“The SPOILERS are coming! They’re coming! They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!”
The second cinematic wave of the body snatchers was perfectly timed. In hindsight, we should have seen it coming.
In the wake of Star Wars, it served as a fitting reminder that not all creatures from other planets are as benevolent as Chewbacca or as alien-looking as the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina (#makemartiansevilagain). More importantly though, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers successfully channeled a decade’s worth of political angst and unchecked paranoia into a creature flick. That point, in and of itself, marks the film for special attention: Phil Kaufman and W.D. Richter sent the “trust no one” zeitgeist in one of its most novel and satisfying directions, blazing the way for subsequent reimaginings like John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
The period-accurate paranoia (as much a part of 1978 as our hero’s rugged-yet-reliable facial hair) moves into the realm of the sublime by virtue of the conceptually rich idea at its center, whereby a generalized, nagging fear of surveillance becomes fear of everyone; fear of dissolving relationships becomes fear of a dissolving self; finally, fear of the unknown becomes fear of the familiar.
Invasion uses its central conceit in allegorically playful ways, but this doesn’t undermine the suspense or distract from the story. Much of this feat boils down to the skill of the personnel involved, and the tightrope they have to walk to sell the material. Genre stalwart Richter’s adaptation and Kaufman’s direction are completely in step with one another, creating unease with the first earthbound frames. A priest (Robert Duvall) swings wordlessly in the park as kids pick flowers with their teacher. He seems to stare intently at something off-screen, and viewers can be forgiven for expecting Duvall’s presence to yield something more plot-oriented by, say, reel five. It doesn’t. But try to find a more moodily expressive silent cameo.
(The film is filled with cheeky touches like this. To wit, I’m convinced that’s William S. Burroughs in the background at the book signing. I wasn’t convinced until I saw Howard Brookner’s documentary about the author and noticed the way he tended to purse his lips. But it makes sense, right? If aliens planned to conquer Earth, of course they’d start with Mr. Interzone himself. And, apropos of nothing at all, is that Jerry Garcia’s face on the body of a dog? Why, yes, I believe it is.)
Brooke Adams’ Elizabeth is in a comfortable but slightly distant relationship with Geoffrey (Art Hindle), but when he goes from a sports-loving dentist to an expressionless automaton, she begins to suspect that he might have been altered in some fundamental way. Maybe it has something to do with the strange flower-pod she brought home?
Elizabeth confides in her Department of Health colleague and friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland). The dynamic between these two is an important manifestation of this film’s brilliance. They clearly have chemistry, and Matthew comes across as something of a romantic “also ran” for Elizabeth, which initially puts his actions to protect her in a slightly ambiguous light. Does he really believe that Geoffrey is “changed” and that Elizabeth is in danger? Or does he simply want Elizabeth out of the relationship, to free her up for his pursuit? The actors play off each other in a warm and affectionate way, but Matthew’s willingness to play along with such a bizarre notion speaks either to absolute trust or opportunism.
At any rate, as the heart of the film, both actors are terrific. Adams projects intelligence, and seems appropriately affronted by the speed at which she is relegated to the realm of the “hysterical womans”; everyone around her is so eager to dismiss the claims as fantasy, and consequently her indignation and despair become more pronounced. Likewise, Sutherland is perfect for this kind of material, because his long face and dignity seem above it. He’s refined, intelligent, with a curly red ‘fro and mustache that seem about a week away from getting out of control – a real San Franciscan renaissance man by way of Saint John, New Brunswick.
Even at his most expressive, Sutherland seems to understand the power of underplaying Bennell’s emotions, particularly in the context of such a brazenly “genre” project. This is especially true as our collection of human characters gradually descend into the minority, their situation growing more and more hopeless. When Bennell first tries to notify the police about a pedestrian (Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 original) who’s been struck down, he huffs with Canadian indignation, “They don’t want to hear about the accident.” Later, when Jeff Goldblum desperately asks, “Do you have a gun?” all he can do is shake his head and usher everyone out the back door. Still later, when Adams produces a vial of speed, suggesting they take one to avoid being assimilated in their sleep, he murmurs simply, “Take five.”
It’s only in Bennell’s final, shattered moments that emotions overwhelm him. As the sound of “Amazing Grace” soaring from pipes gives way to radio static, and he sees the pods being loaded onto the ship that might have been his salvation, he seems to realize that there is no escape. But even worse, he can only muster false words of comfort as Elizabeth’s sleeping body dissolves under his embrace, and he lets out a choked, sobbing wail. It’s a completely unselfconscious piece of acting, as if he’s “been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors” that he can’t quite put into words. Moreover, in a disturbing bit of symmetry, the film’s unforgettable final moment seems to suggest that his suffering doesn’t end there – that there is no bottom to humanity’s capacity for grief, horror and, ultimately, betrayal.
As the Bellicecs, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright hit just the right notes of New Age California quirkiness. Jack’s a struggling poet and Nancy runs a mud bathing business. (The sight of humans being “planted” into vats of mud is one of the film’s most potent visual metaphors.) Nursing a renewed grudge against self-help guru and successful author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), Jack commiserates with Nancy at the baths, before lying down for a nap. Suddenly a vaguely featured, human-shaped figure appears beside him on one of the massage tables. It’s tall and lanky, like Jack, and seems to have the same nosebleed that he does. “It’s got hair all over it!” Nancy exclaims in revulsion. (Between this movie and Alien, just how well does Cartwright sell absolute panic and disgust?)
Meanwhile, Matthew breaks into Elizabeth’s home and kidnaps/rescues her upon seeing a similar double in her bedroom. The four then seek the help of Kibner, who exhaustively explains that this is merely another symptom of twentieth century malaise: “People step in and out of relationships because they don’t want the responsibility. That’s why marriages are going to hell. The family unit is shot to hell.” Again, as unsatisfying as this explanation is for the remaining human characters, it has just enough of the ring of truth to it in the context of the Matthew/Elizabeth/Geoffrey situation.
Nimoy’s casting as Kibner is crucial: as a human, his unwavering commitment to reason and logic invariably hearkens back to Spock; but so too does his emotionless pod form. It’s a fascinating example of alluding to an actor’s signature role to draw upon an audience’s expectations in order to wield that power while subverting it. After counseling the group to get some sleep, we’re treated to an eerily askew shot of Kibner returning to his car. Two emotionless men are waiting for him. He murmurs, “The sooner the better,” and they drive away. With this confirmation, it seems certain that the world of the film is beyond repair; there will be no comfort or respite for our cadre of survivors – nor for the viewer – during the remaining half of the film.
At the risk of beating a dead pod, this is simply an impeccable cast. If there’s one thing that unites them, it’s an ability to sell two emotions, in sequence: first, they don’t believe what’s happening; second, they can’t understand why no one will believe them. And those are feelings that most of us can understand. When the operator addresses Matthew as “Mr. Bennell,” he is so incredulous that he says the same thing three times: “I didn’t tell them my name!” By the time Nancy Bellicec starts speculating about spacemen “mating with monkeys millions of years ago to create humans,” the viewer’s eye-rolling mechanism has been disabled; she’s just trying to cope with this horrifying “new normal” the only way she knows how – namely by falling back on things she’s read in Worlds in Collision or Star Maker.
I’ve always found the aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be among the most horrifying and probable manifestations of humankind’s dread of “something out there”; it’s unlikely we’d even be aware of such an invasion until it’s too late; as in the film, it’s quite possible they’d have no malevolent intentions – just a basic biological imperative to survive. It’s also notable that they try to pitch the holdouts on the notion of joining the winning team. “Don’t be trapped by old concepts,” says the podded Dr. Kibner, sounding very much like the crop of disrupt-or-die zealots presently being grown in Silicon Valley, “You’ll be born again into an untroubled world…free of anxiety, fear, hate.”
This indifference to human emotion is the most chilling aspect of all. They don’t hate us; we’re simply a means to an end, and the measured way that Kibner explains this to the human characters has the feeling of a weary parent explaining the need to go to bed at a sensible hour.
“We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt…and we survive. The function of life is survival.”