Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, dir. Philip Kaufman)
Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) is convinced something is wrong with her boyfriend Geoffrey. His behavior has changed overnight, and she witnesses him meeting with strange people across San Francisco. She seeks out help from her coworker at the city’s Department of Public Health, Matthew (Donald Sutherland) and the two unravel a dark conspiracy that threatens the future of humanity. Along with friends Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum, Nancy Cartwright), they soon find themselves up against a menace that is growing and in turn becoming increasingly unstoppable.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a remake of the 1956 classic which in turn was an adaptation of the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. It’s a classic tale that has been in turn remade many times over (Body Snatchers, The Invasion) and has always served an allegory for some sort of societal strike. The original film adaptation was influenced by the McCarthy Hearings the hunt for communists in America. For the 1978 version, there is a sense of Watergate on the edges of the script. There’s also the overall sense of malaise that came out of The Me Generation and disconnection from others as a person became focused on self-fulfillment. This can be seen most overtly in the bookstore scenes with Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop psychologist who advises a paranoid wife about reconnecting with her husband and blaming his distance on her own doubts about the relationship.
This is a fantastic film and one we don’t hear about often enough. The cast is composed of some acting greats who are firing on all cylinders. I’ve always felt Brooke Adams was terribly overlooked and this performance is one of those that reminds you of her strengths. Leonard Nimoy who we never got to see outside of Spock very often is excellent as the laidback Dr. Kibner who becomes a very different character by the film’s conclusion. Nimoy plays both sides of the character wonderfully.
Beyond the fantastic cast, you have members of the production who are delivering masterful work. Cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) finds interesting angles and ways to convey a character’s point of view that provides volumes of information. Chapman is able to obscure enough to keep us wondering and the sense of paranoia building. Almost every shot has some background element that hints at the concrete conspiracy or plays with the thematics of the film. Anytime a plant is present it is grounds to get scared.
Composer Denny Zeitlin delivers a score that mixes elements of jazz and electronic music. The film uses more jazz at the start before finally being overtaken by an eerie alien electronic score for the finale. This way music plays along with the progression of the takeover is one of the examples of a film’s production being a collaborative effort. Sound engineering legend Ben Burtt worked on this movie just after his time on Star Wars and just as with the other elements the sound is textured and crucial to the full experience. The pods that contain the doubles have a wet, membrane sound, cracking and opening with viscous threads of mucus. The soundtrack fades in the scene where we first see a birth taking place, and Burtt’s sound design is allowed to take center stage.
Invasion manages to create a palpable sense of paranoia minutes into the film. It brushes up against becoming cheesy early on but then goes so deep into the gritty bleakness of this event that it becomes chilling. As it is building horror in the literal background of the picture we are being introduced to our two leads and getting a strong sense of character. Elizabeth’s first scene establishes significant external traits (botanist, in a relationship) but also personality traits that help us connect with the character (curious, affectionate, intelligent). With Matthew’s first scene we have him on a surprise health inspection of a high-end French restaurant, and we know exactly who this character is. He’s very dedicated to his job, unwavering in following regulations, but also playful and wry. Neither of these characters feels one-dimensional in any way and, much like I felt about Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in Silver Streak, they have natural chemistry.
The way the horror is developed is paced so well and reveals of information hit at the perfect moments. The film uses it’s first 30 minutes to introduce the leads and establish the sense that something is off. Around then we have the first glimpse of a partially developed clone and character’s sanity being questioned as evidence disappears. At the halfway mark we glimpse an actual birth from a pod occur and the film suddenly tilts. Our protagonists are in the minority and time is running out as the enemy surrounds them.
Released in the shadow of 1977’s Star Wars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science fiction masterpiece that has been sadly overlooked by so many. It exists as a beautiful amalgam of 1970s director focused cinema and an acknowledgment of the remake/reboot film culture to come. It’s a film that still feels relevant and terrifying almost 40 years later.