Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)


Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an outstanding reimagining of the original 1956 movie. The Don Siegel picture felt like a dizzying portrait of McCarthyism and the subsequent Second Red Scare, which occurred from 1950-1956. Moreover, it did not wear its surrealism on its sleeve. In turn, this allowed the sheer bleakness of the concept to be gradually revealed to the audience.

At the heart of 1978 film is a genuine fear that nature and trusted figures of authority, as well as expertise, seek to supplant the crucial aspects of the human experience. The former is expressed in a vivid opening sequence that shows some space spores landing on Planet Earth. Once down here, there is a small moment that illustrates how the pod species blend in amongst our plant life. In a series of shots that feels like a strange mix of documented realism and stop motion, the tiny translucent organisms that are on multiple rain-soaked leaves form into spidery creatures then sickly green pods and finally a budding pink flower springs forth from the shoot. The scene ends with the main character Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) picking up and admiring the fully formed pink flower from one of the pods.

The latter is articulated in many scenes throughout the picture. The most pertinent one comes in the first act of the film. After some instances where Elizabeth has expressed a change in her husband’s behaviour, her friend, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) decides to take her to see his friend and famous psychiatrist Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) at a book launch. At best, she is sceptical about the prospect of meeting Kibner because of the implications of his profession. Once there, she witnesses another woman who expresses similar concerns over her spouse’s sudden shift in character and conduct.

In the midst of this conversation with this hysterical woman, Kibner pauses and ask her, “Will you trust me, will you please trust me.” The moment feels like a stunt and Nimoy’s weak and sickly reassuring performance makes the psychiatrist seem like a carefully precise televangelist. Moreover, Nimoy’s performance also had echoes of Richard Nixon’s 1973 presidential address in which he infamously declared that “I am not a crook”, which comes from Nimoy’s confident and emphasised cadence during the scene when he is actually addressing the room.

Kibner appears throughout the film as the central representative of authority who lambastes the stories of people who claim that their loved ones have fundamentally changed. At one point in the picture, he contends that what is going on is merely a mass illusion which is essentially responsible for the breakdown of the family unit as people are not accepting responsibilities for wanting to leave their partners. However, it is revealed that he is part of the pod people as he had been transformed at some point in the picture. In a scene where two of the main characters have been captured, Kibner reveals the origin of the alien species and the implications of their new life, which gives the inherent fear of authority throughout the film a great potency. Moreover, this fear is punctuated with many little moments where Matthew attempts to call the authorities, and the audience sees that they have done subtle things to make the group of survivors look irrational in their firmly held belief that they have seen evidence of the pod people’s activities.

Aside from its primary strength of wonderfully conveying its two thematic points, the 1978 remake also succeeds because of its excellent filmmaking and the small organic moments of humanity that strengthen the underlying premise of the picture. Director Kaufman injects the film with a frantic surrealism, which manifests itself with seemingly strange cross-cutting, ordinary shots having a sense of abstract absurdity and an uneasy sounding ambient score.

A superb example of the first few mentioned qualities comes in the previously stated scene when Matthew and Elizabeth visit Kibner at a full book launch. Before conversing with the famous psychiatrist, Matthew attempts to call the police to report an incident. While this is occurring, a friend of his named Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) is having an impassioned rant about how people do not understand his poetry or artistic voice. Many of the shots of these moments feature a huge mirror in the background, which morphs the character’s faces into ludicrous forms. These few scenes and shots feel bewildering and claustrophobic, however with the use of the tall mirrors, Kaufman transformers our seemingly banal fixations and delusions into an absurdist illustration of human problems.

Finally, every so often the picture surprises in its quiet and contemplative moments, which is particularly evident in the central relationship between Matthew and Elizabeth. The health inspector cares for Elizabeth however it does not play like a one-sided sense of longing Instead, they have a deeply embedded friendship, which manifests itself in amusing scenes that show their long-standing relationship. One such scene that springs to mind is when Matthew is telling Elizabeth a story and stops half way through asking if she has heard this one been told before? In the third act, their relationship becomes romantic, and they share a hesitant first kiss, which impresses because it does not feel like a sweeping moment but instead a subdued acknowledgement and culmination between the two people.

The other little moments that stand out in the picture are ones such as when Matthew says to Jack’s wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) that she can stay the night at his house. In addition to when Kibner says that he sincerely believes Matthew because he has known him a long time, which gives him reason to believe his stories about the pod people. In the third act, when Matthew says ‘You’re killing us’ to his former friend, the line has much more meaning and power because of these little moments showcasing the importance of the human emotions and the connections that can arise out of them.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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