The loss of our emotional connections to our nearest and dearest should be what scares us the most, but instead we’re presented with a bunch of people who have already drifted apart.
*. More of this mouth-to-mouth vomiting stuff. I wrote about this in my notes on Annabelle: Creation, which came ten years later. I thought then that it might have got its start in Prince of Darkness or The Hidden (both 1987). You get something kind of similar when Robert Patrick infects Salma Hayek by puking a bug in her ear in The Faculty. It was also used in It Comes by Night and to spread the zombie plague in 28 Days Later. I guess it’s just gross. There’s really no reason why the aliens have to use such a crude form of transmission here, especially in settings like the press conference.
*. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure who the filmmakers were. The movie was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, but the studio was apparently so dissatisfied they demanded additional scenes written by the Wachowskis and shot by James McTeigue, at a cost of some $10 million. I’m not sure what the stuff that was added was, but I think it was mainly meant to juice the action. So maybe the car chase through Baltimore, which I actually thought was pretty good. Having all the people go flying off of the car was neat.
*. There are other things to like. I thought Kidman was good. And the movie isn’t terrible. But it is a mess in more ways than just its message. There are too many car chases, too much action, and not enough slow-developing horror. The cutaways to animation of the virus spreading through Kidman’s bloodstream was silly. The ending is a joke, no matter how ironically you take it.
*. Critics weren’t kind. Let’s face it, they’d had fifty years to sharpen their blades. But the previous three versions had actually been excellent, each in their own way. That this was clearly the worst of the four is in itself no harsh condemnation, but it allowed reviewers to finally vent some spleen. They probably went overboard trashing what is mainly just a mediocre muddle. Alas, you really can’t judge this movie on its own. It takes a seat with distinguished company, and has to suffer the comparison.
You’re next, Alex! They’re coming! For you!
That’s a wrap for body snatcher movies! Off to fresh woods and pastures new.
Don’t forget your copy of Leisure Suit Larry….
I think it’s a shame it ended with a bit of a damp squib. It would be nice if there was one perfect Bodysnatcher movie.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! The concept got better treatment for over fifty years than I think anyone would have predicted. They had to run out of gas though sometime, and they really did here.
Well it’s been good reading about them all at least!