Now here’s a film I’ve been wanting to review for some time. I did consider it as a candidate for this year’s Horror Week that’ll be coming in October, but then I was able to get a copy for a great price from Arrow Films and figured I couldn’t really wait much longer. The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a sci-fi horror classic that, when I was a youngster, was one of my favourite works of both genres. Let’s see how it holds up today after having not seen it in its entirety for quite a few years.
If, somehow, you have avoided the eleventy billion versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers over the years, here’s a brief summary. When Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) discovers a strange parasitic form of plant life fused onto another plant she believes it to be a fascinating subject for study, believing it to be a new species. The next day she is concerned by the sudden change in personality of her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindell). She discusses this with her friend at the San Francisco Department of Health, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who believes she is being paranoid. Soon though, similar stories of people appearing to have changed are heard from various people around the city. Gradually it appears that more and more people have been replaced with copies that lack any real overt emotions. By the time Matthew, Elizabeth and their friends realise what is happening most of San Francisco has been replaced with people spawned from plant pods. It falls to the group, which includes author Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), to find any way they can to stop the invasion, although, it may be too late.
The film manages to convey and incredible sense of paranoia, possibly only met in equal by the vaguely similarly themed The Thing a few years later. The main conceit of the films thematic posture is that the pod people are able to fully work their way into society so easily because of how disassociated and apathetic to change people have become. Effectively, every time a character raises a concern others will dismiss their concerns as merely being them looking for excuses for their own troubles. For example, Elizabeth meets with Matthew’s friend Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) who promptly attempts to convince Elizabeth that she’s using this as an excuse to break up with her boyfriend. This comes moments after Kibner has convinced a woman her husband is normal too and he mentions a lot of other patients of his reporting that same concerns of replaced partners. His logic for this being that society is just reached the point where people are desperate to break their bonds with others. A mass generational shift in societal perspective, as it were.
Here’s the fun part though… Is that really Kibner at this point in the film? We really don’t know. Was he the real Kibner and just determined to prove his theories right, or was he a pod person attempting to cover up their invasion? When people discuss Invasion of the Body Snatchers they often mention the pod people being emotionless, to which they largely are. It’s even discovered that by merely acting emotionless you are able to slip amongst them unnoticed. Much like the bit in Shaun of the Dead where the gang pretend to be zombies. But David clearly displays emotion. This is because, as also seen by the sheer rage the pod people display when chasing victims, they do have emotions. They just use them when needed, be it for deceit or determination. They’re less plain emotionless and more not tied to motional connections. In that they don’t socialise for recreation, share jokes or engage in activities for enjoyment. They just work on the goal of propagating the growth of their species. They are a pure machine of propagation and consumption, focused entirely on replacing everyone so they can consume the world’s resources and move on. An allegory for our own gradual exhaustion of resources, just much, much more efficient.
What the film does brilliantly is convey just how much we’re willing to ignore an issue until it is too late. You could try to argue that we don’t do this as a society but there’s currently a hell of a lot of racist police action going on right now that proves that we do. Those of us that do notice and raise concerns are dismissed. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the greatest allegorical tales of human apathy produced for film. It’s that simple. One of the very first scenes features Matthew exposing a restaurant’s hygiene violations, which they vehemently deny, and then respond with anger. It’s the human ignorance cycle. Commit wrongs, deny and lie, when exposed, respond with violence. A film about alien plants replacing the human race conveys one of the great human truths. This is what sci-fi is meant to be. Remember that next time you see another sci-fi film that’s essentially a war film just set in the future.
Production wise the film has a nice natural quality to it’s location and set use. Nothing is immaculate, except for a well waxed floor in the Department of Hygiene’s offices, and the scenery is constantly littered with tiny details. There’s even a few blink and you’ll miss them cameos, one featuring Robert Duvall even. The music, the only film score by Jazz master Danny Zeitlin, is a wondrous pastiche of styles and moods designed to raise tension, increase paranoia and to generally get under your skin. It’s a genuinely great work that constantly accompanies the visuals perfectly. There’s a few cool pieces of effects work, including a couple of gore effects you likely wouldn’t expect from a film that wasn’t banned during the video nasties era. My favourite being a head being smashed in. It’s gloriously gory.
I regard Invasion of the Body Snatchers as being right up there with the incredible works of sci-fi that came out during the 70s. There was a period of greatness that really hasn’t been matched since where every type of science fiction was just being fired on all cylinders. Be it The Andromeda Strain, THX 1138, Alien or Star Wars, there was just a magic to the genre at this time that Invasion fits right in with. It’s entirely down to how seriously director Philip Kaufman has taken the film’s themes and his approach to the production quality over all. If you ever want to witness the shifting face of science fiction other the last 60 years just watch each version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They’re all markedly different and vary in quality wildly. This is easily the best in my opinion. An essential film you should really have as part of your collection.