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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

This is, perhaps, the flagship of 50s sci-fi movies. Even people who know nothing of this golden period of sci-fi, know this movie. Despite a relatively low budget, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (IBS) has A-level acting and great directing. It holds up very well to viewing even 50+ years later. Very few 50s movies can match this. While IBS is not the first of the alien takeover sub-genre, nor would it be the last, it is certainly the penultimate example of it. The story itself is powerful enough that it's spawned three other remake movies.

Quick Plot Synopsis

The movie opens with a disheveled and frantic Dr. Miles Bennell ranting in a hospital emergency room that "they" are out there. A kindly doctor decides to listen instead of writing him off as pure looney. In a flashback, Miles tells how he was called back from a convention to his small town practice. Many residents are reporting mysterious ailments or that a loved one is "not themselves". At first, Miles treats the complaints somewhat condescendingly. Viewers are given many hints of the looming problem. All this changes when Miles' friend Jack finds an almost-formed body -- a copy of Jack. MIles races to Becky's house (his love interest) and finds another copy body of her in her basement. He takes her (sleeping) to his house. The four of them speculate about what to do, but find four big seed pods in Miles' greenhouse, which pop open and start forming copies of them. The telephones are in control of the pod people, as are the police. Miles sends Jack and his wife to run away for help. He and Becky elude capture and get to MIles' office in town. There, Miles sees that pods are being delivered to all the surrounding communities. The two are discovered and pods set up for them. Instead, they escape and run into the hills. Again they elude capture, but too weary to stay awake, Becky sleeps for just a second. While Miles was kissing her, she changes into a pod person right before his eyes. Miles runs, all alone now, escaping only by running onto a crowded highway. No one stops for the raving mad man.Flash forward to hospital emergency room. No one believes Miles' crazy story until an ambulance driver brings in a truck crash victim who was buried under a pile of huge seed pods. The truck came from Miles' town. Finally believing Miles, the doctor alerts the police and calls the FBI. The world is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?

The acting in IBS is good. Almost none of the actors come across as people reciting lines. The pacing is tight. The mood of paranoia is inescapable. This movie is still powerful and evocative, even to 21st century audiences long since spoiled by huge-budget special effects. It's a tightly done thriller

.Cold War Angle

This point has been debated. Traditionally, IBS is cited as an expression of the creeping takeover of communism. Others have argued that it's an expression of the creeping takeover of McCarthyist nationalism. More on this in the Notes section.

Notes

Commies or McCarthy? -- IBS can be seen as an allegory of the oppression of the McCarthy era. There certainly was a strong pressure to conform to official "patriotic" expression. Somewhat in support of this, the producer, Walter Mirisch said that he wasn't trying to produce an anti-communist allegory. Of course, he didn't say he was producing an anti-McCarthy flick either, just "a thriller, pure and simple." However much one might dislike McCarthyism, this view doesn't quite fit. Listen carefully to the dialogue about the pods being without emotion, having no use for love or feelings. This fits the communist ideology far better than McCarthyism. The communist citizen was to be a cog in the modern state machine. Individual desires were to be subsumed to the collective will, etc. etc. McCarthyism, for all its many faults, was far from emotionless.

Pod Heritage -- IBS wasn't the first in the alien takeover sub-genre. In movies, The Man from Planet X ('51) had the townsfolk under mind control working for the alien. It Came from Outer Space ('53) had the aliens creating zombie-like duplicates of the townspeople to help fix their space ship. Then there was Invaders from Mars ('53) in which the martians used little brain stem implants to turn the townsfolk into emotionless minions. In all these examples, the telltale symptom is the lack of emotion.

Pod Lineage -- IBS would not be the last of the alien takeover sub-genre either. Aside from the outright remakes in 1978, 1993 and 2007, there would be I Married a Monster from Outer Space ('58), which is not as dumb as it sounds, Invisible Invaders ('59), The Brain Eaters ('60) and The Day Mars Invaded Earth ('63). Others fit too, so this list is partial.

Plot Hole -- There is one odd quirk in the plot, which the '78 version tried to clear up. When the pod duplicate is done replicating the human, what happened to the original's body? It's implied that the pod-duplicate assumes the "life" of the host, such that there should be two Jacks or Beckys after the transformation, just as there were two just before. Perhaps they're buried or disposed of by the pod-duplicate. We never see this, so it's not clear at all. Yet, at the climax of the movie, Becky changes to pod-Becky within the same body. A bit incongruous. The '78 version would fill this in by having the original human body quickly decay into dust, leaving only the pod-duplicate.

Two Endings -- The movie is said that the movie originally had a depressing ending. (It ended with Miles looking into the truck full of pods) The studio objected and wanted a more hopeful ending, thus the flashback beginning, (which lets us know that Miles gets away throughout the whole movie), but also the mobilizing of the authorities that saves us all. Actually, this optimistic ending is closer to that of Jack Finney's novel upon which the movie is based. In the novel, Miles finds and sets fire to a field of pods. The survivors then woosh up into space, abandoning their plan to colonize the earth. It should be noted that the '78 film would revert to the depressing ending. The pods win.

Is This Really Sci-fi? -- One might argue that IBS is thriller, but not sci-fi. After all, there's no space ship, or saucers, or ray guns or creepy aliens (if you don't count the gooey foamy pod things). That's all true, and people looking for those things will probably be disappointed. However, listen to "Dan's" explanation of the pods. They drifted through space and fell to earth. They are able to duplicate other life form patterns and then assume their minds. In the novel, this is just what the pods do. It's a pod life. Granted, there's not a lot of sciency mumbo-jumbo associated, but there is the alien life form angle which definitely IS sci-fi.

Bottom line? Rent it. Watch it. IBS is worth watching, whether you're a sci-fi fan or not. It's just a great classic American film.

4 comments:

Rebecca said...

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Nightowl said...

Thanks for the tip, Rebecca. I'd not seen that "Cube" movie before. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.

John Drake said...

Howdy Classic Film Buffs,


There is not much to say about this movie that has not been said before.


It has all the qualities of a classic sci-fi movie.

Great plot (please overlook the holes in the story), great acting and great atmosphere.

Unfortunately Jean Willes plays a small part - what a beauty.


Make sure to bypass "Santa Mira" in your trip up to Northern California.

And stay out of trucks loaded with strange produce.


Have a good time,

John