Just as the original 1956 film adaptation of JACK FINNEY’s novel THE BODY SNATCHERS unintentionally provoked a variety of interpretations (boo communism!…No, boo McCarthyism!), so too does PHILIP KAUFMAN’s accomplished 1978 reconsideration (it’s just too good to call a “remake”!) How fascinating is it that no matter what your angle or bias is, FINNEY’s pod people scenario has always got your back? Worried that conservative ideology is spreading like a virus? It’s got you covered. Feel like plant hugging lefty pop psychology is creating a cult of soft dolts? It’s got you covered too. Everyone is invited to the paranoia party! All you need to know is that the world is falling apart and it’s all thanks to THEM, those other people; the ones who aren’t smart enough to think like you.
Let’s all take a moment to thank God for creating such a simple world where everything can be perceived either one way or the other; good or bad, left or right, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, dog or cat, Coke or Pepsi, Laverne or Shirley. Imagine how complicated and messy things would be otherwise!
To me, reading political allegory into the pod movies is fun yes, but it also does an enormous disservice to just how universal its larger concerns are. More than anything and regardless of its ambitions, the framework proudly stands as one of the strongest indictments of any and ALL conformity ever concocted (with the possible exception of SHIRLEY JACKSON’s “The Lottery.”) Putting that massive accomplishment to the side though, what’s at stake here is a bit bigger than whatever side you’re NOT on getting the upper hand. When the pods come it won’t matter what state, country our religious background you come from, we’re ALL going down. All of humanity is getting erased. You won’t be blaming anyone any more, you won’t want to.
Putting that vaguely appealing thought aside though, I have to say it’s the acute social alienation encrusting the tale that really gets under this paranoid person’s skin. No matter the incarnation, FINNEY’s mold hits a tender nerve most narratives gladly stay clear of, the fear that we as people never really know one another. As if that weren’t disquieting enough, the fear of losing our sense of self is nettled with equal sadistic verve. In both films, we may eventually learn the rules of the game and exactly what the space pods are up to, but before we get there we’re shown a cold, apathetic soulless drone infected world that (yikes!) rings a bell that is way too familiar for any viewers comfort.
I think it’s telling and ironic that when presented with a fiction about the global annihilation of the life form known as man (yes, I just quoted the Imperious Leader!) the first thing many people think of is, “Oh, this is really about those jerks that I don’t like!” You can read it that way if you wish; many do but before you pat yourself on the back and pull out that cigar kindly check the neon sign flashing in the corner that says “YOU ARE LOOSING YOUR HUMANITY!” In my opinion INVASION (whichever one) is not singling out any one group, all y’all is busted! (And that includes sweet innocent me!) Perceiving it to be about “those other guys” is sort of like a dog barking at its own reflection in a pool.
Maybe we don’t all suck as much as I am telling you that we do (let’s leave that up to OPRAH to decide) but I believe that the reason the movie resonates and refuses to go away is because we intuitively recognize its Cassandra wail to be true. We sense its frustrating accuracy not only on a social or cultural level but also personally. Just go and walk outside your door and bask in the disconnect that modern life affords us. Better yet, just think about it the next time you’re sitting with one person and “texting” somebody else. (No, you can’t kid a kidder kids, they’ve yet to invent any advancement in the area of “communication” that can’t be used as a convenient human contact avoidance device.) The premise’s inherent (albeit possibly unintentional) cultural critique is damning enough, but there is yet another darker stallion galloping up just behind. INVASION knows your dirty little secret, that as every year goes by it gets a little bit easier not to give a shit. There’s a reason why the film’s most notorious and unshakable image is a figure pointing into the camera. That pod bastard is pointing at you!
I’m getting ahead of myself, we’ll get back to INVASION’s naggy accusations later…
I saw the 1978 INVASION in the theater as a youngin’ and it did much to encourage my love of the genre. (Like many people in my age group it also happens to be the landmark watershed moment when I first saw boobs, I don’t care about your orientation, that’s not something you forget.) I’m a ginormous (beg to differ spell-check, ginormous IS a word now and has been since 2007, get with the times!) fan of the film but I am especially fond of its first quarter. I just feast upon the acrid paranoid vibe before anyone has an inkling of what’s going down. It’s just deliciously suspicious and distrustful and if you snatched the space plants out of the picture it would play like classic noir.
Even more amusing may be the way KAUFMAN’s version exploits its premise to add some extra, not of this Earth potency to the standard love triangle. Elizabeth (BROOKE ADAMS, she of the inaugural bosom) is torn between her floppy haired, soft sweater wearing, wok-cooking platonic pal Matthew (DONALD SUTHERLAND) and her live in beau Geoffrey (THE BROOD’s ART HINDLE). Geoff is a stiff, suit wearing stick in the mud shown as distant and remote (wearing earphones, enraptured by a television) before his body is snatched. He and Elizabeth seem destined for couples therapy from the get-go, this new pod predicament is just icing on an already stale cake.
Platonic or not Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s relationship shines like the perfect antithesis of the alien agenda. Their interactions are sublimely human, their connection unquestionable. They share in-jokes, finish each other’s thoughts and blissfully engage in each other’s company. So too do pals Nancy and Jack (Kinder-Goddess VERONICA CARTWRIGHT and the patron saint of geekdom, JEFF GOLDBLUM), quirky eccentrics whose individualism, if lost, really would be a profound shame. I tend to consider INVASION more of a horror film but its core manifesto is clearly snatched from the best of sci-fi. If INVASION is on any side at all, it is on the side of staying awake (the hypnotist snaps his fingers) and if it’s trying to tell you anything, it is that there is something wrong with living in a world where you need to suppress your true self in order to survive. Yes, my fellow humans, feelings (whoa, whoa, whoa,…feelings!) are the currency that you can’t afford to lose. Kudos FINNEY, usually we need a robot to give us that tip!
I know it sounds touchy-feely corny but don’t give a wedgie to the messenger. This movie mines a worry that many don’t acknowledge but feel within their bones anyway, that to function in the world a certain amount of shelving of our true selves is required. It’s no problem to scrape away a little bit of your soul at a time to fit through certain doorways but how much scraping can you concede to before you stop, look around and wonder, when and where exactly did you stop being you? Again, the devastation INVASION presents may be ostensibly fantastic but its jellyfish sting lingers due to our familiarity with it.
Let’s face it; we already live in a culture that sledgehammers the idea that emotions are a sign of weakness, that they get in the way. What a great trick to keep us in order and cutting ourselves off at the knees. What a great way to keep us disconnected and unanswerable to the fates of our friends. What a great way to shut people up, to put them to sleep. What a great way to starve the soul into submission. It’s not for nothing that within the film that once duplicated and replaced, the first order of business for a snatched body is getting to work! Move those pods! Chop! Chop! I hate to be the bearer of bad news gentle readers but to quote both films “They’re already here!”
Who needs to express themselves when you can watch people on Reality Television shows do it for you? Who needs dreams of success when you can watch the rich frolicking on the glass teat for free? Who cares about your emotional fulfillment in the first place? The better question is how’s that JENNIFER ANISTON holding up? If you need some help fitting in here’s a make-over show to show you how to be more presentable (it may cost you some money though!). Oh, and here’s a program to show you how to decorate your home correctly but first we’ll ask you to throw all of your most valued possessions in the garbage. Don’t worry, it’s in order to make room for your new socially acceptable dream crypt! By the way, why aren’t you happy all the time? You’re supposed to be happy all the time!
There’s a reason FINNEY’s concept won’t kick the bucket.
Conformity is an ugly word but the idea of fitting in is not without its charms. In fact, if you dress up fugly “Conformity” in the pretty dress of “Acceptance” the troll looks kind of hot! We all know what emotions are, we’ve all had them and we all know its false advertising to suggest that all of them are a blast. Rumor has it that there are rich rewards to be found by scrambling through life’s emotional trenches but isn’t it easier just to buy yourself a real, tangible gift instead?
This is where INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS stops being thrilling entertainment and stars being a big fat piece of brilliant art. It’s the opposite of a backhanded compliment, it’s a condemnation covered with kisses. It knows how tempting it is to get lost in the crowd, to fall in step, to sell out your pain and it’s looking you straight in the eye and saying you are worth more, that EVERYBODY is worth more. It warns you that sleep is the enemy and it goes one better and points out how to identify the already stricken and lost by their emotionless gaze. It does not have the side of any one group, on the contrary, it laments that such groups restrain our humanity.
I’m going to say it once again to all those Oscar winning weepies and critically lauded period pieces that didn’t hear me the first time. If you ever really want to talk about what’s relevant in life, you need to start taking some cues from teams horror and sci-fi, they don’t fucking play around.
O.K. so I’m starting to get rowdy which is my signal to wrap it the hell up. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is an extraordinarily profound erupting volcano of genius. You can’t go wrong with either the 1956 or the 1978 version (you’re on your own with the other two). These films are beyond cautionary tales they are a rallying cry. Keep dodging those who want to douse your fire! Don’t let anyone tell you what to think! Relish your emotions, don’t curb them! Stop texting people and actually talk to them for crying out loud. Most importantly, if you can do a crazy, weird trick with your eyeballs, by all means do it!
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman.