Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)



The late great movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “the American movie of the year – a new classic…the best movie of its kind ever made.”

Even at this late date, I can find no reason to quibble with that assessment.

In particular, Invasion of the Body Snatchers craftily updates the 1950s context of the original Jack Finney novel, as well as the Don Siegel film adaptation.  It does so in order to deliberately comment on the contentious 1970s: the decade of “The Me Generation” and the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up. 

Accordingly, the film’s conclusion seems to be that human life in the decade of “self-realization” seems to hamper, not encourage, real connection between people, while an overt, even paranoid lack of trust in society’s institutions and hierarchies makes that disconnect exponentially worse. 

In the absence of real connection and real love, a seed grows, and terror blossoms.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers thus concerns, as film scholar Michael Dempsey noted in Film Quarterly (February 1979, page 120), “the manifold pressures which life brings upon people to abandon that ambiguous blessing, humanity.”



In San Francisco, lab tech Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) grows increasingly convinced that her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is not himself.  When she brings her worries to her boss, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), he recommends she see his friend, pop psychologist and relationship guru, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).  Kibner promptly reports that he has seen six similar cases in just one week, and suspects that the cause is the fast-moving 1970s life-style, in which people move in and out of relationships too fast, without really getting to know each other.

But as Matthew, Elizabeth, and their fiends Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) and Jack (Jeff Goldblum) soon discover, the problem in San Francisco is much graver than that.  Alien plants from a dying solar system have arrived on Earth and are rapidly producing emotionless doppelgangers of the human race.  They desire a world of peace, with no hate…but also no love. 

Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy and Jack attempt to escape San Francisco, but the conspiracy has grown too big, and the human race stands on the brink…


The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Philip Kaufman primarily concerns shape and form, and the myriad ways that human beings misperceive shape and form, and thus make unwarranted assumptions that fit pre-conceived notions about those qualities. The film itself depicts an invasion of alien “pod people” -- essentially sentient plants -- who secretly  replace human beings (while they sleep…) in a vast 1970s liberal metropolis, San Francisco. 

But unlike its 1950s predecessor, which was either an indictment of communism or an indictment of McCarthyism depending on your personal Rorschach, the remake plays meaningfully against the unmistakable backdrop of an increasing divorce rate in the United States and the ascent of the so-called “Me Generation.” 

Or, as the psychiatrist in the film, Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) trenchantly notes: “people are moving in and out of relationships too quickly,” and therefore never really getting to know people they presumably love. Accordingly, when individuals make discoveries about their intended loves ones that they don’t like, it is easier to disassociate from them, to blame the “other” for being “different” and then just move on.

But if you are so focused on self and can’t get to really know other people, how can you tell if they are even human at all?  They may look and act human -- their shape and form could be human -- but they could be…pods.

In terms of background context, the Me Generation famously consists of Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964, generally-speaking) who, because of rising disposable income in the 1970s and perhaps as a direct response to the ethos of the World War II generation, began to place a new importance on “the self” over the well-being, necessarily, of the community.

In fact, the 1970s was determinedly the decade of the “self,” a fact reflected in the hedonism of disco music, and the blazing ascent in popularity of the “self-help” book genre.  Popular buzz-words of the day included “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment,” yet as the movement of “self” grew, many people saw the new age as merely one of “self-involvement.  The consumption-oriented life-style of immediate gratification soon gave rise to President Carter’s notorious 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which warned against judging success on material wealth rather than intrinsic human qualities of character and morality.  Meanwhile, we kept building more shopping malls, and imagined worlds futuristic (Logan’s Run) and apocalyptic (Dawn of the Dead) set at them.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays meaningfully with the idea of form and shape in its visuals by depicting a world where “disconnected” people can’t distinguish between genuine humanity and invading, emotionless aliens.  This tension between form and reality occurs almost immediately in the film when a health inspector -- the film’s protagonist, Bennell (Sutherland) -- starts a fight in a restaurant kitchen, arguing over whether a small black object is actually a caper or a rat turd.  This debate is actually a metaphor for the entire film.

The only way to know for sure about the caper/rat turd is to eat it…and by then it’s too late, isn’t it?  By then, what you fear is actually inside you, doing you harm…

Forecasting its bleak, terrifying, and legitimately unforgettable finale, Kaufman’s camera proves deeply ambivalent even about Bennell -- the hero -- and his “true” human nature.   For example, when Bennell first appears in the film, he is seen through the restaurant’s door, through a peep-hole, and the audience gazes at him through the filter of what seems like a fish-eye.  Bennell appears distorted and strange, and not fully human. 

Later, at a book party for Dr. Kibner, we see a distorted visual representation of Bennell again.  As he talks on the telephone to the police, he stands before what seems to be a funhouse mirror, and it corrupts his features once more. 

And when Bennell goes to rescue Elizabeth from her boyfriend’s house, he is deliberately lit from below, a visual selection which casts shadows upon his features and makes him look diabolical or sinister.

All these visualizations of the good guy prove a point in Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  You can’t trust appearances.

That lesson is learned the hard way by Veronica Cartwright’s character, Nancy, in the film’s last moment.




To approach this facet of Invasion of the Body Snatchers another way, the aliens are creatures who do understand, mimic and manipulate form and shape to their advantage.  Late in the film, a pod merges the body of a dog with the head of a homeless man because the host’s genetic materials were damaged during the duplication process.  What emerges is nothing less than an abomination (and one my earliest movie-going experiences with a jump scare, at that).  But that’s okay to the aliens because they don’t possess emotions. They don’t know fear, disgust or horror.


The protagonists further misunderstand the pods because of their “familiar”-seeming forms.  First, the pods are accepted as harmless plants and brought into human homes, where they commence the invasion. Secondly, these plants are not considered a viable “host” for aliens, as Nancy observantly points out.   Why do we expect UFOS to be metal ships?

And thirdly, the heroes operate on incorrect assumptions about plants, and those assumptions prove deadly.  Even though Nancy notes that plants do respond to music, Bennell leaves Elizabeth for a time because he hears music playing nearby, on a boat.  The song he hears is “Amazing Grace,” one of the most moving compositions ever written, and he assumes it must be sign or symbol of emotional, feeling mankind. 

On the contrary, however, the tune emanates from a cargo ship transporting pods.  There is no hope here, no “grace” to speak of.  The pods, though emotionless, listen to music as well, though it is doubtful they would ever compose new music.

Again, we believe that music is unique to us, but this scene proves that it isn’t, and that mistake costs Bennell the love of his life.  He should know better. When he breaks into Geoffrey's house, the pod Geoffrey is also listening to music.


Over and over, Kaufman’s film attempts to trick us or mislead with its visuals, making the case that in this day and age, we can’t really know anyone else.  Sometimes, the director throws the audience a bone and offers up a visual composition that makes the point we need to learn, or provides an important clue, even before the dialogue tells us.  In one scene set at Matthew’s apartment, for instance, a tower bisects the frame vertically, separating Matthew and Kibner on opposite sides of rectangle, a visual representation of the fact that they aren’t working towards a common end.  We get verbal verification of that fact in the very next scene, but the visuals tell us first, and that’s a remarkable and deft achievement.


The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also plays deliberately with the lack of confidence Americans felt in their government following the Watergate Scandal.  President Nixon authorized criminal activities from the Oval Office and resigned from office in disgrace, and then his successor, President Ford immediately pardoned him.  Citizens, to a certain extent, were left out of the loop, and Nixon didn’t seem to pay much for betraying the public trust.  So there was a sense that government, and government bureaucracy was not working for the good of the people, but rather to corrupt ends.  Government (Ford) took care of its own (Nixon).  I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, and I believe Ford did what was necessary to begin the healing process in America.  But others felt differently, and throughout this movie, the paranoia of Watergate proves quite pronounced as shadowy figures rendezvous and talk in hushed tones about plots and strategies.  

At one point, the specter of Watergate is directly referenced, when Matthew realizes that he and all his friends are being watched, and their phones are being tapped.  A telephone operator calls him by name before he gives it. This is, perhaps, the most chilling moment in the movie.

To Philip Kaufman’s credit, he orchestrates the conspiracy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers right under our (unaware) noses, much as President Nixon managed to do for a time.  If Watergate had its “plumbers,” then Invasion has its “garbage men.”  Throughout the film, unobserved and unremarked upon, garbage trucks enter the frame and cart off this weird organic-looking soot or fluff. 

The conspiracy's garbage men are here.

Notice the dumpster behind Leonard Nimoy.

Could that body have disappeared into the garbage truck sitting outside the window?

We don’t learn until the end of the film that this grotesque material is all that remains of the human body after the duplication process.  But at four or five different junctures in the film -- starting in the first shots after the opening credits finish – anonymous-looking garbage trucks, garbage men and dumpsters are captured in the frame, along with this mystery substance.  Only in the film’s final moments does the full breadth of the conspiracy -- and its duration -- become plain.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers also makes literal that old proverb “you can’t fight City Hall.” Here Matthew realizes that the invaders (garbage men and aliens) “control the whole city,” just as we learned they ran the country in Watergate.

Between extreme paranoia about the motives of trusted officials, and the lack of connection between citizens in a permissive utopia of “self,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers fosters deep uneasiness about how easily our natures might be mimicked or mocked.  The final scene, which sees Bennell revealed as a “pod person,” is the ultimate exclamation point on that theme.  He does everything that he did before he was an alien, and so we hope, like Nancy, that he could be “hiding” around the other aliens.  But instead we’ve missed the truth again.  We have mistaken form for substance.  He’s been “born again” into an untroubled world that has no need of hate, and no need of love, either.

Tellingly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proposes that the alien duplication occurs while the original human sleeps.  Sleep is a universal must and biological need among human beings, so the process is both inescapable and inevitable.  Furthermore, how often have we heard from friends and family that that they “just woke up one day” and felt different about someone important in their lives. This Invasion of the Body Snatchers lives in paranoid suspicion of such a revelation.

7 comments:

  1. The differences between the '50s original and the '70s remake are quite interesting. Watching the two back to back I noticed that the original made fearful of the "otherness" of those around you. That your friends and neighbors could be enemies and there is no way to prove it. You could say its about McCarthyism or Communism, or maybe just a hold over from war times were anyone who was remotely different was suspect.

    The '70s film cleverly reverses the process focusing on isolationism. Its no longer "Everyone is different" so much as "you do not fit in."

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  2. Now this is how you do a proper remake/sequel. This movie rules!

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  3. The Caper:Rat Turd::Human:Pod Person comparison is blinding once you point it out, yet how many times have I seen this film and not caught that significance!

    It would be most interesting to read your comparative analyses of Abel Ferrara's "Body Snatchers" (which I think is fascinating and underrated) and Oliver Hirschbiegel's "The Invasion," which had potential but was of course badly mangled in re-editing - one would like to see the director's cut. Even without the interference, however, Hirschbiegel's project may have been compromised by its M.O. of turning what had been a group-centered story into a Nicole Kidman star vehicle.

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  4. John,

    Long time reader (of the blog and your books), first time commenter. Great review as always. I'm a fan of three of the film iterations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993).

    Wanted to let you know there is a great director's commentary by Phillip Kaufman on the DVD version of IOTBS 1978. Sadly it's not on the Blu-ray. He talks about some of the themes you mention, plus he relays detailed behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film. He speaks non-stop. One of the best DVD commentaries I have listened to.

    I was not a big fan of 2007's The Invasion, the most recent official take on IOTBS. I wish they would get a director like Matt Reeves (Let Me In), or Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist, The Call) to update the story for our times. Maybe the aliens could duplicate us by using our technology to map our bodies, so anyone who uses a computer or cell phone or eReader is in danger. It would be cool to see our heroes help the very young and very old, ones who may not use as much tech as others.

    I feel a new film can comment on the cult of Apple (the tech company), satire the liberal vs. conservative war, and question if technology, while helping people "connect" with lots of other people, is making us lose empathy for others, and our humanity, because of the lack of person-to-person interaction.

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  5. SteveW2:49 PM

    Great analysis of an extremely rich film. As Patrick notes, you point out things I haven't noticed before, despite having seen the film a half-dozen times. This is one of the very few remakes that really expand upon and update the original thematically--the original is a classic, this remake a new classic. You don't mention how funny the film is--not in a jokey way of course, but there is a satirical edge to a lot of the dialogue and camerawork (stuff like that fish-eye lens you mentioned, and Jeff Goldblum's perpetually aggrieved character, and the deadpan proselytizing of the pods for their higher consciousness, and random weirdness like Robert Duvall as a priest on a playground swing). That kind of off-kilter, subtle humor--which doesn't undermine the thrills but rather enhances them--is much harder to pull off than people give credit for. Great script by W.D. Richter, brilliantly realized by Kaufman.

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  6. My absolute favorite amusing bit is when the mud bath customer tells Veronica Cartwright that Immanuel Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision" is "must reading" and she counters with Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker." Not only is that the kind of wonderful cultural specificity that we don't often get in Hollywood movies, but it tells us an enormous amount about Cartwright's character - she must be quite well-read in speculative fiction to be up on Stapledon, who has never been at a Tolkien or C.S. Lewis level of popularity, and that level of knowledgeability dovetails perfectly with her shrewd comment, "Well, why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?"

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  7. Classic American horror films from the 1950's have been well represented by remakes by such directors as Kaufman, Carpenter, & Cronenberg. Not quite the same with remakes from 70's & 80's, save for 'Evil Dead.
    The dog-human hybrid disturbed me when I first saw this film at the drive-in when i was 9 or 10 years old. You always try to juxtapose, and place yourself in a characters shoes and often people think they would do the opposite. But a human head on a dog's body would have any combat hardened soldier running in the opposite direction in disgust. Great, great film!

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