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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Rating

Director
Philip Kaufman
Screenplay
W.D. Richter (Novel: Jack Finney)
Length
115 min.
Starring
Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle, Lelia Goldoni, Kevin McCarthy
MPAA Rating
PG

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Review
A lot of popular science fiction films from the 50s and 60s were given sequels, but here's the rare occurrence where the original idea was so potent and interesting that it bore a remake 22 years later. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has the same feel of the original, but without the dark gloom of a black-and-white frame, the chills must be elicited through other means.

Donald Sutherland stars as Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector. When his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) begins suspecting that her husband and, in turn other members of the community, have been replaced by identical, emotionaless copies, Bennell is at first skeptical. His skepticism is further aroused when Elizabeth swears she has followed her husband and witnessed the exchange of bizarre pod-like coccoons from which replicas emerge. But, as more strange simulacra begin emerging and his friends Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) have a harrowing experience with a pod at their small day spa, Sutherland begins trying to warn the police, the government and others of the events, but finding brick walls erected at every turn as the "Pod People" begin assimilating more and more of the populace.

The story is very similar to the 1956 original, though several minor, if somewhat consequential details have been changed. Instead of occurring in the small, fictional town of Santa Mira, the action takes place in the large metropolish of San Francisco. This setting change enables the filmmaker to play the situation off as a major event instead of a small one that might one day grow. It doesn't enhance the story much as the small town angle allowed for us to question if this really was happening and if it were, would we notice until it's too late. On the grander scale of a major city, you know for certain that it's too late, which helps grant the remake that tension it lost from being converted to color. However, it's not the only terrifying element that exists to keep this sequel surprisingly challenging.

McCarthyism was long replaced by a Cold War chill when the new film was released, thus the symbolic representation of Pod People as Communists infiltrating the U.S. was largely removed from the remake's meaning. Instead, we're left with a frightening alien invasion flick that generates more resonant fear than something like War of the Worlds. This subtle implication that we could be replaced before we know it and that the very act of recharging our bodies through sleep could make us vulnerable to replacement, is one of the key elements that defines the film's success.

Sutherland has a few manic moments in the film, but without his assured performance, the film might have collapsed. Adams seems a bit out of sorts, but seeing a young Goldblum in such a role makes for an interesting dynamic shift from his more recent efforts of which I am more familiar. Cartwright is probably the most interesting actor to watch as she keeps the tension palpably high just by her intense neuroticism. It could have been more calculated, extreme or outlandish, but what she does works. And I'll forgive Leonard Nimoy whose at-first stiff performance ends up being utterly perfect for the actor who, for three seasons, portrayed the logic-exclusive Star Trek Vulcan Spock.

The challenge with a remake is having the second film stand on its own when compared with the original. Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers does this quite well. In spite of questioanble changes in story to suit a more modern audience and the eradication of the more dynamic political elements of the original, what remains is a frequently scary film that plays a bit slow in parts, but never fails to give the audience just what it needs.

NOTE: Keep a look out in the film for a special cameo from the original film's Kevin McCarthy who re-enacts a scene from the original where he runs ranting into the streets warning everyone of the invasion. It's a clever moment that works surprisingly well in the framework of the film.
Review Written
August 15, 2011

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