Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Daniel Mainwaring, from the novel by Jack Finney. Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Winter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones. 80 minutes. ****
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Directed by Philip Kaufman, written by W.D. Richter, from the novel by Jack Finney. Starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright. 115 minutes. ****
Body Snatchers (1993). Directed by Abel Ferrara. Written by Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and Nicholas St. John, based on the novel by Jack Finney. Starring Gabrielle Anwar and Meg Tilly. 87 minutes. **
The Invasion (2007). Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and an uncredited James McTeague; written by Dave Kagjanich and the uncredited Wachowskis, from the novel by Jack Finney. Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jeffrey Wright. 99 minutes. ** 1/2
Okay. This is a dangerous one.
It’s dangerous because three of the four versions of this oft-told tale are cult films to one degree or another, each with partisans eager to declare their favorite the best of the best, some just as eager to declare all the others vile impostors. This isn’t one of those original-remake dynamics like Psycho or The Maltese Falcon or The Wizard Of Oz where one version clearly is far and away the best, or like Casino Royale or Sorcerer / The Wages of Fear where the versions are so different that an intelligent case can be made that they should be viewed as different entities.
Ironically, people get emotional about this one. Impassioned. Downright human.
That said, there’s nothing to be gained from cowardice, so onward we go.
These four films, made over a period of 51 years, all hew close to the basic story beats if not always the exact particulars of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, about an alien life form that comes to Earth and attempts to conquer us by the simple act of subsuming us. It takes on everything we are, our memories, our identities, our places in society, indeed everything but our passion and emotion, and inexorably taking our places until the last few real human beings are forced to flee their erstwhile friends and loved ones in order to hold on to their humanity.
This scenario, reflecting an actual syndrome whose sufferers really do believe that the people around them have been replaced by exact duplicates, is a fine all-purpose metaphor. In the 1956 film, it could be read as either a commentary on the threat of creeping communism, or the stultifying conformity of the era; in the 1978 film, it became a portrait of urban alienation. It can mean anything you want, really, even just what it is on the surface, a booga-booga scare story of being chased around your neighborhood by alien monsters. That’s the special genius of it. The nature of the human animal being what it is, there’s always an Us and there’s always a Them, and this oft-told tale achieves much of its universal resonance from the freedom it gives its audiences to identify just what values to assign to those constants. Maybe, for some of you, the Them coming after you in all versions of this story are Fuller Brush salesmen. There’s really no way of telling.
Two of these films end with the message that humanity doesn’t stand a chance. One offers a dollop of hope inserted by studio fiat. The fourth — ironically, the only one of the four that doesn’t appear to have any fervent defenders — is clever enough to change the question, but flubs the execution.
The 1956 version, most faithful to the original novel, is only 80 minutes long but still the proud possessor of its own slow-burning fuse. It details how physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns home to his small town of Santa Mira after a two-week medical convention — something that gives this viewer pause all by itself — to find a strange form of hysteria becoming epidemic among his patients: the belief that their loved ones are no longer their loved ones. Miles is less than alarmed at first and is just as interested in getting re-acquainted with Becky Driscoll, an old flame who has just returned to town after years in England; both leads are divorcees instantly comfortable with the old partners who they, perhaps, should have been with all along, and their dynamic is an unusual one for a movie made at this particular point in time, when divorced people were most often introduced so they could get back together with the same people they broke up with. It is also remarkable in that their courtship is very clearly and specifically a negotiation over sex — a particular which had been frank before and would become frank again (and how!), but feels unusually adult for a movie of this kind made in this particular era. Had the movie been of another genre, it could have easily continued down that road, on this level. Alas, that consummation is not to be; the evidence of the alien invasion continues to mount, and before very long Miles and Becky are faced with the discovery that the people of their community are being replaced by plant-duplicates, sprouting from pods that have been secreted near them while they slept.
This Invasion Of The Body Snatchers therefore positions its love story as not something to eat up screen time while all its pieces maneuver into place, but as vivid illustration of exactly what’s at stake: the simple, uncomplicated human connection that will be rendered impossible by a world where everybody’s a pod duplicate incapable of human emotion. And it must be said that with minimal violence, it still functions as a nightmare, with scenes like one young mother giving her okay to put a pod near her baby’s crib, so there’ll be no more crying; one pod person politely asking McCarthy if he’d like to watch his own replacement grow; and the inevitable scene where Miles and Becky, the last two human beings alive in Santa Mira, must flee a mob of their neighbors on foot. There’s also the nightmare, common to all four versions, of the protagonists needing to stay awake for days on end, to avoid being taken over. It all leads up to the moment (narratively nonsensical, for reasons we’ll get into), when Miles kisses the dozing Becky and draws back, aware at once that she’s no longer real.
The movie was originally supposed to end with the classic scene of Miles stumbling onto the highway outside town, screaming incoherent warnings about pod people at the traffic. But circumstances mandated the addition of a framing sequence in which Miles is picked up by police and, presumed a crazy man, tells doctors the story they’ll never believe in a million years; and then a coda where the doctors are faced with independent evidence that his story is likely true and get on the phone to demand the FBI. The moment receives both cheers and snorts of derision, and deserves both; cheers because everything that has happened before gives us reason to cling to this slim hope, derision because it really is impossible to believe that the doctor can get anybody to believe him any more than Miles could, or that the FBI could spring into action quickly enough to make a difference. Call it an open ending. Still, it’s a superior film, still one of the best of its kind.
(Incidentally, one of the Doctors hearing the story is Richard Deacon, who a few years later appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show and is credited as a regular cast member in the classic episode “It May Look Like A Walnut,” an extended dream sequence where Rob Petrie dreams that his friends and family are being taken over by aliens who come to Earth in walnuts; a point worth noting because it allows us to say that Deacon technically began what became a little tradition, the actors from various Body Snatchers iterations being affiliated with subsequent versions).
When only the 1956 and 1978 versions existed, fans were evenly split on which was better, a debate that hasn’t changed all that much with the addition of the two versions that followed. I think I must trust dissenters to be kind with me when I admit that I do give the 1978 version, set in a San Francisco, the slight edge. Part of this is due to my natural geeky desire for full explanations; the 1956 version doesn’t really tell us what happens to the original people when the alien duplicates are finished growing, and indeed makes the notorious mistake of having Becky simply change personalities when there don’t seem to be any pods nearby capable of replacing her; this one actually comes out and says that the original people crumble into husks, and indeed makes a big deal about various pod people carrying their old selves out to the garbage. (The difference allows the terrifying moment when this movie’s sleeping Elizabeth Driscoll crumbles in Matthew Bennell’s arms and a naked Elizabeth rises a short distance away, to confront him; and yeah, it still doesn’t quite work that a pod should be in that particular place, but it makes more sense, and I’ll take that as improvement.)
What the 1978 version has over the 1956 original is more jittery energy and, critically, a cast of characters who are all more specific human beings, in some cases downright eccentrics, who unlike some of the supporting characters, have some individuality to lose. Jeff Goldblum’s declaration that he has no friends, the routine of Veronica Cartwright’s mud bath clinic, Donald Sutherland’s food inspector cooking his dinner in a wok, even the odd trick Brooke’s Elizabeth gets to play with her eyes, are all specifically human things, small declarations of the individuality that is about to be destroyed. There’s also Leonard Nimoy’s pop psychologist, brilliantly burying all the paranoia about people being replaced behind a torrent of psychobabble: and though he’s already a pod person and is faking, that, too, is an illustration of what’s about to be lost. Because this movie ends with its hero drifting through a world where people show up at work and say nothing to each other and express no joy, only to wander the streets with no particular direction; with him being confronted by a friend still human, and revealing in horrific fashion that he’s joined the ranks of the pods.
(It also has Kevin McCarthy, two decades older, still running around in traffic warning us that the pods are coming; not the last time in his career he’d get to pay tribute to his old classic.)
The 1993 version, Body Snatchers, is the only version that gives us no hero named Bennell, instead focusing on a family, the Malones. It has its strong advocates, and it is this reviewer’s sad duty to report that he has absolutely no idea why. Oh, sure, it’s not completely devoid of interest. It has a pretty decent re-creation of the prior film’s version of just how the pods take over people, and the really pretty awesome moment when the pod person played by Meg Tilly confronts the surviving members of her family with the logical breakdown of just how trapped they are, and how futile they should view their plans at escape. There are a few good horror moments, as well. But as I’m not the first person to say, it also makes the critical error of setting the action on an army base, where people are regimented and where they do move in organized concert and where it is not at all unusual for authority figures to pull up in their vehicles and order the unaffiliated away from places where they are not supposed to be wandering. It’s the opposite of the 1978 film, set among eccentrics in San Francisco, and it doesn’t work, even if it does have defenders willing to call it the best of the three so far.
The lead is Gabrielle Anwar, here playing an unhappy teen dragged to this location by her environmental-inspector father, and though she’s presentable enough, it’s hard not to ask questions about the early stages of her relationship with a soldier who appears to be in his early twenties. You can tell a movie isn’t working when you have time to ask questions like that.
This version ends with Anwar on the run while the invasion continues to ramp up all around her, and in case you’re keeping count, that leaves us with, arguably, three consecutive films where humanity is pretty much doomed to being taken over the pods. (Okay, two and a half, if you’re willing to believe the efficacy of the FBI in the 1956 version). In the much-maligned 2007 version, which in the most dangerous opinion of this column I must confess I find superior to the cult 1993 film, the alien invasion is pretty much beaten back — but that becomes an occasion to change the subject, an alteration that would in fact be brilliant if it weren’t handled with considerable ham-handedness.
This version gender-switches the leads, presenting us with psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her boyfriend Ben Driscoll (a considerably buffed-down Daniel Craig), as the invasion, brought to Earth by a crashing space shuttle, manifests in and around Washington DC. The action has to do with Carol seeking to retrieve her son, Oliver, from the ex-husband who’s already been infected.
The first of the major changes is that there are no longer any pods, but a microscopic life form that the infected either serve to the uninfected as food or — in a gross display of biological horror — by projectile-vomiting in their faces. (Yes.) It’s hard not to miss the pods, but this particular mechanism does have the attribute of ensuring that Carol, who gets infected at about the one-third mark, cannot escape the infestation by simply running far enough; it’s already in her, and will take her over if she permits herself to fall asleep.
The second change, and one that the film cannot quite make work, is that even as she’s running about among the infected, trying to find and rescue her son – who she knows to be immune and therefore likely doomed as soon as the infected find out — she has allies led by Jeffrey Wright who have off working on a cure; a cure that in the end, in an after-climax so extreme it made people gasp, we are told made everything all right again. Yay!
So, yeah, this is one movie, of the four, where we pretty much definitively win over the pods. Who we’ll now go back to calling that for simplicity’s sake, even though they’re not pods.
The terrific twist that unfortunately gets buried because it’s not stressed enough, either in the course of the film or in the coda that seeks to underline it, is that we might still be screwed. Along the way, we get snatches of news reports revealing various peace treaties being signed, all over the globe, a trend that includes sudden reasonability on the part of North Korea. In the end, back in her house with the lover who doesn’t remember that she once had to shoot him when he was a pod, Carol Bennell watches news reports of renewed international bellicosity as international relations turn to crap again, and is left wondering whether the pod people, who promised a world without war, had the right idea after all.
This is actually a fairly brilliant rejoinder to the original premise, but the movie as made pretty much blows it; it’s lost behind the sudden, “By the way, we found a cure” ending, and a first half hour where Carol is so rational and controlled and icy, as Nicole Kidman is when she’s not playing the more operatic emotions, that she doesn’t come across as that compelling a protagonist. This does improve as the tension mounts and is she is forced to navigate a city stone-faced, biting back her reactions to signs of panic among her fellow uninfected — including a horrific double suicide. For all the movie’s reputation as a total dud it does possess any number of great set-pieces along the way, not the least of which is the bluff she pulls when being trapped in a washroom on a train. Alas, the film also gives us an overblown car chase climax which diffuses the tension instead of building it — this possibly the doing of the second set of writers and director who came on to do tinkering — and this comes immediately before the introduction of the miraculous cure, and the big question that should have been the movie’s very point.
Still, by this viewer’s judgment, it’s about 50% a good movie, and therefore well ahead of the 1993 version. Your mileage may vary.
We leave by noting that the tradition of various Invasion stars making cameo appearances in subsequent versions was honored here by the presence of Veronica Cartwright as one of Dr. Carol Bennell’s patients, among the first to warn us that something terrible is happening; she indeed tells Carol that her husband snapped her dog’s neck, a report that Carol, in either clinical detachment or pod-like lack of emotion, reacts to not at all. (It’s one of the worst moments of a very uneven movie). If this goes on, you can expect an appearance by somebody from this one in the next iteration, which if the usual pace keeps up we’ll be owed by sometime in 2022.
Maybe by then somebody can figure out a way to make it work again. Or we’ll all be pods and won’t care either way.
In The Remake Chronicles, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro examines the stories that movies keep returning to. This column will alternate with A-TC’s regular video recommendations.