June 21, 2011

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is a re-imagining of the 1956 cult classic directed by Don Seigel. In the 1950's version, people read into it a social commentary on the communist scare that seemed to be gripping the nation. Ultimately, it was a fear of becoming un-American. Identity was so wrapped up in nationalism that to lose your Americanism might have felt like the ultimate displacement. It was set within the banal landscape of suburban America, where everyone was already a conformist anyway. The aliens, unseen except in the form of seemingly harmless pods with little flowers on them, are making duplicates of the townspeople so that they can take over their world.

Twenty years later, Philip Kaufman retells this weird story (originally conceived by Jack Finney in his novel, The Body Snatchers) in San Francisco, hardly a foe to the non-conformist. The movie uses its racially and ethnically diverse, politically liberal and liberated city as a wonderfully ironic backdrop: besides the fact that it's a crowded city, it's a modern, hip city, and so how can you really tell that people are suddenly acting out of the ordinary? There is no ordinary there.

Brooke Adams plays Elizabeth, a lab analyst for the public health department. Her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) wakes up acting rather different from his usual demeanor, and it starts to freak her out. When she tells her colleague and confidant Matthew (Donald Sutherland), he suggests a consultation with his shrink-friend Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). The movie mocks our increasing reliance on therapy as a panacea for unhappiness and discontentment, and in Body Snatchers, Dr. Kibner is proffered up as some kind of 20th century Messiah. We meet him at a book signing, where he's being inundated with fans/readers in need of counseling. His calm, emotionless persona (which probably served him well as Dr. Spock in the Star Trek movies) is already so much like one of those pod people that you're immediately suspicious of him. He seems to care about finding solutions, and yet he doesn't seem to listen to people. He's condescending, as though he's aware of some supreme joke that his needy patients couldn't possibly get.

Matthew's friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), have their own pod person encounter when something that looks like a duplicate of Jack begins growing in their massage parlor. Jack notes how the features resemble his, but that the thing is unformed, lacking such recognizably human features as fingerprints or respiration. As the pods progress throughout the city, Elizabeth, Matthew, Jack, and Nancy become increasingly alienated in their conviction that something is terribly awry in their world.

There has yet to be a better version of this story. Kaufman injects into it a really kooky atmosphere. The cinematography, by Michael Chapman, is first-rate. He uses lots of off-kilter angles to give the movie a distorted look (this, coupled with the setting of hilly, already distorted looking San Francisco, makes you feel like nothing is very grounded or "sane" to begin with). The music by Denny Zeitlin is at times like something from John Williams, but then he infuses it with pulsating synthesizers that zing at just the right moments, reminding you of the corny period of movie-making from which this movie hails, the 1950s. It was an era obsessed with half-human monsters and apocalyptic alien invasions. The 1970s, up until the tail-end of the decade, was much more interested in lighter space fare. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was about the beauty and mystery and mutual admiration of an alien encounter. And then there was Star Wars, which wasn't really about alien encounters, but certainly took away the anxiety about them that people have so often worked out in movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 joins the ranks of the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the decade, from Klute to The Conversation to All the President's Men. It channels the vibe going through a country that was freaked out and frustrated by the government, politicians, public leaders in general, institutions, crime. I kept thinking about David Fincher's 2007 movie Zodiac, which is about the Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco in the early 70s. Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts the city into an altogether different state of panic, but the fear of losing one's identity is a fear that can be transmuted to serve the needs of any genre, be it science fiction, horror, drama, or documentary. The pod people are soulless drones like George Romero's zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1979), or the brain-dead Barbie doll women in The Stepford Wives (1975). The only difference is that in Body Snatchers, the pod people are masterful survivalists. They're adapting to our world and our human forms. The drones in Dawn of the Dead are just reanimated corpses, and the drones in The Stepford Wives are robots. They're not surviving.

As for the performances, Brooke Adams gives probably her best, most believable one. She has a natural likeability that is so often hampered by the material of the movies she's in, or maybe the directors haven't had the ability to draw it out of her. She shines in this, as does Veronica Cartwright, who's sizzling with energy. Ridley Scott apparently wanted her to put a lid on that in Alien, but in Body Snatchers Kaufman lets her run wild. She's the ultimate eccentric in the land of eccentrics. Almost all of the actors in this movie have done notable work in the genre before or after Body Snatchers, with the possible exception of Donald Sutherland, who carries the film rather well. It was scripted by W.D. Richter.

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