The pod people are back and this time they look even more like you!
This remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers updates the story to a modern frame of reference and doubles the stakes. It’s a great example of all the things needed to make a successful remake, as well as a good film.
The trailer shows alien spores drifting through space until they land on Earth. Donald Sutherland then falls asleep and the pod attempts to take him over, but he appears to be awoken in time. The music is tense and the narrator warns the viewer of the dangers of these spores. Paranoia and terror are top billed in this remake of the classic 1950s film of the same name.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
On a dying planet, a series of spores take flight and drift through the galaxy, eventually ending up entering Earth’s atmosphere and falling with the rain in and around San Francisco, California. The spores attach themselves to many different plants around the city, and begin to replicate, revealing beautiful flowers that encourage passersby to pick the small pods, including Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). She takes the bud home to her boyfriend Geoffrey’s house (Art Hindle).
She gets a call from a co-worker of hers, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who is a city health inspector, and somewhat of a jerk, talking about his recent run-in with a disgruntled restaurant manager. The next morning Elizabeth notices something odd about Geoffrey, as he is not acting like himself. She goes over to Matthew’s to express her concern. He thinks that it’s probably nothing. But the next day his dry cleaner’s husband says the same thing his wife. They both begin noticing other odd things, such as an older man stopping their car in the street, raving about something coming for them, just before he dies.
Elizabeth follows Geoffrey that day and sees him interacting with unknown people that he has no business being with, trading some sort of giant seed pod with each other. Matthew introduces her to Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop-psychologist who thinks that there’s a strange “hallucinatory flu” going around. Matthew’s other friends the Bellicec’s, Nancy and Jack (Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum)–who run a mud bath business–discover a not-quite-human body that looks very much like Jack’s. When Kibner arrives, at Matthew’s recommendation, the body is missing.
Believing that something weird is going on, Matthew discovers Elizabeth asleep with a duplicate growing just outside her bedroom. He rescues her but when he returns later with the police, it too is missing. The two of them, plus the Bellicecs, spend the night at Matthew’s house. Nancy awakens them when she sees four pod’s in the garden duplicating themselves. Matthew kills his, and the four humans begin running. They are unable to contact authorities, realizing that the police and members of the health department have been duplicated, and are now on the hunt for the four of them. When the body snatchers discover humans, they point and scream a piercing sound to alert others.
Matthew and Elizabeth separate from the Bellicecs after evading a mob of pod people. They sneak into their offices and take some of a co-worker’s amphetamines to stay awake. It’s fortunate too, since they are soon caught by Kibner and Jack, who have both been assimilated. The pod people give them tranquilizers to help them sleep and change. They manage to escape and find a cargo ship that is being loaded for distribution of the pods overseas. Elizabeth falls asleep briefly and is duplicated. Matthew runs from the evil Elizabeth, burning a pod warehouse on his way back to the city.
Matthew is chased by more pod people, but he manages to hide under the pier. They are overheard to say that he ”can’t stay awake forever.” The next morning Matthew observes schoolbuses of children being led into the building to “take naps” and be assimilated. He manages to use Nancy’s trick of hiding emotions to get into the Health Department. He exits with a number of other affected people. Nancy sees him and approaches him on the street. As she gets closer, he turns on her, raising his figure and begins screaming a piercing noise. Nancy shakes her head in disbelief, crying, realizing he too has been assimilated!
“It was like the whole city had changed overnight.” – Elizabeth
History in the Making
Here in 2020 we have seen a multitude of films that have been remade, rebooted, sequelized, and reimagined. But in 1978 this was still relatively new territory. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a remake of a 1956 film of the same name, updated and made more relevant some 22 years later. Only a small handful of sci-fi films were successful enough to be thought of when considering creating a sequel or remaking. The science-fiction remakes to date (in 1978) included a small group of literary adaptations such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (both in 1910 and 1931), and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916 and the 1954 Disney version) & Mysterious Island (1951 and 1961). Other remakes that share the same source material may not be thought of as remakes, since they shared different name like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977; the original was called The Island of Lost Souls, 1932) and The Omega Man (1971, with the first adaptation of “I Am Legend” being called The Last Man on Earth, 1964).
Sequels were a much more prevalent genre choice. The original Godzilla film (1954) spawned numerous sequels and an entire sub-genre of giant-monster film. Planet of the Apes monkeyed around with four other films in that franchise. While The Blob, like many other horror films, had sequels by the late 70s (with remakes coming in its future). The Body Snatchers remake is a lot more like the Moreau remake or The Blob sequel, being more of a horror film. In fact the first remake that was more standard science-fiction fare, with rockets and laser guns, would be the 1980 Flash Gordon film. So why choose to remake an existing story, rather than create a new one wholesale?
The biggest reason for deciding to adapt an existing film into a remake is probably financial. If the rights are owned by the studio or production company, then it’s probably easier to have someone write a script based on the original property rather than inventing something new. It’s also about recognition. Since the 1950s, companies have been all about brand recognition. Why put out a new product when you can rebrand an existing product? It’s Hollywood’s answer to the query, if you liked ‘X’ from this studio, we’ll provide new and upgraded ‘X’ for you. Also why do so many sci-fi and horror films get remade or retread? Part of the reason may be they’ve always been considered one of the cheaper, less expensive genres to make.
But from a viewers standpoint, what does the remake add to the original work? If the world of dozens or hundreds as is the case now, films get released each year, why should audiences put their money towards a remake rather than a new work. In part, it’s the same reasons discussed above, familiarity with the product provides a known quantity, which is fine. But a new version of the story should excel and do something (or many things) that the original could not do. It can even use those expectations the audience brings with them and subvert them, creating a new twist for filmgoers that expect the “same old thing.”
So what does the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers bring to the table? For a start it opens up the universe of the film. The 1956 version takes place in the small California town of Santa Mira. Its smallness gives a sense of the time the film was created, as well as the way that the neighbors would notice each other’s changes. Like the Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which takes place on a sleepy American cul-de-sac, the plot is horrific enough to be scary, yet the setting is small enough to be uncomplicated. It seems like a problem if the creatures get out of town, but it’s a small enough location that the ending seems plausible, with the FBI being called in. But this version switches to the large California city of San Francisco. Not a sleepy town any more, but a port city that is central to the state and able to quickly and easily distribute the pods around the country. It makes the stakes much higher.
It also uses 22 more years of filmic innovation to amp up the paranoia and tension. Director Philip Kaufman uses lighting, camera work, and overlapping dialogue to create a busy and chaotic atmosphere which make it difficult for the audience to get its bearings. As the film moves into the second act where audiences realize things are going sideways before the characters do, the film invites darkness into the corners, and tilts the camera in odd angles to unnerve and unsettle viewers, especially in the mud baths. Kaufman also makes use of handheld footage, zooms, and abrupt pans of the camera to quickly shift the focus of the shot, again keeping the viewer off center. But one of the best techniques of showing the widespread replacement of humanity is what I call the “follow the feet” moment.
Nancy has told Matthew and Elizabeth that she can walk amongst the pod people by hiding her emotion. After they escape from a mob, Matthew and Elizabeth are resting on the ground and the camera pans down their bodies to show their feet. The feet begin walking, passing other feet. They bump into some other people, but the feet keep moving. The camera decides to follow the other feet going the opposite direction. Suddenly the film cuts to Matthew and Elizabeth’s faces. That immediately signals the audience that they’ve been made. It’s showing the humanity of these characters, while the re-possessed bodies are still just shown as feet in the shot. They’re nobody’s. And they start after the heroes menacingly. For the rest of that scene, the heroes are mostly shown in a headshot, while the pod people are only shown as feet. The film tries to cut back to Matthew and Elizabeth’s feet but it doesn’t take. Soon they’re running and the pod people are screaming and running after them.
These moments make the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more deeply troubling film than the original. At its heart, the film is still about the paranoia of the “other.” But this time the paranoia is bigger. Kaufman does a wonderful job of creating additional tension through use of lighting and camerawork. He establishes a noir mood–but in color–that compliments the story on the screen. Also since the story is familiar and audiences have some expectations, there seems to be an immediate distrust of new characters. That guys seems to be acting weird. Have they been replaced yet?
This version also starts that distrust almost immediately. The character that the audience has been introduced to has her significant other replaced at the beginning of the film. She begins the mantra of “this person looks like the person I know, but he’s not them.” When Matthew hears that he puts it off. But when he starts hearing this from random people on the street–the raving man in the street or his dry cleaner–is when he starts to believe. Unlike the original film where the underlying themes seemed to point to fear of Communist infiltration, the modern Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays off anxieties of the 1970s.
For those that have been reading Sci-Fi Saturdays over the last several months as I’ve talked about 70s sci-fi, you’ll know that the conspiracy theory sub-genre gained a lot of traction during this decade. The mistrust of corporations and governments, or any large group was a central tenet fueled by real-world problems the nation was facing. This was a time that the “me” generation was facing an identity crisis through changing social norms, sexual identity, and political uncertainty. Invasion of the Body Snatchers struck a nerve by showing that piece of self-identity as the last battlefield. Additionally when the world gets to be too much it’s always good to get some rest and reflect on the problems in your life. But Body Snatchers shows that there is no resting. If you fall asleep that’s when you finally lose. All the characters were having to fight that natural instinct to curl up and retreat within, as that was tantamount to failure. Matthew and Elizabeth even consume speed (methamphetamines) to continue to stay awake, just like the eternal partiers of the disco era.
The Science in The Fiction
In the modern world of science-fiction, explanations about origins and motivations move to the forefront in film. The original film never explained much about where the pods came from. Obviously they were aliens of some kind, but the importance was more about the human drama of discovering that people are being replaced. This version also cares about that but provides a bit more details about the arrival of the aliens. The prologue opens on a mysterious planet where these spores drift into space and eventually make their way to Earth. The succession of quick shots show the gelatinous forms falling with the rain and attaching to plant life in the San Francisco area. Their tendrils reach out assuming the forms of the plants they have landed on, making seed pods with sweet smelling flowers that attract the humans to pick them.
Later, after Dr. Kibner has been assimilated, he explains the only other bit of information revealed in the film. “We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt… and we survive.” Horrific! It seems like a plague of locusts that travel from planet to planet, decimating the dominant species until they destroy the ecosystem enough that they need to leave and start anew. Do these spores really recreate the humans they replace or is it a symbiotic relationship? It would seem the former based on some evidence from the film, but there is a precedent for the latter. Parasites like the zombie ant fungus, kamikaze horsehair worm, emerald cockroach wasp, toxoplasmosis, and even the rabies viruses all allow the host to live, while the parasite controls it. Maybe something similar to the euphoria and sense of calm that the “new humans” talk about.
The Final Frontier
An interesting “easter egg” occurs in the mud baths where a customer is reading “Worlds in Collision,” a 1950 book by Immanuel Velikovsky. It seems like it might offer some further explanation about the plot of the film, but on closer inspection it appears to be a treatise about a potential “end of days” scenarios, marketed as pseudoscience. However, the title of the book still makes an apt commentary about the “collision” between the alien race and Earth. A subtle nod by Kaufman to the problems that Earth is about to encounter, and a callback to the titles of the 50s sci-fi epics such as When Worlds Collide.
Philip Kaufman had been writing and directing films for a little over a decade by this time, with his previous credit being penning Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. The film he is best known for is his 1982 non-fiction adaptation of The Right Stuff, a film that deals with space, but not aliens. He is also credited with the story for the Spielberg/Lucas adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately this would be his last foray into sci-fi. Writer W.D. Richter on the other hand would go on to direct and write two of the 80s most iconic sci-fi films. His directorial debut was on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), an action-adventure film which postulates that the War of The Worlds radio broadcast was a cover-up for a real martian landing in 1938. He would then go on to write the screenplay for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), which is considered by many to be the sequel promised by Buckaroo Banzai. These two films will definitely show up on Sci-Fi Saturdays in the future.
The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is true to its filmic roots, while expanding the ideas of that story into a larger world, befitting of the late 70s. It had cameos from both the star and director of the original film. Kevin McCarthy was cast as the raving mad man in the street who warns the heroes that “they’re coming,” an extension of his characters’ final scene in the original, while the original director, Don Siegel, had a brief cameo as a cab driver that attempts to take the heroes into a pod processing area. The film expanded on the premise of the original in many aspects, but the surely unforgettable shot is the fusion of the homeless man and his boxer dog resulting in the mutated “man-headed dog” seen in Act Three. A chilling image that sticks with audiences!
In my review of the original film I mentioned how the frame story (of the FBI being called to stop the invasion) was connected to the final cut after the fact, as the studio was unsure of having such a downbeat ending at the time. I was sure that America wasn’t ready for such a shocking reveal that no one would believe the crazy man shouting “they’re coming!” Well, in 1978 they did it. The film ends with a horrific twist that no matter what steps the protagonists took to survive, it was all in vain, and soon the city–and the world–would be replicated by pod people. These are the things that remakes should do. They need to honor the source material, but make their own way in the world, potentially using the audience’s expectations against them. Don’t be fooled by all look-alikes, as they may not be what you expect!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.