[23 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Me Decade. It couldn’t have been given a more appropriate nickname. After the seismic shockwave that was the ‘60s, a cultural and social avalanche that saw idealism replace ideology, the citizenry of the ‘70s only wanted an opportunity to shrink back. Instead of continuing the fight to change the world, they decided to look inward, focusing all their now idle energies on self worth, self-help, and some would argue, self delusion.
The next great uncharted territory wasn’t world peace, or civil rights. Instead, introspection became the newest form of rebellion, and in its wake arose a stench of cynicism and personal alienation that’s only grown worse since. And according to screenwriter W. D. Ritcher, such a setting also laid the foundation for a fresh approach to a classic sci-fi effort.
Asked to reinterpret Jack Finney’s seminal novel, The Body Snatchers, for a post-modern audience, director Phillip Kaufman also felt that the Watergate ennui experienced by the still-reeling nation, combined with the new inclination toward personal reflection made an identity-based suspense film all the more timely. While on the studio lot, he stopped by the bungalow of Don Siegel, and the two discussed the element that made his ‘50s version of the property so profound. The old school director’s advice was indeed insightful. He reminded Kaufman that the difference between social commentary and speculative fiction was a matter of allegorical context. If the times are right, and the material pliable enough, great things could be accomplished. That’s why his Invasion of the Body Snatchers still stands as an Ike era epic.
And it’s why Kaufman’s own 1978 update remains equally effective. Working with Ritcher to bring the premise up to date, and casting a collection of new and noted actors (including Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartright, Brooke Adams, and Donald Sutherland), the redux was an astounding statement of communal conformity wrapped in a cloud of touchy feely EST-accented attitudes. Instead of using the premise as a means of addressing government overreaching and political pigeonholing, Kaufman went for a more darkly comic look at myopic post-modernism. All throughout the bonus features found on the new two disc DVD release of this title (from MGM), the director and his scribe explain how they translated the urge to find oneself into a seemingly horrifying proposition: is individuality really all that special, and how far would you go to protect it?
Oddly enough, it’s the same sentiment forwarded by the most recent remake of this material, the August 2007 version starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. But while that film made the alien invasion a blood-based disease that could be cured (as well as dismissing most of the philosophical and ethical concerns), Kaufman takes the challenge to unconventionality seriously. His narrative revolves around a group of close friends; Public Health Inspector Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), his co-worker Elizabeth (Adams), their therapeutic bath owner pals Nancy (Cartwright) and Jack (Goldblum) Bellicec, and pop psychiatrist and self-help guru Dr. David Kibner (Nimoy). One day, Elizabeth senses there is something ‘different’ about her live-in lover Geoffrey. He’s no longer gregarious and good natured, and his long standing obsession with basketball has all but vanished. Instead, he attends odd meetings late at night, and tends to present a pale, emotionless persona.
Hoping for help, she turns to Matthew. The two have a minor in-office thing, with him keeping his distance from a clearly committed Elizabeth. When Dr. Kibner diagnoses Elizabeth of suffering from some “social flu” that seems to be going around, he prescribes a series of sessions and some reality checks. But when the Bellicecs discover a fur covered corpse in their spa, and an odd plant nearby, questions are raised about the “ignore it and it will all go away” approach. In fact, it seems clear that something is happening to the entire population of San Francisco.
Perplexed people, afraid of the icy individuals around them, wake up to a new, ‘normalized’ personality, all fears wiped away, along with most of their personality. The city is becoming a placid police state, with government officials working alongside some cabal to create a race of human duplicates. Thanks to rapidly spreading pods, grown from alien spores, the entire human population is threatened. It will be up to our heroes and heroines to protect each other, while finding a way to thwart the oncoming invasion.
Oft cited as one of the best remakes ever, Kaufman’s purview is unique among ‘70s horror films. Instead of going for the straight scares, he infuses his film with a great deal of satire and slyly placed humor. The opening sequence finds Sutherland targeting a fancy French restaurant, the owner arguing with him over the difference between a caper and a rat turd. Similarly, Goldblum’s unsuccessful poet is like every wimpy wet blanket you’ve ever met. His tirades against Kibner, his patients, his own health seeking clientele, and the alien attacks are classics of rant rage ridiculousness.
Balancing out the irony are the truly terrorized Brooke Adams and Veronica Cartwright. Representing both ends of the typical terror spectrum – too scared to act and too afraid not to – they provide the audience with a pathway into the predicament, allowing us to understand the issues at hand, and the frightening consequences of the alien influx.
Equally intriguing is the downplaying of special effects and standard fright flick gratuity. Even with updated technology and the ability to realize even the most outrageous optical goals, Kaufman decides to stay old school. According to the DVD commentary track, the interstellar prologue, introducing us to the spores that will soon be wrecking havoc on Earth, are nothing more than artist’s gel dropped in water. Similarly, the first time the pods show their sinister potential (poised on leaves throughout the Bay Area), the eerie extension of their tendrils are nothing more than reverse photography and some clever sting work.
Granted, the sequence where Sutherland and crew finally fall asleep, allowing the mature plants to reproduce their likeness, has a full blown animatronic mock-up mannerism, but Kaufman keeps the vast majority of his fear grounded in reality. It’s the sudden change in people and the surrounding social structures that are far more frightening than the hair-like feelers that extend off the corpse copies.
In fact, that’s the chief selling point of this update. The original version centered on small town life, and how you could never be too sure about the person living next to you. They could be a communist (the first film’s official theme) or a creature from another planet. In Kaufman’s world, everyone’s a suspect. No one is immune – not the government (shades of Watergate), the army (Vietnam and Kent State), the artistic community (the overreaching of the ‘60s), or the medical/ psychological community (pushing easy answers via bestselling tomes).
Instead, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers wants to argue that humanity, because of its basic hunger for safeness and stability, will acquiesce to almost anything. When Elizabeth wonders aloud why so many people would simply let this happen without doing something, Bennell bows his head in certain self-realization.
On the other hand, Kaufman also seems to be suggesting that resistance is futile. This is not a happy ending-oriented work, a film focusing on impossible odds only to manage a way out of them 90 minutes later. Unlike other horror genre films of generations past, good does not necessarily win out over evil, nor does biology (the flu in War of the Worlds), nor does eventual scientific superiority (you name the film) provide the last act answer.
Kaufman may argue, as part of the DVD extras, that he was only out to make a fun film with a bunch of like-minded professionals, but there is a real symbolic sadness to the storyline. These are not contented characters – they are people plowing forward, find any excuse for reflection and fulfillment they can. When everything they know – the structures of civilization, the emotion bond between individuals – finally breaks down and dies, they tend to give up. This is not a film about fighting. Instead, it’s the payment for a bill of goods sold as self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s the beauty of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Initially, it’s nothing more than a clever, contemporary take on an ancient alien boogeyman scenario. The players participate in the growing angst until the entire population is pulsating under an extraterrestrial vibe and the narrative announces its various finale facets. But then you contemplate the era of its creation, the notion of how rapidly the culture was shifting into selfishness and the accompanying apprehension that came with such a suspicious nature. Sprinkle in the various in-jokes, the jibes at ineffectual celebrity gurus, civil servants inflated by their own sense of unnecessary importance, and couples who can’t commit but view themselves as parts of a post-free love paradigm, and the film takes on a whole new meaning.
Indeed, Invasion of the Body Snatcher, for all its well-crafted creepshow conceits, is probably the most purposefully obtuse fear film ever. Thankfully, it wears its weirdness like a big ‘boo’ badge of honor.