[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid deals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shootingâ€”and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfield staged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawn found themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. In the debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawn takes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”
These notes have particular relevance to Kaufman’s remake of Donald Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and to the inevitable question of why the Kaufman film just isn’t as scary as the Siegel. Kaufman is concerned with conflict; and so his film seeks the starkest possible contrast between the human victims and the alien soma that replace them. As a result, instead of the eerie feeling that someone is unaccountably different in a way that only those closest to him can feel, we have people turning overnight into zombies, not speaking when spoken to, going about odd chores in a mechanical, trancelike way. You’d have to be deaf and blind not to detect the difference in these people. So the creeping paranoia of the Siegel film (“I’m the only one who knows something is wrong and no one will believe me”) is abandoned completely in the Kaufman film, which takes as its starting point the much broader paranoia (“They’re all out to get me; I’m the only one left “) that was reserved for the climax of Siegel’s version. In addition to being too alien, Kaufman’s body snatchers are also given to us in too much detail. Siegel made us use our imaginations as to what these creatures were, and why and whence they had come. In Kaufman’s more graphic depiction of the process of invasion and replacement, all the mystery of the Siegel version disappears in favor of a clinical examination of the life processes of not only the alien beings but the synthetic new life forms (“grexes “) created by their fusion with human bodies. Indeed, far from frightening, the body snatchers at one point become almost sympathetic, as psychiatrist Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) relates their escape from a dying planet and the sheer determination and will to survive that brought them to Earth to establish a new civilization. Finally, Kaufman’s body snatchers are less disturbing than Siegel’s because the carping, confrontive urban human beings they replace are less attractive than the warm, friendly, small-town families of Siegel’s film. Kaufman undoubtedly joins Siegel in the belief that American society is already controlled by pod-people, and has sought to stress that by depicting his human beings as a race ripe for the takeover. But in so doing, he has given the lie to the real horror of that takeover, the creepy intimacy of the subversive replacements of Siegel’s film.
Nevertheless, if Kaufman’s remake isn’t as scary as Siegel’s original, his different treatment of the story idea is not without its power and chills. In Kaufman’s hands Invasion of the Body Snatchers has become less a psychological mystery that turns into science fiction than a science fiction fantasy that turns into a suspense film. Much of the suspense derives from the fact that Kaufman’s ending will have to be different from Siegel’s; and so the story direction stays unpredictable. In relocating Jack Finney’s novel from the small, rural Santa Mira of Siegel’s version to contemporary San Francisco, Kaufman has placed his paranoia on a surer footing. Who hasn’t had a day in the city like that described by Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), in which everybody seemed somehow different from oneself, and vaguely threatening? And the decision to show graphically the growth and development of the body snatchers from pollenate dust to rooting spores to giant pods emitting whining, writhing grex-people achieves some powerfully creepy moments itself, thanks largely to Michael Chapman’s richly colored, clinically detailed cinematography.
And what of the eternal question, asked by both Siegel and Kaufman: can an uncorrupted few fight the rising tide of conformity and peer-pressure, to retain human dignity in the face of rampant mediocrity (Siegel) or outright conquest (Kaufman)? Siegel’s tentative no was turned into a suspiciously pat yes by the studio-forced epilogue. Kaufman’s film pounds home a resounding no. But the conspiracy itself never seems so corrosive, the stakes never so high in Kaufman’s supplanting of one civilization by another, as in the Siegel vision of the awful amputation of human souls.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
THE 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.