Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
"You'll never close your eyes again"
When chemist Elizabeth Driscoll confides in her colleague Matthew that her boyfriend seems to have changed, he advises her to visit one of his friends, a psychologist named David Kibner. Kibner believes that Elizabeth doesn’t realise that her relationship is falling apart due to modern society’s stresses. But as more people they know start to become cold and distant towards each other, they discover that something more sinister is at work. Spores from outer space have landed on Earth and are perfectly replicating humans without anyone realising.
The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a landmark classic in its own right, served to portray a contemporary society which feared the breakdown of the cosy small-town American way of life and its traditional conservative values into something more alien (and Russian, as the case was during the early days of the Cold War and fears of Communist usurpation in the West). Twenty-two years later, those fears have now been realised in this remake. America had massively urbanised, had lost the cosy sense of safety that everybody knew everybody else, and society had become distant and cold to each other as a result of individual self-drive and ambition. It wasn’t about what you could do for your country anymore, but what you could do for yourself. People had become so self-absorbed that they failed to notice things from the past that had been the very fabric and essence of early twentieth century life. These changing times are reflected perfectly in this updated version of the story, a rare instance where a remake not only builds upon the themes of the original but surpasses them. Back then, people could recognise change and do something about it – here, society is changing under their very noses, but their new way of life doesn’t allow them to see it until it’s too late.
It’s this sense of being slowly consumed by an unseen enemy and being powerless to stop it that Invasion of the Body Snatchers masterfully conveys. The film isn’t in your face. It isn’t loud. Nor is it really that exciting. It’s grim. It’s bleak. Its unrelenting. The film lures you in, not even with a false sense of security, but an overwhelming claustrophobia and ominous foreboding. There’s an element of resignation from the characters as they’re facing a losing battle and the net begins to tighten around them. You’ll question your own sanity, your own identity and your own mortality many times before this one is over. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an experience like no other film I’ve watched. It’s deeply troubling and unsettling, but at the same time you know full-well you’re in the hands of some amazing craftsmen who are manipulating your every thought. Direction. Script. Cinematography. The score. The cast. It’s almost an impenetrable assault on your subliminal senses from all angles, right from the opening scene up until the infamous final shot.
Cinematographer Michael Chapman deserves so much praise for the way he lights the film or doesn’t light it. There’s lots of shadows, darkness and silhouettes, creating an unsettling film noir intensity which constantly hides or reveals minor details in the background. Director Phillip Kaufman made the decision to shoot a lot of the film from weird angles too, making sure his audience is never settled, always making sure they’re on-the-edge, always looking out for something. Characters are lit in dim blue lights, are seen through the fisheye lens of a door peephole or reflected in warped mirrors. It’s eerie beyond belief to catch glimpses of random people standing on the street staring at the characters from the corner of the frame. In one superb shot, we watch as an emotionless neighbour sweeps up some grey dust and deposits it in a garbage truck. It’s only later on that we realise the dust was actually the remains of his human self. It’s a chilling moment – one of many subtle nuances Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts in front of the audience to build up the big picture. This invasion is widespread and it’s unstoppable and the mastery behind the camera ensures that this is as disconcerting for the audience as it is for the characters.
Despite the strong cast, at no point do you sit and see the actors themselves but rather the characters they’re playing. Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy all manage to create natural, multi-layered characters which is so important for later in the film when people begin succumbing to the pods – these aliens can’t replicate emotions . Sutherland owns the screen whenever he’s around, whilst Goldblum shows early signs of the hyperactive nervous delivery that he became known for. Nimoy, in particular, is a curious choice for the character he plays. Most famous the world over as the stoic and honourable Spock from Star Trek, Nimoy’s turn as the high-profile celebrity psychiatrist gives us a glimpse of a sinister edge he rarely showed on the big screen. The casting choice of one of the most popular and recognisable faces of the 60s gives the film the smart opportunity to really play upon audience expectations: if Spock is powerless to stop the pods, what hope does humanity have? In an amusing cameo, star of the original Kevin McCarthy pops up and shouts his infamous line.
This being the late 70s, special effects have come a long way since the 50s and so the actual sequences of being replicated are a lot more vivid and nightmarish to really draw out audience fears of being silently killed. Two sequences stand out – Goldblum’s encounter inside a spa where a nearly-finished duplicate lies on a slab next to him and the scene where the four humans are sleeping outside, only to realise they’re all slowly being replicated by hidden pods around them, spine-chilling fetuses writhing around on the floor coming to life. A combination of fantastic prosthetics, lots of goo and slime, and some stomach-wrenching sound effects really convey this sort of duplication process like few other films have managed to. As I’ve already mentioned, the resulting pile of dust left behind that was the real person is an utterly terrifying prospect.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers release at the end of the 70s kick-started a wave of 50s films being remade over the next decade: The Thing, The Fly, The Blob and Invaders From Mars all found new life in the 1980s with modernising, some more so than others. I’d argue that all of them were better than their originals by a country mile. Something that can’t be said much nowadays about remakes.
A cutting-edge sci-fi masterpiece of fear and paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers slowly draws you in to its web of suspicion, begins to suffocate you once you’re in too far and will linger long in the mind after viewing. There are few films that are constantly this grim and downbeat and leave such a lasting impression – it’s virtually flawless. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as essential a film I’m ever going to recommend on this site.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Director(s): Phillip Kaufman
Writer(s): W.D. Richter (screenplay by), Jack Finney (based on the novel "The Body Snatchers" by)
Actor(s): Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle
Duration: 115 mins