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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Phillip Kaufman directs this 1978 remake of the original, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (IBS78). Donald Sutherland plays the lead character, also named Bennell. Brooke Adams plays his love interest. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright play the “other couple”, the Bellicecs. W.D. Richter’s screenplay follows the ’56 story fairly closely (good for fans of IBS56), but adds some 70s flavor and fills a few plot holes from the original. The setting is downtown San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury suburb, not the small town of Santa Mira.

Quick Plot Synopsis
From a distant planet, transparent balloon-like “spores” rise up into space. A “solar wind” blows them past several planets until they come to Earth. They fall with the rain and take root on plants around San Francisco. Elizabeth picks on of the odd little pods with a pink flower and brings it home. When she wakes up, her boyfriend has changed. She follows him as he meets with many strangers. She tells her boss, Matthew. He suggests she talk to a friend, Dr. Kibner, a pop-psychologist. En route to a book signing party, a man runs up to the car raving about how “they” are coming to get them. He runs away and his hit by a car. The police have no record of the event. At the party, Kibner poo-poohs reports of people changing. At Jack and Nancy’s mud bath spa, they find a partially developed pod person. It begins to resemble Jack. There is much freaking out. When the police come, there is no body. Kibner, who is a pod-person by now, tells them all to go to Matthew’s and get some rest. They all nod off. Pods disgorge copies of the four. Nancy wakes everyone on in time. They flee, after Matthew hacks up his pod-copy. As the crowd and authorities gain on them, Jack and Nancy split off to draw them away. Matthew and Elizabeth sneak up to his office. From there, they can see lines of people getting pods from trucks, and pods being loaded onto trucks. They realize that they must stay awake, so take several “speed” pills. They evade some searches, but are found by Kibner, pod-Jack and Geoffrey. Kibner gives them injections of a sedative to make them sleep. After a bit of monologuing about spores coming from a dying world and how being a pod is a good thing, Matthew fights back. He and Elizabeth escape and pretend to be pod-people. A dog with a man’s face makes Elizabeth scream, so the crowd shriek the awful pod shriek and purse them. They escape in the back of a truck. The truck brings them to a pod-growing factory. They hide in the tall grass outside. Elizabeth cannot stay awake any longer. While Matthew holds her close to him, her body crumbles away. Naked pod-Elizabeth stands up in the grass. Matthew runs into the factory and starts chopping down light fixtures. This starts fires on the pod-growing floor. Pod-Liz spots him, points and pod-shrieks. A chase ensues. Fade to black. Fade in to Matthew and Elizabeth working in the office in stoic fashion. At quitting time, all the pod-employees walk out. While Matthew walks in a bleak courtyard of city hall. Nancy calls to him. She has evaded pod-ification all this time. Matthew points at her and shrieks the awful pod-shriek. Zoom in to black. Roll silent credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The script of IBS78 follows that of IBS56, so much of the original tension and suspense of the original still works. The pod-shriek is effective (and chilling). The actors do a fine job with their roles. Sutherland and Adams make a sympathetic couple. Veronica Cartwright’s Nancy is a fun character and very 70s. The many little visual touches add to the experience.

Cultural Connection
Boomer Bogeyman — The original film was released amid great angst over communism and/or its opposite, McCarthyism. Loss of the “American Way of Life”, small town charm, apple pie, love, laughter, etc. were what the adults of the “Greatest Generation” and young adults of the “Silent Generation” worried about. For them, IBS56 captured their fears of losing the America they knew — the intimacy and friendliness of small town Americana. Fast forward to 1978, and communist infiltrators and loss of small-town charm were not big concerns. The audiences in 1978 were the Baby Boomers. They grew up with a more urbane mindset, hence setting IBS78 in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury and the whole “summer of love” implications. They grew up through the 60s with the narcissism of youth. “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Trouble was, the early Boomers were doing just that. For the flower children of free love and peace signs, the relentless march of time was turning them into middle-aged adults. For the Boomers, turning into boring adults was a terror to send them running and screaming.

Popular Pods — Finney’s 1954 novel has spawned four films directly, and influenced several. The 1956 version, starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Winters is often considered the best. IBS78 is a very faithful remake of the ’56 version, using many of the same characters and names, though tweaked a bit. The 1993 version, Body Snatchers, uses the trope of pod-replacements, but in a new setting with new characters. The 2007 version, Invasion, uses yet other new characters and a new location. Each has its fans. Finney’s Pod People is a metaphor that resonates across several generations. Each generation (Gen X, Millenials, etc.) seems to have their own zeitgeist bogeyman.

Skewed Views — As a bit of visual art, director Phillip Kaufman gives the viewer many visuals to symbolize how “wrong” things look to the characters. Note Matthew’s broken windshield and the many views of the city through it. The world as they knew it was shattered. Note the odd “fun house” mirrors at the book signing party. The distorted reflections. People don’t look the same. Kaufman makes frequent use of the old standard tilted-camera, as well as several times people pass behind semi-transparent barriers (shower curtains, pebbled glass, etc.) such that you know someone is there, but they are undefined.

Filling Holes — IBS78 attempted to fill some of the plot holes from IBS56. How did they get there? IBS56 did not dwell much (at all) on how the pods got to earth, or what their intent was. They just were. IBS78 fixed that by more obviously showing the spores leaving a planet and coming to earth. Kibner’s small monologue about fleeing a dying world, adds a bit more, which Finney’s novel had, but IBS56 did not. What happened to the original bodies? IBS78 shows us that the originals crumble into small piles of rubble. Note the red trash trucks that appear after each pod-ification. Usually, small boxes or bundles are being tossed in. The rubble of the originals. In IBS56, the pod-ified all show up fully clothed, even though their semi-formed pod bodies are naked. That was the 50s and the Hayes Code. IBS78 “fixed” that by showing the audience a naked Elizabeth. Granted, it was also a very trendy thing in 70s film to include some frontal nudity — just because they could. But it did fill an old plot hole, AND it was far nicer to show a naked Brooke Adams than a naked Leonard Nimoy, for example.

Dour Ending — Finney’s novel had an upbeat ending. The aliens decide to abandon their invasion and leave Earth. This was in line with the 50s model — a scary fate, yet seeds of hope. Daniel Mainwaring’s script for the 1956 film changed that, such that the pods win. The studio is said to have urged that they change it to an upbeat ending. So, in the final film, Miles makes it to safety and tells his tale. Richter’s screenplay for IBS78 recreates the dour ending. The pods win. The 70s was much more comfortable wallowing in gloom and doom, so it was better accepted. And besides, all those Boomers were going to get older, no matter how much they fought it. They could not escape middle-age by running and hiding. Their youth was doomed too.

Adults Are Boring — The Geoffrey character is the most overt example of the underlying zeitgeist angst. (See Connections above) He encapsulates the “horrible” fate that the young, free-spirited characters fear — becoming a boring, responsible adult. Before being pod-ified, Geoffrey has tousled hair, likes to watch basketball games on TV, wears shorts and t-shirts, and is openly libidinous. After his change, his hair is combed neatly, he wears a 3-piece suit (trendy in the late 70s), shows no amorous interest in Elizabeth and watches clocks on television. CLOCKS. This latter part seems symbolic and telling — a kids’ view of what adults are like. Bor-ing.

Not Feelin’ the Love — Like in Orwell’s 1984, the main characters are rebels against The System, and fall in love. Both are “broken” by the system. Afterward, they see each other again, but are passionless towards each other. Kibner exposits that in the Pod People world, there is no hate, or love. People just have their jobs to do.

Fun Cameos — Just for fun, and a sense of homage to the original, Kevin McCarthy gets to be his original character, Dr. Miles Bennell in IBS78. He’s the frantic man who pounds on Matthew’s car windows telling him that “They” are coming and that “You’re next.” It's like he survived the first attempted invasion, only to be lost to the second. Also, look for Don Siegel, director of IBS56, playing the cab driver as Matthew and Elizabeth are trying to get to the airport.

Bottom line? IBS78 is a fairly faithful update/remake of the original. It keeps much of the sense of paranoia. Yes, it is ‘updated’ for a 70s audience. Some dislike this, others like it. Later re-remakes would have their detractors and fans too. Yet, even fans who prefer the ’56 original, are generally accepting of IBS78. Even people who are not fans of sci-fi should watch IBS(56 and 78). As a cultural metaphor, IBS is worth watching.

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