The storyline of the 1958 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so tethered to the historical moment in which the film was made—a period of anti-Communist paranoia and rampant conformity—that it seemed unlikely a remake could update the storyline’s themes in a meaningful way. And yet that’s just what director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter accomplished with their 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which equals the original film in terms of intelligence, social commentary, and terror. The premise, taken from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, is the same in each movie: An alien race arrives on earth, gestates copies of human beings in plant-like pods, and kills the human beings in order to replace them with the “pod people” who serve the alien race’s hive-mind. In the ’50s, the plot distilled the clash between jingoistic postwar Americans and the supposed radical element of domestic communists. In the ’70s, the plot crystallizes divisions between lockstep consumers and counterculture freethinkers.
The hero of the 1978 version is Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a San Francisco health-department inspector who loves his co-worker, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), even though she’s romantically involved with an uptight businessman named Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle). Geoffrey is among the aliens’ first victims, but since Elizabeth has no idea what’s really happened, she’s unable to explain disturbing changes in his personality. Concerned for Elizabeth’s emotional welfare, Matthew introduces her to his pal David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop psychologist with a predilection for catch phrases and turtlenecks. The Kibner angle is one of many clever flourishes in the 1978 version, because the film’s tuned-in characters initially believe they can solve their problems with talking-and-listening therapy—the very sort of human contact threatened by the aliens’ nefarious scheme. Yet Kaufman’s movie isn’t entirely preoccupied by sly observations of modern life, because the director is just as adept at generating excitement.
The picture has a menacing atmosphere right from the first frames, with everything from shadowy photography to the weird look of the pods contributing to a frightful aesthetic. Kaufman stages a number of effective suspense scenes, like the scary bit at a mud bath run by Matthew’s friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). Richter’s witty dialogue and Kaufman’s preference for naturalistic acting allow the actors to sketch individualistic characterizations, and Nimoy, in particular, benefits from the sophisticated storytelling—this is probably his best work outside the Star Trek universe. Watch out, too, for a just-right cameo by Kevin McCarthy, the star of the 1958 version—and do yourself a favor by ignoring the underwhelming later versions of this story, which include the Abel Ferrara-directed dud Body Snatchers (1993) and the Nicole Kidman-starring disaster The Invasion (2007).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: GROOVY