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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

  Relevant no matter the era—that’s how many would describe the Jack Finney-penned novel about pod people replacing humans and substituting individual consciousness with collective thought. It’s probably why there’s been four official adaptations.  Countless science fiction movies and television shows also have taken ideas from

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Relevant no matter the era—that’s how many would describe the Jack Finney-penned novel about pod people replacing humans and substituting individual consciousness with collective thought. It’s probably why there’s been four official adaptations.  Countless science fiction movies and television shows also have taken ideas from the original work. While some have fallen flat, Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1978 is probably one of the best adaptations. There are some that believe it surpasses the original adaptation from 1956. Even if one does not subscribe to that view, one can’t doubt that it’s one of the best remakes in cinematic history.

In the current Hollywood environment, where it seems remakes are being greenlit either to just cash in on fondly remembered properties, or to make superficial changes by changing the race or sex of characters without looking at the story from another angle, the word remake can leave a bad taste in the mouth. However, when Philip Kaufman directed this version of Invasion in 1978, he led the way in a decade of re-imaginings of other 1950s science fiction films. The Thing, The Fly, Invaders from Mars, and The Blob probably would not have been produced without the critical and commercial success of this film.

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What makes this movie work? First, look to the director. Philip Kaufman is probably not a name on the tongue of most movie watchers. He though has writing credits on Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Outlaw Josey Wales. He later directed The Right Stuff. Then there is the cast; their quirks and interactions with each other turn the science fiction into a human drama piece. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy come across as people of interest. The main characters struggle to understand what’s happening, then desperately try to escape the danger. The audience feels the loss that would occur if such individuals became the blank slates that the aliens want to turn them into.

The film begins with an amazing visual of the pods assimilating themselves into the fauna of San Francisco. There’s then imagery of an emotionless priest  swinging in a playground while staring blankly. This puts you ill at ease and shows you that things are already askew.

The main characters then enter the story. There’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), an uptight health inspector, who seems to be only at ease at home and in the company of Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), a co-worker and close friend, who worries about her relationship with her boyfriend. The second couple is composed of Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicec, who are bathhouse owners with an artistic bent. Added to the mix is Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a psychiatrist who believes that the turmoil of the modern age is fueling the increasing paranoia and distrust of loved ones. Is he correct? Or have the aliens already replaced him?

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There are two additional factors that stand out about the film: The cinematography and the score. San Francisco, when shot well is a city that has as much personality as the characters living there. Michael Chapman does a good job revealing the city as quirky as the characters. And when he films the characters, you can sense the emotions on their faces even when little dialogue is spoken. If there is some light criticism, it revolves around some of the extravagant camera work. I appreciate some of the Dutch angles he uses to convey the strange nature of the situation. However, some shots seem too self-conscious, especially when they linger when there are no characters on the screen.

The score composed by Danny Zeitlin is varied as well. There’s three basic styles: Traditional mid-twentieth century scoring, as exemplified by the “Main Title/Flight Theme,” melancholic jazz in the “Love Theme,” and harsh synthesized soundscapes, appearing when the pods/aliens are on the screen. Innovative sound design mixes with the score to push the impression that the alien takeover is at hand. It’s strange that Zeitlin never scored another movie. Maybe he felt more comfortable in the jazz world from where he came. Likely, he felt that he had composed a unique score that he might never top. Whatever. Despite it being nontraditional, it suits the film, neither overwhelming nor underwhelming the scenes.

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Living in today’s special effects driven movie climate, even science fiction fans of recent years might have neglected this film. It does feature stunning effects, particularly concerning the transformation of the pods into human duplicates. However, the film is a very human story. In the late 1970s, western society felt confused. Many felt let down by traditional organizations, dealt with the increased family breakdown, and observed the communist advance across the globe. This caused many individuals to search for “the authentic self.” It makes perfect sense that Kibner is at the center of the characters’ world, treating people for their broken psyches.

As the film progresses, you feel for the characters. You hope that whatever time is left, they can connect with their fellow humans. Thus, not only science fiction fans will take an interest in the film. People interested in human drama should take a look. It’s likely that such an experience will reveal to science fiction skeptics that there’s more than to the genre than the shine of spaceships and laser beams.

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christopherdefried@gmail.com

Review overview

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