Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Don Siegel’s 1956 cult classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a consistently creepy sci-fi thriller with a clever idea and a chilling subtext for its time, about (presumably) McCarthyism and the paranoia it caused. When you think about it, it’s a premise that would suit any time period and act as a metaphor for whatever issue is at hand in society. That’s what made the idea welcome to be reinterpreted for a remake in 1978. If the ‘50s version is a metaphor for McCarthyism, this ‘70s version could be about the beginning of a new generation that is all about themselves, ending the era of the flower people. But it could also work as a parable for faceless city life, having moved the original setting of a small suburban town to a big city.
But even when that aside (and it’s not a thought that’s dwelled upon in the actual film to begin with), Philip Kaufman’s 1978 retelling of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” not only matches the original in tone but also surpasses it in execution, concept, and even effect. This is a horror film that frightened, delighted, and captivated me all at the same time.
Strange-looking flowers have bloomed in San Francisco. A health department employee, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), picks it and decides to inspect it. She brings it home. The next morning, her selfish, slobbish boyfriend seems like a different person—more cold and distant. This is not her boyfriend, she argues, even if it still physically looks like him. Other people in the city have this problem as well, claiming that members of their family and friends are not the same people they used to be. Her colleague, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is ignorant of any change until his writer friend, Jack (Jeff Goldblum), and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a deformed body in the bathhouse they both run. The body has an adult figure but no distinguishing characteristics…and it slightly resembles Jack.
The body is missing when Matthew brings his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), in on the discovery, and he dismisses everyone’s paranoia as excuses to get out of relationships or not accepting change in their lives. But when Elizabeth falls asleep and Matthew discovers a forming double of her, things get stranger and even more unnerving as it seems the flowers and their pods are the cause of the phenomenon. It seems people are being duplicated and replaced as emotionless beings, and before long, it’s becoming harder for our main characters to know who to trust.
About what I wrote above about how the film works as a parable for city life, that theme of individual isolation is present throughout, especially when more of the city’s residents become converted by the growing population of “pod people” and our main characters are easily outnumbered against many. How do you trust your fellow neighbor when you don’t know who he really is? It’s a scary notion that is played very effectively, as the invasion expands slowly but surely. The tone laced within the film’s atmosphere is perfect—there’s a great sense of quiet foreboding that makes small actions almost seductive. Even in the final half-hour, when the climax should be loud and bombastic, is still quietly creepy and succeeds at being suspenseful in moments of betrayal, fear, and shock. This isn’t a case of the “it’s-good-but-it-could’ve-been-great” syndrome that countless resolutions cause; this film is riveting from the beginning to the middle to the end. (And speaking of endings, I won’t spoil it, but it ranks among the best shockers in horror-film history.)
Most of the credit has to go to Kaufman, whose direction constantly fills the audience with uneasiness. And it looks and feels like he thought up every shot and decided to throw in a little extra something here or there for every frame of the film. He has a disturbing shadowy look that works with the material; he has extras stand still in windows and walls for unnerving effect; reflections cast oddities such as rays of light; and so on. I’ve seen this film about ten times so far—I’m not sure I caught everything as of now.
But more importantly, with a unique gritty style of filming, it feels real, which is one of the main reasons this film still continues to scare me.
This may not seem like an actor’s film, but all the actors do great, believable jobs. Donald Sutherland is excellent what could’ve been a thankless role; this actor knows how to grab your attention with his voice, his poise, and his attitude. Brooke Adams is suitably vulnerable and easily sympathetic. Leonard Nimoy gives us the same deadpan wit that his Mr. Spock character on “Star Trek” is known for, and it rings true for the character and for the situation at hand. Jeff Goldblum is good comic relief. Veronica Cartwright is the least impressive of the bunch, but she’s not bad; her terrified reactions seem a little over-the-top sometimes. While we’re on the subject of casting, Kevin McCarthy, from the original 1956 film, makes a terrific cameo appearance.
To sum up, I love this film. It’s a brilliantly unsettling remake that, in my opinion, even better than the original. I know someone out there is thinking of redoing this idea for a new version in a new era (as well they should, because a good allegory remains a good allegory); one can only hope it’ll be as solid as this version.