Saturday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Sorry it’s been a couple weeks since my last review; last week I was under the weather, and this week, my old job demanded some attention.  To make it up, this weekend will feature a Double Feature, starting right now, and I’ll be back on Thursday to wrap up the September alien invasion . . .

You know how it is: once Hollywood finds an idea that works, it has to work again. And again. And, sometimes, yet again. Such is the tale of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others). It’s as if every 15-20 years, alien powers controlling Hollywood assume that a new generation of movie-goers will file into the theater and watch the same movie with different actors . . .

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally released in 1956, based on Jack Finney’s 1954 book The Body Snatchers (I haven’t read it); there were no enduring stars, but a few “that guy who was in that thing.” Of course, when you have a cult hit but no big stars, the appropriate thing to do is to remake it, which happened in 1978, this time starring Donald Sutherland, with Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum in supporting roles (and 1956 star Kevin McCarthy in a cameo).

Lest the public catch on that you’re repackaging the story too often, the name was shortened to simply Body Snatchers for a 1993 remake; this is the version I haven’t seen, which is not surprising given a box office under $500,000, though apparently the film received generally positive reviews. The most recent incarnation goes the opposite direction of Body Snatchers, and was simply titled The Invasion for a 2007 release featuring big stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Since we’re talking about a film that has been made, then remade three times, the basic plot is the same. There may be some foreshadowing incident during the opening credits that suggests (or flat out shows) how the alien infection reaches earth, but the real start of the action is when reports start coming in that a loved one “just isn’t himself.” Of course, the notion is simply dismissed by those who would have any authority to handle the problem – just acting strange is no reason for alarm, so the invasion continues to grow.

Some intrepid medical/scientific type puts together that this “not being oneself” corresponds to some kind of spore or biological pod – which is NOT OF THIS WORLD! Of course, this notion is nuts, and no one actually believes it. And, the invasion continues to grow.

The intrepid medical/scientific type continues to investigate the invasion. The onset seems to be sleep, so it is critical that the hero (or heroine) investigate without sleep, and that their faithful companion of the opposite gender do the same. They discover that the invasion is about to go world wide (or, in the most recent case – ALREADY IS!!!! BUM BUM BUUUUUMMMMM!!!!!). It all becomes very tense, as sleep deprivation combines with the growing knowledge of alien infiltration combines with the paranoia of wondering whether acquaintances and colleagues have “turned” – and whether they’ll learn that our hero (or heroine) hasn’t.

The original film – and to a large extent, the 1978 remake – is a film that has implications beyond the “mere” alien invasion. Released as the Cold War was heating up, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to read a communist threat into the secret invasion – the threat cannot be seen, and only becomes physically threatening to those who would resist. Even then, the goal is not elimination, but assimilation. The pods replace the people, but the new “pod people” go on living their seemingly normal lives – but without emotion, without individualism. The horror of the situation isn’t aliens coming with destructive technology that can kill in an instant, but will take away the qualities, good and bad, that make us “who we are” – as we assumed was happening in Soviet Russia, or communist China. This was truly a fate worse than death.

The 2007 remake has its own messages. The premise is a little more believable – gone are the pods that mysteriously turn into the corresponding human (then somehow kills that human by draining his life force); a space shuttle crash spreads the alien spores across a wide area, and the spores, once inside the human host, act as a virus and takes over the human host. I suppose the premise makes a little more sense (though, does it really make sense that a virus would have a collective consciousness once it takes over its hosts?), but it seems to take something away from the simple sci-fi horror of the earlier films – “It’s the PODS! We have to destroy the PODS!” – and turns it into some kind of sci-fi/medical drama. Notably, it is the only of the Invasion films I watched that seems to have a definitive, “happy” ending: a few people are found who seem immune to the infection, and a vaccine is quickly developed which stops and reverses the infection. It does take away from that happy ending, though, as the news was filled with peace accords and cease-fires while the alien presence had taken over, and humanity reverts to, well, human nature once the “cure” is found. Of the three I watched, this is the one I would probably skip.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film every sci-fi fan should see. The original is pretty well made, and has the charm of being better than your standard 1950’s B-movie fare, and some pretty decent acting and story telling. But if you’re only going to watch one version, I’d go with the 1978 remake. It’s definitely a product of the 1970’s, but I feel it best captures the darkness and horror of the story, with believable characters and a good blend of plot and action.

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