Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1978

I realised much later that I had missed off an important subset of examples from my post on how to duplicate people. If you are some sort of plant-based alien species drifting on the solar winds you can just use pods to grow duplicates of people while they are sleeping. This is the premise of the 1955 serialised novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney and the more famous 1956 movie directed by Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The 1978 remake of Siegel’s film is somehow both sillier and more serious. Directed by Philip Kaufman who would later direct The Right Stuff, the film is distanced in time from the Cold War Red Scare/Lavender Scare anxieties of the original. It follows a more overtly horror aspect and hence fits in with the exploration of the intersection of horror and science-fiction also exemplified by Alien in the following year. Those two films even share an actor, Veronica Cartwright who played Lambert in Alien and Nancy Bellicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Where the original film is set in a small town, the update shifted to San Francisco and has an overall bleaker feel. Famously, the film ends badly for humanity with a shot that reveals that Donald Sutherland is now a pod-person as he points his finger and makes an ungodly howl at Veronica Cartwright in a image that has since been meme-ified into ubiquity.

Kaufman ups the level of the basic competence of the unfortunate protagonists. The central character of Elizabeth Driscoll (played by Brooke Adams) is a research scientist with an interest in botany who notices the strange plants growing around San Francisco right at the start of the film. Matthew Bennell (played by Donald Sutherland) is a senior person in the Department of Health and well positioned to make the right calls about a public emergency. Dr. David Kibner (an un-Spocked Leonard Nimoy) is a celebrity psychiatrist who when we meet him has already noticed a sudden wave of people with an apparent delusion that their spouses aren’t their spouses — the mayor is also one of his patients and he has his private number. Jack Bellicec as an aspiring poet is less well equipped for an alien invasion (played by a Jeff Goldblum who is so young that it is adorable) but his mud-bath business owning wife Nancy (played by Veronica Cartwright) is literally genre-savvy. She engages in banter with a customer reading Immanuel Velikovsky’s pseudoscientific Worlds in Collision with a recommendation that he read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker* instead.

However, despite the group’s combined qualities to better cope with an invasion of pod-people the film slowly reveals that none of them ever had a chance. While we see events from the protagonist’s eyes (initially Brooke Adams but later more centred on Donald Sutherland) which creates an impression that things have only just started, it quickly becomes clear that in reality the invasion is almost complete by the time that it starts to become obvious. A substantial hint is given that the invasion has already progressed to far by a delightful cameo by Kevin McCarthy who played the lead in the original film and who reprises the character’s wild and panicked warnings from near the end of the original.

Where the film works less well is that alienating paranoia intrinsic to all the versions of Body Snatchers, is here detached from wider themes. I’m not saying that tapping into fears of communism or sexuality makes for better films just that the core quality of the film feels a little under-developed. There is a hint of a feminist aspect, in that we see two women desperately trying to explain to healthcare professionals that there is something very wrong with their husbands and being patronised and talked down to. Leonard Nimoy’s psychiatrist is given a duel role of expounding the need for rational explanations and later (as a pod person) explaining how there is now no need for either love or hate. However, the film doesn’t develop those themes deeply.

There is though something weird and fun about the combination of Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum in the same film. All three have had careers in which they play odd and often cerebral men but in such different circumstances that it is almost dislocating that their careers overlap here. Goldblum is recognisably Goldblum but devoid of some of the more pronounced Goldblum mannerism. There is a point in the film where Veronica Cartwright discovers the only partly formed pod-person duplicate of her husband and it is described as a copy of him but lacking much of the detail and it is an oddly apt description of the Goldblum in the film, like he is the pod-person version of Ian Malcolm. He also is given lines about alien invasions that serve as unintended dramatic irony given his later appearance in Independence Day.

I remember seeing this film on television and it both scaring and horrifying me. While I have seen the original many times, this was only the second time I have seen it. Noticeably, the gory and disturbing visual effects have not aged well. The shocking reveal of the malformed dog-human pod person created from the sleeping busker gave me nightmares (aided by a dread of going to sleep straight after being allowed to stay up late to watch it) — sadly now the man-faced dog is more funny than horrible. However, the unsettling sound track and the creeping sense that nobody can be trusted still unnerves.

The aliens have no agenda beyond existing. They don’t hate humanity and it isn’t clear the extent to which they genuinely feel continuity with their past selves or a simply alien beings pretending to be their human counterpart. The multiple questions about identity and how we might tie it to persistence of memory (which the pod-people have) is not explored but mainly because of the films core premise: everything is already too late by the time the humans start fighting back. We are seeing the final days of a war that humanity believe is just the initial attack.

Well worth rewatching if only for some excellent performances by the five leads. The call backs to the original (including Don Siegel as a taxi-driver) and the science-fiction references all add to the flavour of a film that feels like the director gathered characters together for an ensemble drama about middle-class lives and loves in 1970’s San Francisco but instead threw an alien invasion at them.

Banjo dog-man deserves their own sequel though — the story of an accidental hybrid between a busker and his dog by a confused alien pod, as it wanders through post-alien invasion California.

*[Which I’ve never read and I really should]

13 thoughts on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1978

  1. According to Philip Kaufman on the DVD commentary track, yes they do see themselves as the originals, only improved. Which I think leads to two of the creepiest scenes: where one pod person watches TV, but he’s just as happy with the commercials or the test patterns. And in the final scene, where we see everyone working hard in an office, but when they don’t have an immediate task, they just sit still because they have no urge to take a break, chat, etc.
    The idea that they don’t really care about us is the creepiest part of Finney’s original for me: they aren’t out to conquer Earth or destroy us, it’s just that the pods landed on our planet and this is how they reproduce and spread. Did humanity set out to exterminate the passenger pigeon or wipe out the buffalo herds? Nope. Just the way it turned out. Same here. Nothing personal. No hard feelings, right?
    One difference between this and the original (I wrote a book on political paranoia in movies, Screen Enemies of the American Way, so I rewatched all four of the Bodysnatcher takes) is that the original deals with comfortable middle-class people defending their comfortable lives; here (to paraphrase Pauline Kael) it’s about the right of freaks and oddballs to live the lives they want. King Vidor’s writer in the original is a successful author; Jeff Goldblum has to run a mudbath while struggling to write.
    I agree with you, the F/x have not aged well.
    If you’re watching other versions, Abel Ferrara’s Bodysnatchers is good in its own way, the Nicole Kidman Invasion is godawful. The Faculty riffs on Bodysnatchers and acknowledges it, though they get the details of the story wrong (one of the characters is an SF geek who keeps referencing Bodysnatchers and Puppet Masters, but incorrectly).

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    1. //(I wrote a book on political paranoia in movies, Screen Enemies of the American Way//

      Oh, I wish I’d known that earlier in the year! Somebody was asking me whether I knew of good books on the topic for an essay and I didn’t!

      //Abel Ferrara’s Bodysnatchers is good in its own way//

      I’ve only seen part of it but I might track it down and watch it properly.

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    2. I got to see Kaufman do a Q&A at a screening in San Francisco a few years ago. He’s hilarious, and it sounds like everyone involved was really determined to make something special.

      I agree that the pods’ lack of hostility, or any motivation other than “this is what we do”, is the creepiest aspect of the novel. IIRC it’s spelled out at one point in a slightly different way that adds some existential creepiness to the mundane as well, something like this… Human: “So you spread and multiply, and you use up everything, just so you can move on to the next place and do it all over again… isn’t that pointless? What’s it all for?” Pod: “Well, what’s it all for when *you* do that?” That kind of darkness isn’t really Finney’s style and it’s undermined by his ending where the pods are so intimidated by our uniquely(?) human willpower and gutsiness that they give up and leave, but in that scene it’s pretty chilling.

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      1. I think there’s always been an undertone of dark pessimism in a lot of Finney’s stories, not just this one. In a lot of his time travel stories – even his most cheerful, like “Time and Again” – there’s the underlying theme about the present day being dreadful and the future being inevitably doomed to worse, making escape to the rose-colored superior past to be the only desirable or possible escape.

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      2. Finney is intensely nostalgic for the Golden Age he imagined existed before WW I. Even in the Bodysnatchers novel his protagonist waxes nostalgic at times. And the community that’s under siege from the pod people (as one book on the story puts it) is, in a sense, the kind of idealized tightly knit town that his other protagonists jump back into the past to find. In the original novel, part of Miles’ horror is that the pod people don’t keep up the houses and yards; the happy ending is five years after the invasion, when the pods have died off and the town is returning to normal.

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      3. “there’s the underlying theme about the present day being dreadful and the future being inevitably doomed to worse, making escape to the rose-colored superior past to be the only desirable or possible escape”

        But in TIME AND AGAIN he specifically blames that on World War One and World War Two having ruined everything – not on human life in general being just as pointless as the pods. There’s a difference between historically-focused pessimism and existential despair.

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  2. Maybe I have low standards, but for me the effects hold up just fine. They’re not so much about making things look realistic or gruesome, but just making things look *wrong* and I think they achieve that. The image late in the movie of a main character who you think has escaped suddenly crumbling into debris in another character’s arms, because they’d been sleeping near a pod, is especially strong for me– not only because it feels so unfair, but because by that point you’ve gotten used to the idea that the movie is never going to show you what actually happens to the people, just the aftermath where the duplicates are sweeping up little piles of dust, so there’s kind of a thrill of being finally let in on it except it’s someone you really don’t want this to happen to.

    On the question of whether the pods think they are the original people or are just pretending: I think the film’s point of view is that the pods themselves wouldn’t be able to answer that question, because imitation is literally all they know. When pod-Sutherland goes back to work at the end, he sits at his desk as always and does his newspaper crosswords or whatever, even though there’s no longer any need to fool anyone, because that’s what he likes to do. Once everyone is a pod, he’ll probably continue inspecting restaurants for the San Francisco Department of Public Health (which btw I used to work for, so the sight of that building in this context always creeps me out).

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    1. The crumbling scene is extremely painful to see. And makes more sense than Dana Wynter’s fate in the original, where there’s really no way she could have been replaced by a pod.

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      1. You could take it from that scene in the 1950s film that the pods work by possession rather than physical replacement, but it would make all the duplication imagery seem rather superfluous.

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      2. The duplication is part of the horror, I think. Possession victims can be saved; once you’re duplicated and your real body turns to dust, there’s no-one left to save.

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