Thirty years after its release, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains not only stylistically but philosophically juicy. Like all of Philip Kaufman’s adaptations—especially his subsequent masterpieces, The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being—it reveals an alert, smart humanism. His contribution to the sci-fi genre is less a remake of Don Siegel’s l956 classic than a new take on the original novel by Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers. (First published in l954 by Collier’s Magazine in a shorter version, the novel appeared in l955 in an expanded edition and then again in l978 as a “revised and updated” work titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) Working with screenwriter W.D. Richter, Kaufman moved the action to San Francisco, making a contemporary metropolis as appropriate a backdrop for “pods” as the quiet countryside. Each character is menaced by an alien takeover, the internal transformation into an emotionless physical double.
Gelatinous spores take root in the city, blossoming into flower pods—a kind of fetus large enough to replicate a sleeping person. The first to suspect something amiss is Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), who works for the Department of Health. Her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), an egotistical, libidinous lout, suddenly becomes an even-less-desirable placid zombie in a suit. She confides in her boss, Matthew (Donald Sutherland), who is evidently attracted to her. Then others complain that their spouses are “not the same,” leading the rational popular psychiatrist David (Leonard Nimoy) to interpret the trend as “unstable relationships.” The only ones we can trust besides Matthew are his flaky friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), whose business is mud baths. Although they are pursued by the emotionless clones, they resist, even after Elizabeth falls asleep and is transformed. But by the end, the new society of replicants has triumphed: when Matthew meets the still-human Nancy in the street, we are stunned to hear him emit the alien scream of denouncement.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is well served by close analysis, beginning with the eerie music and vivid imagery that introduce a poetically askance universe. The rumbling soundtrack—which led Pauline Kael to write that the “roar suggests how God might have started the Creation if only He’d had Dolby”—suggests a hellish birth as we see spores rise. If the air carries them at first, rain takes the spores to the ground. This opening is both elemental—air, water, earth (fire is withheld until the film’s close)—and organic: there is a rhythmic force at work, as in the movement of swings, followed by a plant swinging in the background of Elizabeth’s house, and later a dartboard in Matthew’s office. This sense of a pendulum co-exists with a precarious feeling, appropriate to the fate of human beings who are unaware of the encroaching pods.
The back-and-forth movement of the creaking swing on which a priest sits (Robert Duvall in a cameo of ominous portent) can be related to the doubling and use of reflections in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. After Elizabeth comes home to Geoffrey, it’s their reflections on the window that we see. At the book party for the pop psychiatrist, behind Jack is a distorting mirror, in which both he and Matthew are reflected. (Nancy, who will be the sole survivor at the end, is the only character who is never “doubled.” On the other hand, she is the one who teaches the others how to blend in with their pursuers, namely by mimicking their robotic walk.) Broken glass is crucial, too, from Matthew’s shattered windshield when he emerges from the restaurant, to Geoffrey sweeping up a broken glass (which housed the spore), to Matthew’s entering Elizabeth’s basement by smashing the windows. And, most appropriate to the film, shadows graphically embody the doubling of the characters: for example, the camera follows the silhouette of a man with a hat exiting the mud bath ... but he has not left. When our still-human characters run from the paradoxically placid and rabid mob, the shadows they cast in the dark street suggest a painting of De Chirico.
In this context, cinematographer Michael Chapman’s use of the zoom shot has great narrative significance, because the flattening of space mirrors what is happening to the characters. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is visually expressive throughout, from the phone wire in Elizabeth’s kitchen—which eerily folds in like a worm—to the distorting angles as Matthew dashes from one public phone to another. And when he crushes the pod of a singing man and that of his dog, he creates a mutant, a canine with a human face. The audacious last shot of Matthew’s shout of denunciation consists of the camera entering the darkness of his open mouth (as shocking as the opening and closing shot of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance a few years later).
Kael was right to point out that Chapman has a special feel for night subjects, as in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There, his cinematography created what critic Elliott Stein once termed “neon-realism,” a heightened visual style appropriate to the seamy streets of Manhattan’s Times Square. Here, the camera expresses a city in transformation, an urban and nocturnal limbo between a paradoxically heavenly chaos and a peaceful hell. The soundtrack is equally heightened, packed with sensation and information. When Matthew approaches a Chinese laundry, we hear a distorted chime and drum. The discomfort continues when an unseen vacuum cleaner accompanies Elizabeth crying to him. (Only later does the camera move to reveal a man vacuuming.) In the mud bath, the sound of breathing after the door closes is frightening, as is the percussive double note heard in the background at night in Matthew’s home. It becomes louder with the “birth” image, a pink round “head” emerging from what resembles fecal matter.
Consequently, silence becomes a potent counterpoint, for example when we see our characters’ shadows running past Pier 33: after all the screams, the depleted soundtrack makes us hold our breath. They are then surrounded by the sound of police motorcycles during the cab ride. When they escape from the taxi, dissonant chords are effective, especially when juxtaposed with the song “Amazing Grace,” heard on bagpipes from the loading ship (whose distorted rendition accompanies the end of the film).
When Matthew goes into the belly of the beast, where the pods are created, the heightened breathing on the soundtrack is not only frightening, but again conveys the organic quality of the encroaching menace. At this point, Matthew is still our locus of trust and sympathy. But when he too succumbs to the alien force, there is no one to trust. We certainly realized early on that we had to be wary of both the police and affable psychiatrists. And if we assumed that the most quirky and marginal characters might resist—namely Jack and Nancy—they prove just as vulnerable. “You’ll be born again, into an untroubled world,” says Dr. Kibner, suggesting a truly frightening vision of groups that don’t question their surroundings. (Note Kaufman’s savvy casting of Leonard Nimoy, best known as the trustworthy Spock from television’s Star Trek.”) “He was meant to be the most logical, relaxed, and reasonable of our characters,” Kaufman proposed about Nimoy’s character in an e-mail. “But he obviously went to sleep somewhere along the way and woke up on the pod side of things. The message of all religions: Awake. But the reality is that people are lulled into sleep and ‘poddom’ often by the seemingly most ‘reasonable’ among us. We were thinking of the growing yuppie presence which evolved into the dot-com boom and which dramatically altered San Francisco forever, changing it from that more relaxed Barbary Coast city of bohemians, beatniks, artists, hippies, outcasts, and searchers into a city of strivers.”
This is quite a departure from Finney’s novel, set in bucolic Mill Valley, California, and recounted entirely in the first person by Miles Bennell. A 28-year-old doctor, he first hears about people not behaving like themselves from Becky, to whom he is attracted; but since both are recently divorced, he resists emotional entanglement. His friend Jack Bellicec—a writer far more ordinary than Goldblum’s incarnation—brings Miles to his home to see the “unused” body of a man. Jack’s wife, Theodora, helps him demonstrate that because the body does not yet have fingerprints, it is a blank rather than a corpse. Finney offers the evocative visual analogy of a photograph developing when Miles subsequently sees Becky’s “pod double”: “The image began to reveal itself.” The trusty shrink is Dr. Manfred Kaufman (!), whose explanation of “mass delusion” convinces neither Miles nor Jack. Miles destroys the four pods waiting for them in his basement, and a “grayish substance” is all that remains. While Jack and Theodora try to drive away from the increasingly robotic townspeople, Miles and Becky—now romantically connected—fight the takeover. In a stunning ploy, with the two pods expectant outside the door, Miles substitutes for their own bodies two human skeletons from his medical closet. The pods replicate this matter, allowing Miles and Becky to then fight their four adversaries with hidden syringes of morphine.
As they flee, they find rows of pods growing and manage to burn most of them with gasoline. Amazingly, the pods ascend into the night sky like receding dots, taking leave of the “inhospitable planet.” The book ends with a doctor’s intelligent skepticism, as Miles acknowledges how “the human mind exaggerates and deceives itself” at the same time that he asserts the veracity of his tale. In this happy ending, not only do all four principal characters survive, but Mill Valley revives through new inhabitants. The human beings triumph, banishing the alien substance. Kaufman, on the other hand, makes a darker, cautionary tale in which the heroic impulse is insufficient.
The previous film adaptation is also less optimistic than Finney’s story. Perhaps because it was made in the aftermath of the McCarthy trials, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers invites a more political interpretation than does Finney or Kaufman. Whether one chooses to see the robotic replicants as representing the conformity of Stalinism or of McCarthyism, the film valorizes the individual of conscience. Much like High Noon in 1952, its narrative eliminates “supporting” characters till the hero is left alone against the cowardly crowd. Kevin McCarthy stars as Miles, who will end up the only human survivor of the pods. He manages to keep Becky (Dana Wynter) vital till the penultimate sequence, when she succumbs to sleep for only a moment: in a close-up of their kiss, we see from Miles’ horror the recognition that the woman in his embrace is no longer real. The downbeat ending leaves him yelling on the highway to indifferent ears. However, the studio imposed a prologue and epilogue that make for a happier ending: Miles’ story is believed by a doctor as well as a representative of the government, and the FBI will be called in to presumably handle the situation.
With a wink at the original, the actor makes a cameo appearance in Kaufman’s film: “They’re coming,” he yells about the pods while darting among cars, suggesting that the action of the remake follows that of the original film. Moreover, Don Siegel plays the taxi driver in the last sequence. But the sole survivor here turns out to be Nancy (as opposed to Matthew), a secondary female character rather than the hero. Kaufman ends with a chilling scene that occurs much earlier in the book, namely the expansion of alien power to other cities. If Miles secretly observed the distribution of pods to nearby towns, we see children who have been brought to San Francisco by bus to be transformed. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is ultimately a cry for retaining the idiosyncratic quirks that make us unique, able to feel and express.
His use of the sci-fi genre for a cautionary tale recalls that of François Truffaut: an “Antiques” sign beside a garbage truck taking human remains echoes Fahrenheit 451, whose fire trucks are equally committed to sapping “subversive” life energy. On the one hand, the very notion of body snatching—of taking over someone’s character—can be a suggestive metaphor for remakes. On the other hand, Invasion of the Body Snatchers demonstrates that a remake can be as good as—or superior to—its previous version. (Two other remakes are worth noting, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1993, and a 2007 version entitled The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman.) It exhibits the profoundly humanist impulse that enriches this underrated director’s work from The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid to Quills.
In 2008, the possibility of artificially creating life is less fiction than science, given advances in genetic engineering. But a more intriguing reason for the film's relevance might be the Internet, with its inherent capacity for both duplication and duplicity. Don't we live in a new electronic reality—anchored in a hard drive that allows for endless replication—able to invent "doubles" of ourselves in cyberspace? When computers are virtual extensions of our bodies, don't many of us resemble pods who click, absorb, and delete in our solitary seats? "Maybe people willingly 'create their own doubles,'" Kaufman responded. "Maybe the Internet makes the transformation to poddiness more simple. But for me, the horrors the Internet holds are small potatoes compared to the horrors of face-to-face transformation.…We must fight to preserve our humanity, because it is in danger of slipping away from us while we sleep.”
FURTHER RESEARCHDennis Lim on the "Body Snatcher" films (The New York Times)
Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, is the author of Francois Truffaut, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, and Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. She is currently writing a book on the films of Philip Kaufman.More articles by Annette Insdorf