In rewatching the 1978 version of “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” after many years (I originally saw it in a double feature with “Coma”), I was presented with one of the best examples of why a critic needs to be able to separate his emotions from his intellect when writing of the quality of a work of art. In watching the film I really could not find much to quibble with the film. It is a great piece of science fiction (expanding and going beyond the 1956 film of the same name), it is a great period piece (perfectly capturing the 1970s Me Generation zeitgeist- especially in the corny self-help shrink played by Leonard Nimoy, in his best non-“Star Trek” role), it has great writing, realistic dialogue and character development- in the screenplay by W.D. Richter, great acting, is a great character drama (irrespective of its science fiction status), it has a terrific soundtrack and score by Denny Zeitlein, and is a truly great exhibition of cinematography by Michael Chapman (“Taxi Driver,” “The Front,” “Raging Bull”), whose use of angles (evocative of “The Third Man”), shadows on walls (evoking films like “M” and “Vampyr”), and hand held camera evokes a myriad of works from John Cassavetes to Fritz Lang to Sven Nykvist to Gordon Willis to Orson Welles, and makes the film one of the most film noir color films ever, purely on a visual plane. There are also crowd scenes of pod people clambering after real humans that evoke both the original “Night Of The Living Dead,” and anticipate the super zombie films of recent vintage, like “28 Days Later.” Yet, in my gut, something was holding me back from declaring it a great film, outside of its genre status. Why? I can only reckon it is that I, like many others, tend to view science fiction as a more childish genre (“2001: A Space Odyssey” excluded), in both literature and cinema. Other than that, there really is no reason, unless I was a slavish devotee to the first film adapted from the novel, “The Body Snatchers,” by Jack Finney. I’m not, so head beats heart and I declare that Philip Kaufman’s version is not only a great science fiction film, but a great film. Period.
The film follows many of the same plot points as the original, save for it is two plus decades later, and set in the big city of San Francisco (ironically a city where artsy types are amongst the most conformist humans of all), rather than a small town. The film follows Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) a San Francisco health inspector who soon finds out, along with his co-worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), that an alien plague of pods has descended, and that people are being replaced by duplicates grown from them. As the pods grow, they replace their victims as they sleep, and suck out their memories and bodily fluids, leaving the original person a dried husk. This film depicts them as space seeds blown from planet to planet, until they use up its resources. The first person, in the film, to be podded is Driscoll’s boyfriend Dr. Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), a dentist. When he seems distant, it leads Driscoll to the pod conspiracy, and into the arms of Bennell, who is secretly in love with her. He suggests she see his friend, David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a famed psychiatrist with best selling self-help books. He tries to persuade them that many people have been having this delusion lately. A bit later, Bennell’s other friend, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), a failed writer but successful artiste, who owns a mud bath with his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a deformed body and ask Bennell to investigate. It is a developing double for Jack. Bennell then goes to Driscoll’s home, breaks in to avoid Howell, and finds her asleep, with a double developing in her garden. It soon becomes clear that not only is Howell a pod, but so is Kibner, who, upon being summed to the Bellicec’s, helps the Jack double escape.
Soon, the Bellicecs, Bennell, and Driscoll, are on the run from a slew of pod people who want to capture and transform them. The Bellicec’s run off, while Driscoll and Bennell hide. Soon, they are captured by Kibner and Bellicec, who has been podded. They are both sedated, as Bennell yells that David (already podded) is ‘killing them.’ Kibner-pod replies that they will evolve in to a higher life form. They escape, and run into Nancy, unaware her husband has been podded. She convinces them they can go unnoticed if they act emotionless. When Driscoll sees a podded human-dog hybrid, from a local street musician, she screams, and she and Bennell run off. Nancy stays calm.
On the run, the two admit their love, and seeing a ship at the docks, he takes off to investigate. Upon returning, he finds the sedative has worked, and Driscoll has fallen asleep and been podded. Her naked doppelganger asks him to join her, as he real body husks into the gray fuzz that no one in the film has seemed to notice. He takes off to a warehouse where he discovers the pods are being grown. He attempts to destroy it, escapes, then hides as his pursuers miss him. In the morning (one or more days later) the viewer sees Bennell at his office, observing the pod people. It is not clear whether he has podded or is faking it (and it is a good choice on the part of Kaufman to let it play out in this manner), like Nancy. Outside, Nancy sees him, and thinks he is still Matthew. As she approaches, he releases the shriek all the pod people do when spotting an unpodded human. Nancy screams in response, and the film ends with the camera focusing in on the blackness of Bennell’s mouth.
Aside from all the other good qualities mentioned, the film makes good use of two cameos. The first is from the star of the 1956 version of the film, Kevin McCarthy, who slams against Bennell’s car, claiming they’re coming, and that they are next, just as he did at the end of the first film. It’s as if he’s been running all those years. He is then chased by pod people until he is hit and killed by a car. A bit later is the second cameo, the original film’s director, Don Siegel, plays a cabby who is taking Driscoll and Bennell to the airport, but, as a pod person, leads them into a road block. They do escape that one. A filmically interesting cameo is given by Lelia Goldoni, from John Cassavetes’ seminal film, Shadows, as a woman at Kibner’s reading, who believes her husband is not who he was (she later is podded). Yet, this is a film that gets one talking about its deeper meaning, as well as specific plot points- the most talked about one being exactly when has Dr. Kibner been podded? Before his first entry into the film, or between the initial scenes at the bookstore and his arrival at the Bellicecs. It’s clear that he is a pod at the Bellicecs, but I think he is human at the bookstore, because he shows emotion, has humor and arrogance, but later he tells the others to get a good night’s sleep, and then we see him in slightly different attire at the Bellicecs’ place of business, suggesting he has slept and been podded. Perhaps the only flaw with the film is that, after all five main characters meet at Bennell’s, and Kibner leaves, we see Kibner conspiring with Howell and another pod person in his car. The film would have had a stronger punch had the viewer only been sure that Kibner was podded when he and pod-Jack capture Bennell and Driscoll at the Health Department. Other than that, though, the film does a masterful job of using symbolism and misdirection with the plot. And this leads back to the acting. Sutherland is superb, and his scenes of friendship with Driscoll are warmer and more real than many straight drama scenes from non-genre films. In fact, the first 20 or so minutes of this film could be the beginning of an excellent adult drama, or a psychodrama about a person who truly was insanely imagining it all. Also well acted are the Bellicec roles. Veronica Cartwight is good in her role as the New Age type (a preview of her work the next year in the original Alien), while Goldblum perfected his schtick as the annoying dilettante in this film. However, my money for best acting goes to Leonard Nimoy, who, with this performance, showed he could both use his Spock character to his advantage, while also going well beyond it (both in actions and symbolism- ala the odd semi-glove he wears on one hand). While Star Trek made him rich and famous, I have to wonder if Nimoy would have been better served had the franchise never made the jump to the big screen. Having seen him, as a child, on the “Mission: Impossible” television series, I wish Nimoy had been offered more charismatic and challenging roles like this, for he excels to the degree that one wonders whether of not the question of when he was podded really matters, at least up to the point that he injects Bennell and Driscoll with the sedative, for, his character was such a narcissistic egomaniac that his dismissal of the conspiracy could as easily have been due to that narcissism or his pod status.
The DVD, from MGM, is a two disk package, although, realistically, all of its features could have been put on one disk. Disk one has the film, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and features an audio commentary by Philip Kaufman. It’s a good, solid recounting of the film, with details and memories about certain scenes. There are a number of dead spots, but overall it’s quite fine. The second disk has a few brief featurettes. Re-Visitors From Outer Space, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Pod runs a quarter hour, and has interviews with screenwriter W.D. Richter, Kaufman, Sutherland, Cartwright, and Chapman, among others; the 5 minute long Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod; The Man Behind The Scream: The Sound Effects Pod, runs 13 minutes; The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod, runs 5 minutes, and the last feature is the original theatrical trailer.
“Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” is a great film, and the fact that it is science fiction is irrelevant. There’s never a moment in the film where the characters follow a Dumbest Possible Action trope: i.e.- they do the one thing that no sane person would, and it leads to their demise; meaning the film’s resolution wholly depends on the stupidity of its characters and viewers. The closest the film comes to this is the last scene, where Nancy thinks Bennell still is Bennell, and exposes herself. But, realistically, given she likely has foregone sleep for days, and is forlorn, this is not really a DPA, and it is a nice twist that the last survivor turns out not to be a lead character, but a secondary one. And that is a strength of this terrific screenplay- people act just as they would normally, given the extraordinary circumstances the film presents. Whereas the original film was a Cold War allegory, this film is an allegory of the loss of self in the modern world, and it succeeds on every possible level. If Francis Ford Coppola gave the public “Apocalypse Now,” Philip Kaufman, in this film, gave the public “Apocalypse Wins,” a year earlier. It is a work that is of its time, ahead of its time, and of all time, a rarity, especially in genre films. Is it a film that many would nominate for greatest film ever? No, and I’d not break that trend. But, great is great, and the irony is that Kaufman succeeded in nailing that when he wasn’t even so consciously trying for it (see “The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being,” and “Henry & June”), an odd echo of how his aliens succeeded where so many other filmic invaders failed. Excelsior!