Is the third time the charm for Jack Finney’s stubborn human duplicator pods? Abel Ferrara keeps the faith and makes a straight, effective revisit of the paranoid classic. Does it all seem too familiar now, or are we just more Pod-like and less excitable?
Warner Archive Collection
1993 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date October 18, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Gabrielle Anwar, Forest Whitaker, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth, Reilly Murphy, Christine Elise, R. Lee Ermey, Kathleen Doyle, G. Elvis Phillips.
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Film Editor: Anthony Redman
Original Music: Joe Delia
Screenplay: Dennis Paoli, Nicholas St. John, Stuart Gordon story by Raymond Cistheri, Larry Cohen, from the novel by Jack Finney
Produced by Robert H. Solo
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Still the most potent and meaningful movie expression of modern paranoia is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the first film made from a science fiction novella by Jack Finney. That adaptation sidestepped the physical details of a biological invasion to concentrate on the horror of possession, and the loss of identity. The movie has power because it’s easy to follow emotionally, even when what is happening to people is not fully explained. The concept of aliens that can duplicate our bodies touches on disturbing philosophical problems. It’s not like humanity has come to any consensus about what constitutes personal identity. Do we have souls? Is there some essence that makes us who we are, or are we just accidents of biology? People were asking these questions 3,000 years ago and the answers are still not clear. What is consciousness? Are we in control of our minds, or are we ‘possessed’ by cultural conditioning? Can a person become an involuntary slave to outside ideas?
That first classic version Invasion of the Body Snatchers is core viewing for baby boomers, as its Pod People prescribe emotionless conformity as the solution for the modern ills of anxiety. If being human is such a psychic burden, why not opt for a more stable existence? Think of the apparent millions of people that already subsist on mood-altering drugs, to ‘suppress’ the anxieties of day-to-day living. By keeping the mechanics vague and the sentiments simple — “I want to love and be loved” — this first version by Daniel Mainwaring is capable of many interpretations. It serves as a political Rorschach Test, as different viewers see the film’s menace as a cover for any number of ‘-isms’ from the editorial pages. It’s one of the top two or three science fiction films of the 1950s because it transcends the usual limits of the genre — it communicates difficult abstract ideas, and opens minds.
W.D. Richter and Philip Kaufman collaborated on a 1978 update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The clever pastiche shows the same biological conspiracy-invasion at work in a big city instead of a small town, and has its own winning personality. San Francisco’s designer lifestyles and self-realization trends are especially vulnerable to takeover, as jaded city folk routinely ignore aberrant behavior. They’re too focused on their personal interests to catch a trend until it has peaked, even if the trend is a pernicious bio-invasion. In keeping with commercial necessity, the last act stops revealing new ideas and settles for a nihilistic action-horror climax.
Author Finney saw the need to revise his original book with a happy ending, and Allied Artists and Don Siegel heeded the marketplace by offering hope that the Pods might not spread much further than Santa Mira. But by the 1970s nihilistic horror was firmly established. Many stories chose bleak endings — the vampires win, the zombies prevail. Doom is a foregone conclusion in the pessimistic 1978 remake.
Titled simply Body Snatchers, the 1993 second remake is sort of the Never Say Never Again of science fiction: the producer(s) that optioned the Finney property for the 1978 film decided that it would be good business to make it again, the same only different. Unlike the botched remakes of Invaders from Mars and The Blob, this remake has integrity, if not originality. The creative Abel Ferrara directs an able cast. Noted genre names Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon are listed in the writing credits. The main change that everybody notices, yet isn’t really explored to any specific purpose, is the setting: instead of a sleepy small town or a big city, this invasion begins on a U.S. Army base.
E.P.A. inspector Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) is doing a survey of Army bases, which means that his wife Carol (Meg Tilly), young son Andy (Reilly Murphy) and teenage daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) must accompany him from base to base. Arriving at the establishment of General Platt (R. Lee Ermey), the Malones encounter the telltale symptoms of mass bodysnatching from outer space: an irrational, panicked soldier; a Major in the medical corps (Forest Whitaker) who expresses a nervous anxiety that something very wrong is happening. Mari makes friendly connections with the General’s spirited daughter Jenn (Christine Elise), and a gentlemanly helicopter pilot, Tim Young (Billy Wirth). The regimentation of Army society makes the mass duplication of the thousands of soldiers and civilian personnel on the base practically an overnight process, with the only apparent limit being how quickly alien pods can be grown in a nearby marsh. With hardly a chance to react, the family is taken over, starting with poor Carol. This time, the physiological mechanics are explicitly shown… and they’re not for the squeamish.
There isn’t much in the way of suspense in this third go-round for the Body Snatchers story. Through no fault of their own the individual family members fall before the onslaught of impersonal alien takeover. Even viewers unaware of the previous films will see everything coming a mile off — the tenets of Cinema of Paranoia are now too well known. Anyone who acts strange is an alien duplicate. If contact is lost with a loved one, the next time we see them they will be an alien duplicate, and so forth. The screenplay repeats key dialogue bits from the first film, which may have been in the book as well: ‘it is futile to resist us;’ ‘your humanity is a burden.’
There are some new things. One fresh notion is introduced in Andy’s preschool class, when all of his Pod classmates produce identical finger-painting artwork. Andy is righteously freaked out. But the idea is counterproductive to the overall story idea: why are the preschool kids being taught to think and act the same? Aren’t Pod people like that already? I don’t believe that the Pod People whether kids or adults are telepathically connected, like the aliens of Village of the Damned. If they were, they’d know automatically who is or isn’t a Pod.
Wisely, there are few if any philosophical discussions of the kind heard in the first two films. Overt message statements were required in the 1950s, and the 1978 remake gave us Leonard Nimoy as a self-help guru prone to theorizing about abstract notions. For him, the surrender to alien duplication was merely another lifestyle option to be debated – that’s part of the quirky charm of the Kaufman version. Nor is there anything particularly meaningful in the military base as a setting – if the movie is criticizing the military by likening it to Pod culture, it’s a really lame analogy. The only benefit of the Army base setting is that scurrilous activities are easily hidden behind barbed wire fences: toxic waste dumping, or the breeding of alien invaders.
The military context does make us think of the great Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2, which cleverly suggests that the bureaucracy, central control and mass social reorganization of the new socialism in the U.K. provide a ready-made nest for alien invaders. Perhaps Kneale was against all those social programs like The National Health? But Body Snatchers doesn’t equate the military life with the Pod existence, at least not to me.
Made much more explicit than in previous versions is the physical duplication process, which we see in action several times. The intellectual concepts introduced in the original Siegel version were such a bullet to the brain that we didn’t care that its pod mechanics don’t add up. We don’t see what happens to the human victims, and one transformation appears to take place when there isn’t even a Pod nearby. Abel Ferrara’s Pods are nasty shapeless sacs, from which ooze dozens of bean sprout-like tendrils that invade the body through one’s nose and mouth; it’s like being nasally raped by slimy squid tentacles. We see the replacement body forming at lightning speed. Some key Life Force Identity element must be the last thing transferred, for if the tendril connection is broken in mid-duplication, the body left without it crumples into a disgusting mess that almost immediately turns to dust, like Chris Lee at high noon. The physical effects to accomplish this are very impressive.
Body Snatchers feels like a favorite bedtime story being told again with variations. Repeated from the shock ending of the earlier sequel is Donald Sutherland’s point-and-scream schtick, raising the alarm that an unduplicated human has been detected. The producer must have decided that ‘the fans’ wouldn’t be happy without this detail. I didn’t mind Gabrielle Anwar’s narration… except that it makes us ask, from what future point of stability is Marti narrating?
Ferrara’s direction is quite good, whether handling the effects sequences or directing his actors. As none are stars-that-must-prevail, we’re convinced right from the start that things will not end well. Frightened soldiers, concerned officers, hipster friends, beloved family members — all are replaced by the alien duplicates. Ferrara plays the story very straight, and doesn’t use much screen time to bring us closer to the characters. Steve and Carol play a little matrimonial footsie in bed, Marti and her new pilot friend have a nice little exchange that leads to a kiss, and that’s about it. Body Snatchers doesn’t go overboard with exploitative content. It avoids lame gunfights and its explosive climax is properly motivated. And the emphasis on human bodies in transformation makes the nude scenes with Gabrielle Anwar and Meg Tilly’s body double very appropriate. Don’t worry mother, she was naked but it was only because she was growing into a duplicate of herself, you know, a biological cloning situation. It didn’t inspire a single impure thought.
The takeover of the Army base is so swift that we wonder what will happen next. As discussed at the conclusion of Carpenter’s The Thing, when everybody is a Pod, the aliens will no longer need to ‘pretend’ to be human. Will this ‘copycat’ alien life form just go through the same motions as humanity, only with less emotionalism? We don’t know if they even procreate like we do, or if they are immortal, or if they will just die out. A mass colony doesn’t need so many redundant ‘worker bees,’ so is there a hive organization that will cull the herd? They will no longer need armies, that’s for sure. As the Pods claim to not have basic human ambitions or desires, we have no idea what they will be up to, post victory. These Vegetable People now have the bodies of humans and live in our world, but they show no interest in the delight of being human. I should think that this Body Snatchers concept is more than ready to proceed to the next level. No more remakes, please. Next time out let’s see a conceptual sequel.
I guess it’s worth mentioning another unofficial remake, 1962’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth, which shows the duplication of a single family without an icky biological in-between stage. There was yet another official remake, 2007’s The Invasion but I haven’t seen it. I have imagined a triple bill, with The Invasion, Of The and Body Snatchers on the same bill, but that can’t happen until somebody makes a movie called Of The.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Body Snatchers is a flawless transfer of this handsomely produced and photographed movie. It’s all quite dark and moody. The film’s polished surface shows no quality shift between first unit and special effects work, making the creepy transformation-takeover sequences all the more believable. I don’t think that very much CGI work was involved, but I’m not certain; maybe for wire removal. The effects are well scaled and coordinated with the storytelling style. We stop looking for flaws very early on.
The WAC provides subtitles but no extras; the plainwrap release of this creepy-crawly Sci-Fi is just in time for Halloween.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 30, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson