Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

4 April, 2010 (00:05) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

In the Seventies the Commie threat more or less universally is spoken of within quotation marks, and at any rate has undergone too many mutations to have much relevance for pop mythmakers. A smear campaign in contemporary Hollywood (unlike that of HUAC, name-naming days) would more likely be predicated on the revelation that you’d failed to give your bed partner multiple orgasms. Accordingly, Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers posits a new way for people to lose their souls: through the pursuit of Me-Generation fetishism. The best parts of his movie—better even than the many smashingly good scares the picture delivers—have to do with a very witty detailing of how gratification seekers in the supertrendy city of San Francisco (as opposed to the brilliantly banal Santa Mira of Siegel’s film) keep bouncing off one another’s lives like misspent spermatozoa while pursuing insular notions of contentment. Indeed, some of those un-special effects at the beginning of the film make the heavenly body of Earth look like an egg awaiting fertilization by the gloppy life form from Planet X. Kaufman works hard to extend this line of imagistic innuendo. The fungoid fluorescence of the light in a chic restaurant kitchen that health inspector Donald Sutherland examines (he finds rat turds where the manager sees only capers) seems a facile way of making the world and everybody else in it look monstrous; after Sutherland has cited the establishment and climbed back into his compact car, the star-shattered windshield he discovers (surely but not indictably the doing of one of the sullen kitchen staffers lurking nearby) practically screams its availability as an ambiguity-lending symbol: is the altered-looking world we and Sutherland look at through this frame really changed, or simply the same neutral environment viewed by a distorted sensibility? Kaufman’s games with reflections and refractions are often ingenious, but there’s too much straining for them; by contrast, Siegel and his cinematographer, Ellsworth Fredericks, could get the most disturbing suggestiveness into the black-and-white blankness of functional daylight shooting, the eerie halation of normal sunlit scenes glimpsed from plain interiors, the tentative otherworldliness of safety-assuring streetlights fogging up the corners of the screen.

But about the time these comparisons killingly suggest themselves, Kaufman (now an entrenched San Franciscan) and W.D. Richter’s exact sense of behavior saves the day. Case in point: Brooke Adams, Dana Wynter’s counterpart in the new film, is not a freshly divorced childhood sweetheart of hero Sutherland but his fondly regarded coworker who’s living with, but not married to, a jocky dentist (Art Hindle) who spends his evenings bracketed between headphones and zeroed in on some televised sports spectacle; Kevin McCarthy’s having to carry Dana Wynter out of cellar-haunting ogre-father’s house in the middle of the night was not without quirky psychological overtones, but Sutherland’s campaign to entice Adams away from Hindle even before the official question of podhood arises (for him, not the wised-up audience) affords a glossary of variations on the themes of love and trust and jealousy in the Permissive Society. In the King Donovan role of the unsuccessful writer friend (whose career was played on in the original mainly through the intriguing book-cover blowups in the dim background of his rec room), Jeff Goldblum creates a zany, maddening, touching portrait of a just-not-gifted-enough narcissist compensating for neglect. And in the Larry Gates psychiatrist part, Leonard Nimoy is so smoothly successful at laying down pop-psychiatric placebos, it’s a severe letdown when the film finally answers the is-he-one-of-them-or-not? question explicitly. (A wonderful line: the police detective answering a pod-scare call recognizes the celebrity psych—he’s a surefire bestselling author, which rankles Goldblum horribly—and pumps his hand, saying, “My wife’s read all your books—they’ve changed her life!”)

So legitimately ambiguous are the motives and movements of all the key characters that Kaufman’s film doesn’t manage to convince us, as even the rather bland lovers in Siegel’s did, that the love of one person for another is worth staying human to hold on to. But if the new Invasion of the Body Snatchers lacks the positive anger of Siegel’s, it makes frighteningly clear how hostile the world can look to a disturbed soul who just wants to reach out a hand and say, “Hey, I’m human and I’m scared.” It is in this connection that the final scene—entirely original with this version, and a twist I wouldn’t give away on promise of immunity—qualifies as one of the few certified nightmare-givers in recent film, for all the multifarious atrocities we’ve become habituated to. That the ending works so powerfully well depends a lot on a carefully varied point-of-view ploy Kaufman works from the moment a familiar, but teasingly unidentified and just-not-clearly-seen, extra observes Brooke Adams pausing to pick an interesting flower…. You’d better watch Philip Kaufman’s movie carefully—because it’s watching us.

RTJ

© 1979 Richard T. Jameson

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Direction: Philip Kaufman. Screenplay: W.D. Richter, after the novel by Jack Finney (and the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Donald Siegel and adapted for the screen by Daniel Mainwaring). Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Production design: Charles Rosen. Special makeup effects: Tom Burman, Edouard Henriques. Special sound effects: Ben Burtt. Music: Denny Zeitlin. Production: Robert H. Solo.
The players: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle, Garry Goodrow, Lelia Goldoni, Tom Luddy, Kevin McCarthy, Donald Siegel, Robert Duvall (unbilled).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

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