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Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

By Robert Bright • May 8th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
United Artists

Original release: December 20th, 1978
Running time: 115 minutes

Director: Philip Kaufman
Writers: W. D. Richter, Jack Finney

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

It’s all a conspiracy.

What is?


This exchange of dialogue happens between Donald Sutherland (Matthew Bennell) and Jeff Goldblum (Jack Bellicec) at a Bohemian soirée about a third of the way into the 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Given they’re as yet unaware of the pod invasion, Bellicec’s comment is meant as a wisecrack, a darkly comic reflection on the neuroses and paranoia of 1970s America, even if we, the audience, recognize in it an unwitting premonitory truth. It’s also neatly sums up what’s changed between the 1956 version of Jack Finney’s novel and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 take on it.

In the 1956 film, the implicit and explicit preoccupations were with ideological conformity, whether Stalinist, McCarthyist or consumerist, but the use of small-town Santa Mira as the location also suggested this threat could be located and contained. By 1978, all such assurances had disintegrated, and now the paranoia and conspiracy fear leaked into every corner of American life. “Conspiracy is now the true faith,” wrote novelist Don DeLillo, and Philip Kaufman’s film is an apt expression of this new, all-permeating, paranoid state of mind.

What caused this change? For one thing, the Sixties. Nowadays, this decade in American history is presented as a series of easily-digestible vignettes; flower power, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the space race and so on, the simplification often designed to efface its reality and significance, short-circuit any rigorous analysis. But the fact remains that the 1960s were the most radical and turbulent period in American history since the 1930s, with a transformative effect on the nation’s psyche and culture that still reverberates half a century on.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

By the time of Kaufman’s film, the American generation that rose up on this tidal wave of change, high on new hopes, new liberties and new drugs, had long since seen these hopes dashed in the face of an entrenched plutocracy typified by the Nixon administration. Prior to Nixon’s instalment in the West Wing, they’d also endured the shock of high-profile political assassinations by ‘lone gunmen’ who seemed not so much alone as the tip of the iceberg, a cabal of corporate interests, intelligence agencies and corrupt politicians inhabiting the murky world below the surface. The sense that things were now going the way of a bad trip found expression in films by Alan J Pakula, Sydney Pollack and Peter Hyams among others, and it’s there in Kaufman’s version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers too.

Setting the action of the film in San Francisco is important. The city was the focal point for the psychedelic explosion and the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, and also the site of its decline and defeat. By the late Seventies, the movement had been stripped of its radical alterity, reduced to mere fashion, a pose, fully incorporated into the globalized media landscape. The reassertion of the forces of conservatism finds symbolic representation in the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, its architecture a combination of the technocratic and the mystical, appearing frequently throughout the film. In fact, it’s more than symbolic – the Transamerica Corporation was helping to finance the production, low-budget though it was, so the film crew used to joke that the people up at ‘pod central’ were probably looking through the windows with telephoto lenses keeping an eye on them.

Another nod to San Francisco’s hippy past and the chilling turn things subsequently appear to have taken, is the fact that the alien pods attract people with their striking, bright-pink flowers. The message seems to be that if you ‘remember to wear a flower in your hair’ these days, you’re Invasion Of The Body Snatchersapt to be replicated and have your remains disposed of in the garbage truck. Incidentally, the garbage truck is another recurring symbol in the film, suggestive of an increasing ecological preoccupation with pollution, ‘acid rain’ (oh, the irony…) and consumer waste.

Like the 1956 version, Kaufman’s film retains a wonderfully noirish quality. Shot on real locations, it maximizes the possibilities of lighting to establish contrast and atmosphere, as well as utilizing many of the same skewed, expressionistic angles that characterize the genre. To generate the increasingly paranoid feel, Kaufman simply took the camera onto the streets in the evening rush hour to film the city’s routines, capturing the strange isolation of the commuter, the loneliness of the crowd. In true conspiratorial fashion, the camera was often hidden in a bag so people weren’t aware they were being filmed. “If the story’s working right, point the camera out there on the street at night and it feels like a haunted city,” says Kaufman, an effect accentuated by the temporal distortion of the editing and a magnificently surreal and forbidding electronic score by Denny Zeitlin.

As with the first film, the psychiatrist becomes a kind of cheerleader for the pod invasion, a watchdog for the transnational interests of this shadowy alien elite. Leonard Nimoy gives a brilliantly judged performance in the role of cult therapist, an Aleister Crowley in Jockish tweeds, whose subtly sinister airs make it difficult to judge whether or not he’s succumbed to Invasion Of The Body Snatcherspodism. He has, of course, and eagerly takes on the role of propagandist. “You’ll be born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety,” he says to Bennell. “No need for hate now. Or love.” Or indeed, the ‘Love generation’ for that matter.

At the conclusion to the 1956 version, the pods were being transported out of the small town of Santa Mira in trucks to other towns in California. Near the close of Kaufman’s film, they are being shipped in vast tankers from San Francisco’s harbour across the globe. Now there’s no escape, a grim fact that’s brought home with shocking force by the film’s famously pessimistic closing twist. Where Kevin McCarthy’s ravings at the end of the 1956 film were from a man who had so far survived assimilation, the same character in Kaufman’s version has no such luck.

Looking back on the film, the director says, “I feel that, in a way, everything that was being talked about in Body Snatchers has come to pass and that we are now living in the world largely controlled by pods.” While it’s safe to assume he isn’t being literal here, does he have a point? Is the world really being largely run by a global elite whose interest is to maintain their pre-eminence at all costs? Or has Kaufman succumbed to the film’s paranoia himself? They’re questions that have haunted Western culture since the WWII, and which continue to fuel many a conspiracy thriller. And how you answer them might just reveal whether they’ve got to you, too…

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Robert Bright

Robert Bright

Robert Bright has been working as a journalist since the early 1990s, and such is his vintage, he remembers seeing Goodfellas at the cinema, a film that remains one of his favourites, and its director Martin Scorsese one of his heroes.

He is interested in film noir – particularly such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Out Of The Past – and American science-fiction B-movies of the 1950s, like Howard Hawks’s The Thing. Other favourites, taken at random, include Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You can follow him on Twitter at @MKUltraBright.

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