“…there’s no way you can keep from sleeping, either. You can fight it off for a time, but finally…you’ll have to sleep.” – from The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney
What if the people you’ve always known and loved have suddenly become someone different? Jack Finney’s seminal 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, which inspired four movies in four decades, examined this fear of identity loss and transformation, and the death of what makes us quintessentially human. Finney’s novel detailed how individuals could be copied exactly, emulating the same memories, physical features and mannerisms, yet producing a shadow of the former person. The author stops just short of calling this missing component a soul, but it’s clear that the simulacrums that emerge from these space pods are bereft of the essential element that makes us human. The copying process could be likened to a digital recording that perfectly replicates the source material, but fails to capture the warmth of the original. The prospect of this change is inherently terrifying because it occurs without our complicity, as we drift off to sleep. The inevitability of sleep provides a catalyst for these eventual transformations. It’s only a matter of time before everyone succumbs to the new paradigm. Only two of the four adaptations dared to follow the darker themes of the novel, the prospect of an unbeatable situation, to its logical conclusion.
The book and subsequent movies have contributed the term “pod people” to our pop culture consciousness. It’s been used interchangeably to describe someone whose behavior has become erratic, or alternatively, one who thinks and acts like everyone else. In Finney’s novel, the main character, Dr. Miles Bennell, observes subtle changes in personalities that tip him off to the fact that his friends and acquaintances are no longer themselves. While it would be virtually impossible to properly translate Dr. Bennell’s inner monologue to a film, the common thread between each of the adaptations is the loss of self. Each version, to varying degrees of success, explored the basic existential question: when the transformation occurs, will we still be the same person when we awake?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) The first interpretation of Finney’s novel is also the closest to the source material. Kevin McCarthy stars as family doctor Miles Bennell, who watches things unravel as the residents of his small town succumb to the will of a sinister alien scourge. Much has been written about this version as a reflection of Cold War paranoia and the perceived threat of communism. In an era typified by mostly mindless b-movie drive-in programmers, director Don Siegel introduced a very different type of science fiction monster. Passive acceptance of mob mentality, promoted by the film’s pod people, is the only choice offered to the film’s protagonist. Bennell’s chilling admonition during the film’s climax that “you’re next” drives home this inevitable message. The hopeful ending, added at the insistence of the film’s producers, is the only downside of an otherwise effective adaptation.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) One of the rare remakes that surpasses the original. Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter use the novel as a departure point, distilling Finney’s themes of identity and complicity. The story moves south from the sleepy Northern Californian town of Mill Valley to the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco. Kaufman expertly creates an atmosphere of overwhelming paranoia, where no one can be trusted, as illustrated by Jeff Goldblum’s character Jack Bellicec, who proclaims that everything is a conspiracy. Donald Sutherland is especially likable as public health inspector Matthew Bennell, and serves as the film’s anchor.
Why this adaptation stands apart from other versions is all in the details. The characterizations are nicely fleshed out with quirks that bring out their inherent humanity. The throbbing sound and disturbing makeup effects contribute to a profoundly disorienting, unsettling experience. Leonard Nimoy also provides a memorable supporting performance as Bennell’s disbelieving psychiatrist friend Dr. Kibner. There’s also a nice nod to the original film with inspired cameos by Kevin McCarthy and the original film’s director, Don Siegel. This remains the definitive film version, improving on the ending of the novel by eschewing the artificially upbeat, deus ex machina conclusion. Kaufman never lets us off the hook, proving that there’s no safe haven.
Rating: *****. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Body Snatchers (1993) With the 1978 version fresh in my mind, my first reaction to this film, was “why bother?” Upon re-assessment, I concluded that my initial judgment was a bit harsh. Although Body Snatchers doesn’t really add anything new, it doesn’t embarrass itself, either. Director Abel Ferrara takes the premise from the original story, but moves the setting to a U.S. Army base. Some high points are an icy performance by Meg Tilly and a great scene in a kindergarten class where all of the children’s finger paintings look alike except for the new kid’s. Most of the characterizations are weak, and the whole movie seems rushed and hastily slapped together, suggesting that some scenes were cut out. This is especially evident with Forest Whitaker’s character, Major Collins. He’s introduced early in the film, and doesn’t reappear until a pivotal scene in the latter part. The movie loses its footing by the end, during an ill-advised action scene in a helicopter gunship that dilutes the impact of the paranoid premise and shifts the focus away from the human story.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD.
The Invasion (2007) I was prepared to give this movie the benefit of the doubt, despite its poor reputation (Warning: a few spoilers lie ahead!). I gave Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer David Kajganich points for at least trying something a little different – this time, instead of space pods, it’s a space virus that causes people to transform into emotionless simulacrums of themselves. It’s a modern-day thriller, meaning it’s chock-full of generic action scenes, car crashes and copious amounts of product placement. Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (sporting an unconvincing New York accent) starred in this troubled production, which required reshoots by a different director, James McTeigue. This time, Dr. Bennell (Kidman) is a psychiatrist who learns about the replacement people through one of her patients, Wendy Lenk (played by Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the superior 1978 version). The emphasis is on action, rather than character-driven drama in this film, which could have worked if the filmmakers had made better choices. The actions of the pod people are completely inconsistent, ranging from impassive and drone-like to rage-filled and violent (throwing Molotov cocktails just doesn’t seem right). The happy ending trashes the concept of an unbeatable foe, demonstrating that becoming a pod person is apparently a reversible process (WTF?). There’s also a lame attempt at social commentary, asserting that war and inequality are created by our differences (duh!), and suggesting that we might have been better off becoming pod people to achieve lasting peace.
Rating: **. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray