Philip Kaufman: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) | Mexico poster excerpt
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) | Mexico poster excerpt

Like Peas in a Sci-Fi Pod: The 1978 Remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of sci-fi pod people film Invasion of the Body Snatchers achieves a level of unease above and beyond the novel and the 1956 film.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Philip Kaufman
Kino Lorber
23 November 2021

It’s axiomatic for film audiences to complain that remakes aren’t as good as the original, just as it’s a given that films are never as good as the original novels. Both assumptions are riddled with exceptions and a systematic analysis would probably shut them both down forever.

When Don Siegel‘s 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a certifiable classic of postwar paranoia, was remade in a shiny, sleek, color update in 1978, a funny thing happened. Many startled viewers, especially of younger generations, were forced to admit that it freaked them out. Its reputation has only grown, and it’s now commonly reckoned at least as good as the original, with some viewers liking it better. Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray presents a welcome return to this modern classic in the UHD format.

The story remains basically the same as Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, which is a disturbing meditation on conformity (or the desire to be “happy”) vs. free will (or the desire to be an individual, even one who suffers). The novel’s hero, Dr. Miles Bennell, rapidly discovers that people are replaced by identical but emotionally cold doubles who emerge from pods while the victims sleep. Meanwhile, he begins an affair with the sophisticated Becky Driscoll.

Events escalate swiftly and efficiently, creating tension between the uncannily emotionless program and the hysteria and fear it generates in those who remain unconverted. He and Becky have a confrontation with the calmly logical alien duplicates, who seek to persuade the recidivists that it’s time to get with the program.

To take advantage of the remake, Finney created something of his own remake. He rewrote the 1954 novel as the slightly altered Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), changed the name of the town from the fictional Santa Mira to his real home of Mill Valley, updated references to cars and things, and tossed in a scene of Miles and Becky going to see a film based on Finney’s romantic time-travel classic Time and Again (1970). Alas, such a film doesn’t exist in our time-space continuum, yet.

What Finney didn’t change was his original ending, which none of the four official film versions has ever kept faithfully. Finney wrote a happy ending that many readers regard as anti-climactic because it has almost nothing to do with heroic human agency except that the aliens, in response to human cussedness, make an unfussy analysis of profit and loss. This ending is similar to why the pursuit of fugitives gets shut down in George Lucas‘ THX 1138 (1971).

I like Finney’s ending because it’s almost as humbling as H.G. Wells‘ non-human solution to the Martian invasion in War of the Worlds (1897). At least Finney makes human resistance a factor instead of an irrelevance, although he does it in a manner that foils the pulp reader’s expectation of exciting catharsis.

Famously, Siegel’s film has its own conundrums with the ending. The plot throws in a horrifying twist with the potential to upset the viewer. In order to do so, however, we must overlook the annoying point that it violates all rules about film adaptations that have been carefully set out. That wasn’t all. Siegel played a tug of war with the studio, Allied Artists, who insisted on book-ending the main events with a framing story that seems to save the day. Siegel had to compromise from the starker, more startling, disturbing ending that he wanted.

That sounds like the Hollywood suits interfering with genius in pursuit of a happy ending, but Finney’s ending was also happy. It was just a different happy ending. So it’s still a case of the filmmakers wanting to change the book’s ending, but not an example of diluting a book’s ending in favor of a happy one.

Siegel’s intention, strangely, was the opposite. He wanted to throw away the book’s happy ending and leave jittery viewers looking over their shoulders. He pretty well succeeded despite the studio. He turned “You’re next!” into as “iconic” a phrase (if a phrase can be iconic) as Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist (1982) would make “They’re here.”

Director Philip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter made several decisions to set their remake from Siegel’s film. First, they set the story in the big city of San Francisco instead of the small cozy California town of the original. Critics made note of this, but it’s not such a big change after all. San Francisco is a more or less isolated, even insular city that can seem small-townish, and it’s also got a distinct vibe that encompasses chilly climate and avant-garde social tone that can make it already feel somehow “alien”.

Second, Kaufman doesn’t present an initially “normal” setting that corrupts itself by becoming insidiously normal-er and normal-er, smoothing all human emotional bumps, like the cozy pod folks of 1956. The 1978 version plunges viewers into a vibe or ambiance that’s disorienting and estranged from the get-go, even before the characters notice it. Indeed, we begin off Earth! We never calmly have our bearings before we’re made aware of persistent strangeness.

This effect is achieved by orchestrating the film’s style and detail in an almost avant-garde way reflective of the city. Michael Chapman’s cinematography, with its odd angles and dark restrained palette, Denny Zeitlin’s electronic score mixing harshness and lyricism, and Douglas Stewart’s sometimes arrhythmic editing are assembled to create a sense of oddness and distortion I can best call scintillating. Even if the film never got around to explaining its plot, it would seem a wonderful formal achievement of unease.

The results are almost actor-proof, though the cast is distinctive. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams play the couple whose modern romance is the story’s emotional pivot. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright play their friends who discover the shock of the pods. Leonard Nimoy, irrevocably associated with alien and non-human logic, plays the hip shrink who investigates. Kevin McCarthy, who starred in Siegel’s film, gets a frantic in-joke cameo. Siegel also has a cameo, as does Robert Duvall.

All these participants are a pleasure to watch, but it’s Kaufman’s gift for atmosphere that dominates this film and finds its most perfect realization among his always intelligent, highly constructed, visually textured output. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is downbeat but thrilling. It works as a fable or fairy tale that holds up a mirror to our nervous desires.

Like Siegel’s film and Finney’s novel, Kaufman’s version provokes us to wonder at the extent to which we are already assimilated into conformist society, even the degree to which that’s exactly what we want. We want dearly to be insiders, not the hunted and derided and feared outsider. There’s no point in fearing that to which you belong so conveniently and completely. We want to be welcomed and accepted into a culture that claims us, that consumes us as we consume. No?

It’s pointless to evaluate one classic version as better than another because they offer such different variations on the same basic idea. We get to enjoy them all. Kaufman’s film has been issued on disc more than once. There have been Blu-rays from MGM (2010) and Shout Factory (2016), with the latter retaining MGM’s extras and adding more, and a UK-only edition from Arrow Films (2013).

The big deal about Kino Lorber’s edition, newly restored from a 4K scan of the negative and approved by Kaufman, is that it offers both 4K Ultra-HD and regular Blu-ray discs. It retains all relevant extras from Shout! Factory, including the latter’s two commentary tracks – one from Kaufman (previously on MGM) and one by film writer Steve Haberman.

The Shout! Factory disc threw in a bonus episode from Science Fiction Theatre, based on a Finney story. That’s not here, so completists may wish to hold onto it until somebody puts that show on Blu-ray, please. The Arrow disc also retains some exclusive extras, and Gary Tooze’s technically-oriented review at DVD Beaver contains the intriguing information that Arrow restores a moment of dialogue during Siegel’s cameo.

I don’t have the capacity to play UHD discs, so I can only judge by the Blu-ray that most viewers will end up watching. To my eyes and ears, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as good or better than I’ve ever experienced it. Therefore, this upgrade justifies itself as the Region 1 package currently available to fans.