This first remake of the 1956 sci-fi classic retains many of the original’s story points, clears up the bio minutiae for literal-minded viewers and adds a fascinating social commentary about ’70s lifestyles that’s almost as depressing as the idea of being ‘replaced’ by an alien simulacrum. Philip Kaufman’s first big hit is a worthy picture that’s maintained its high reputation … and it’s even scarier in today’s socio-political climate.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 115 min. / Street Date November 23, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle, Lelia Goldoni, Kevin McCarthy, Don Siegel, Tom Luddy, Stan Ritchie, David Fisher, Tom Dahlgren, Garry Goodrow, Michael Chapman, Robert Duvall.
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Production Designer: Charles Rosen
Film Editor: Douglas Stewart
Original Music: Denny Zeitlin
Written by W.D. Richter from a novel by Jack Finney
Produced by Robert H. Solo
Directed by Philip Kaufman
This fan of the original Don Siegel classic didn’t welcome Philip Kaufman’s ‘heretical’ remake, thinking that the 1956 movie from Jack Finney’s book was already perfect and needed to be seen more, not locked away as a curio. Well, that didn’t happen, and when I did catch up to the United Artists- released Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was shocked to discover that it was a partial re-think of the original idea, breaking new ground and with slightly different aims. By 1978 we were weary of Watergate and had fully absorbed the cynical lessons of political conspiracy films like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. We didn’t need a retread of the same paranoid story points, as an anxious hero realizes that, omigosh, it isn’t just his husband/uncle/cocker spaniel that’s been possessed by blue meanies from pluto, it’s everybody.
In science fiction filmmaking the theme of human duplication bounces back to life with each new moviegoing generation. In 1975 I screened Invaders from Mars in a Sci-fi film series at UCLA. When I asked my packed-house audience, ‘have you ever had nightmares from this movie?’ fully half raised their hands.
W.D. Richter’s intelligent script makes use of a substantially longer running time to put off the action-thriller aspect of the story until way in the third act; he and director Kaufman make sure to include more chase scenes and big explosions, just in case the studio suits worry that the movie isn’t commercial. The emphasis is on keen storytelling and vivid, sympathetic characterizations. When it comes to combating pods from outer space, San Francisco’s young professionals and New Age hipsters ought to be better equipped than the Eisenhower-era squares of rural Santa Mira, right? Not really.
City Health Inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a dedicated public servant who takes his job seriously. He makes no friends as he prowls restaurants and other businesses keeping sickness and disease out of San Francisco. He and his lab tech Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) are more than friendly but he respects her live-in relationship with dentist Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle of The Brood). All that changes when Geoffrey seems to undergo a personality change; Elizabeth observes him behaving oddly with strangers, preparing something on the sly. Matthew takes Elizabeth to a book signing to talk to his friend, author and alternate-therapy psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). But the visit is in no way calming. A near-hysterical woman named Katherine (Leilia Goldoni of Shadows) is convinced that her husband has changed, too. Matthew and Elizabeth’s poet friend Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) goes back to the spa he runs with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright of Alien), where they’re both terrorized to discover a strange half-formed body on one of the massage tables — a revelation that brings all of Matthew’s friends together. They theorize that maybe something fantastic is happening all around them, to the entire city.
I’d call this classy revisit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a kind of ‘post-paranoid’ fable. Miles Bennell of the 1956 original enjoyed a calm rural existence, knowing many of his neighbors by name. Everybody minded their own business and subscribed to the prevailing consensus view of normalcy. It’s a time of relative peace and stability, even if various social undercurrents have been edged out of the mainstream.
Matthew Bennell’s 1978 San Francisco lacks any communal cohesion. Intellectuals might call it a lively forum of clashing attitudes and competing ideas, but screenwriter Richter’s take is that nobody gets along with anyone. As Michael Ritchie said, the citizens aren’t living lives, but pursue ‘lifestyles’ that mainly amount to enjoying their individual prosperity. Dentist Geoffrey can afford a handsome home on a hill street; he has his stereo and his TV sports and a girlfriend to come when he wants her. As Elizabeth likes him maybe he’s a nice guy, really. But like most everyone else he has his personal agenda free of commitments to any larger social responsibilities.
Jeff Goldblum’s poet Jack Bellicec comes off as a soured version of Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) from The Seventh Victim. Instead of an ineffectual, pitiful romantic, Jack is an insecure neurotic, unpleasantly jealous of Dr. Kibner, who sells books and attracts admirers and fans. Jack’s infantile reaction is to be rude to everybody. He and his sweet wife Nancy nurse each other’s anxieties while operating their spa; she follows her own litany of fads and trends, is interested in plants as sentient spirits, etc.. She’s the first to declare the emergency an invasion from outer space, a case of a reckless imagination unknowingly shouting the truth.
Choosing Leonard Nimoy as the alpha-male psych-healing guru is inspired casting. The very un-Spockian Dr. Kibner has a glib answer for every ailment, happily hawking his self-help platitudes to coddle the dismayed and disenchanted. Attending to Katherine’s distress in public gives him an audience for his super-powers, and it’s more dramatic than signing books. Whatever seems to be the problem, Kibner is there to assure you that HE has the answer. Kibner is such an interfering SOB that it’s difficult to tell when he’s acting as himself, or as one of the new soulless imitation humans. When he’s definitely a pod, he’s still giving out with the New Age babble-speak.
In other words, upscale society in this vision has developed into a snarl of selfish, incompatible individuals, all pursuing life & liberty without any sense of communal commitment. A little conformity might actually help, if anybody could agree on what to conform to.
Matthew Bennell is already committed to the common good, by profession. His principles won’t tolerate cheating restaurants; he issues unpopular citations because he believes in regulations that require individual sacrifices. For his efforts he’s despised, and his car vandalized. Everybody believes in doing the right thing but not when it impinges on their immediate convenience. Kibner, Bellicec, the restaurant people are just human, which is not a good thing. Self-interest always comes first. The lack of a social consensus makes us wonder if saving humanity is a worthwhile goal.
Well, sure it is, when the alternative is the eradication of our individual identities, with independent emotions and inspirations. This version repeats several key dialogue lines from the Daniel Mainwaring-Jack Finney original, including the Pod’s assurances that Love is a hindrance we’d all be happier without. Those damn pods, they’ll say anything to get us to ditch our humanity.
That social criticism is what updates this worthy remake; the other big change is the addition of much more elaborate, yet subtle makeup effects. Richter and Kaufman sketch out a frighteningly efficient, wholly unstoppable life cycle for those damn pods from outer space. They’re first envisioned as milky spores or DNA liquid, apparently just drifting in space in the hope of landing on some fertile planet, like sperm randomly searching for an egg, any egg, anywhere. That idea reminds us of Nigel Kneale’s premise for The Quatermass Xperiment, that the void above might be teeming with drifting life forms looking to get lucky. “Life Will Find A Way” is apparently a cosmic standard, as these goopy space germs arrive like any other non-native intruder, eager for any biological opportunity.
This remake spells out the icky specifics. Globs of easily overlooked goo rain down across San Francisco, take root and sprout little pods like flowered avocados. Budding horticulturist Elizabeth notices right away and is drawn to their unusual nature — they’re attractive. The bio-lure strategy is so attuned to human nature that those little drops of DNA must be able to learn about us, just by being near.
The takeover process is the same as before, but with most of question marks removed. The predatory mini-pods are so efficient this time around that humanity simply hasn’t got a prayer, no matter what anybody does. The random individuals first duplicated immediately form networks, victimizing those close to them. That’s what Geoffrey tries to do with Elizabeth, as he simultaneously makes contact with several neighbors. These pod people gather in groups but don’t have to talk to each other — they appear to communicate their instructions telepathically, at least a close range.
The very outlandishness of the aliens’ biological duplication process guarantees that nobody will figure it out until it’s too late. By the time Matthew Bennell is alerted it’s pointless to organize an opposition — the conspiracy seizes most of the city in less than a day or two. Matthew is actually a little stupid, calling up various civil authorities and agreeing to keep his alarms to himself ‘for a little while.’ If he’d watched Invaders from Mars he might have figured things out sooner, at least in time to save his friends.
In 1956 the revelation that your local telephone operator might be ‘in’ on a diabolical scheme was a ‘crazy idea’ that only a paranoid would believe. Not any more. The excitable, already-distrusting Bellicecs are conspiracy buffs. Jack has to shout at Matthew to make him stop contacting official channels. Kaufman’s direction doesn’t assure us that the pods will be defeated: nobody is going to discover just in time that salt water dissolves them. (spoiler) We know all is lost when it becomes clear that Dr. Kibner is playing for the Away Team … that anybody would trust that jerk with their personal wellbeing is the definition of personal surrender.
With the participation of Kevin McCarthy and Don Siegel, not to mention an odd glimpse of actor Robert Duvall, we admire Invasion ’78’s roundup of fine performances. Donald Sutherland has always scored big in fantastic film, lending credibility to sci-fi stories even wilder than this one. Matthew is both a gentleman with Elizabeth and a noble warrior for human survival, but he can’t keep up with this lightning-fast ‘public health emergency.’ Sutherland is sufficiently athletic to be credible when climbing catwalks to sabotage an enormous seed pod greenhouse. (Odd association there, the greenhouse may remind many of outlaw cannabis operations.)
The screenplay isn’t particularly emancipated. Brooke Adams’ Elizabeth is an emotional, reactive lightning rod for the invasion, first detecting an abnormality through old-fashioned femme intuition. The irony here is that Elizabeth’s Geoffrey starts out as such a self-involved jerk, we wonder how she can tell that he’s changed. Maybe it’s just that Geoffrey suddenly stops demanding impromptu sex?
Jeff Goldblum had previously played a number of standout movie bits but this may be the first time a part was big enough to allow him to sketch a full arc. A neurotic pest, Jack eventually reveals a heroic side in the face of defeat. Favorite Veronica Cartwright grabbed all of us with her convincing pre-teen panic attacks in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Her anguish gives this movie its killer finale, emotional implosion magic that she was asked to recreate for the next year’s Alien. Ms. Cartwright is a proud example of Philip Kaufman’s ability to be loyal to his performers. A few years later in Kaufman’s excellent The Right Stuff, she really sells the demanding role of Mrs. Gus Grissom.
(Spoiler:) Invasion ’78 falls off its pace only a tiny bit during the last act’s drawn-out struggle of our still-human friends to escape the pod conspiracy. We learn that in the course of just a couple of days, San Francisco is mass-exporting pods in all directions. The staff of the health office mainly just stands around, looking bored; when Matthew joins a conformist parade of people walking by his doorway, he’s apparently just habitually ‘doing what everybody’s doing,’ not obeying a specific dog-whistle summons, like the air-raid signal for the Eloi in George Pal’s The Time Machine. The shape and direction of the pod takeover is so purposeful that we have to wonder about what happens with the smug alien victors after the fade-out, or more accurately, the Sutherland maw iris to black. What’s the ultimate goal of these space invaders? Are they similar to dumb terrestrial organisms that by instinct will exploit a habitat, wipe out enemies and finally starve each other when the resources are expended? Or once all the humans are eliminated, will they transform into some original life-form? It’s the same thing we’d like to ask of a shape-shifting The Thing invader: once your disguises and deceptions are no longer needed, what’s the next step?
Or, as long as I’m writing the sequel, why not have the aliens feel comfortable living in human skins, on a planet they can save by halting climate change? If they live in the same conditions humans lived in, why shouldn’t they develop individual human consciousness, emotions, and essentially begin to turn into us? Then the 1978 revision might approach a 2021 vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If anything I was mildly depressed at how much Kaufman’s exaggerated humans resembled today’s self-satisfied body politic. We’re so into individualistic freedom that we’re incapable of saving ourselves on a mass scale. Through pigheaded politics and ignorant denial, global humanity has been brought low and humiliated by a stupid mutant virus.
The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is certainly the best I’ve seen this movie. A new 4K scan was made, and Philip Kaufman approved the final color timing. The Ultra HD contrast and detail allows all those shots of dark green foliage, and creepy images of things growing and festering, to remain very dark yet be easy to see. I remember that some optical zooms were once very grainy, particularly the film’s final shot. They’re less grainy now, which I’m guessing was accomplished with a digital clean-up? Someone who has older copies of the show on DVD will have to confirm/correct this.
The special edition has two discs. The 4K Ultra HD main disc with Dolby Vision has the feature and a pair of commentaries, an old one with director Kaufman and a newer track with Steve Haberman. All of the video extras are on a second Blu-ray disc, which carries a 1080P conversion of the new transfer — it’s not an older disc, repackaged.
None of the extras shout ‘New’ on the package text, so I’ll assume they’re all from earlier Arrow-MGM (2007) and Shout Factory (2016) releases. Director Kaufman says that two endings were scripted, just like the two contrasting conclusions filmed for the Edmond O’Brien version of Orwell’s 1984 (Columbia, 1956). We get to see interviews with W.D. Richter filmed decades apart; he’s amiable in all of them. Everybody denies any agenda besides entertainment, especially Richter — who then contradicts himself with an excellent explanation of his theory about the ‘New Age’ isolation and non-conforming conformity of the 1970s. Richter also remembers scenes as being ambiguous, even as film clips show Don Siegel’s cabbie obviously driving Elizabeth and Matthew into a police trap.
Interesting interviews give us the composer Denny Zeitlin (this great score is his only feature work) and actor Art Hindle, who recalls seeing the original picture as a small child. The Jack Finney authority Jack Seabrook tells us that a Finney short story collection was a major inspiration for The Twilight Zone. A piece on the special effects explains that the opening montage showing space globs leaving a distant planet and growing in San Francisco, was done for pennies with common items from hardware stores. Audio expert Ben Burtt offers a very good talk about how all those weird noises were conjured out of thin air. He used altered recordings of an unborn baby’s heartbeat to represent the growing pods. Pig squeals were part of the audio sandwich that formed the aliens’ ‘horror screams.’ Another audio specialist says that the Dolby company used the movie to demonstrate their technology — after Star Wars the use of Dolby noise reduction became an industry standard.
An older generalized featurette from MGM gathers everybody — Richter, Kaufman, Sutherland, cinematographer Michael Chapman, Veronica Cartwright — for interesting discussions. Sutherland and Kaufman tell us that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers had more humorous scenes, but that Allied Artists had most of them removed.
Is this Invasion of the Body Snatchers the first major revisit-remake of a Sci-Fi classic? I liked very few of the ’80s remakes, although The Thing has good qualities and Cronenberg’s The Fly is a masterpiece. Kaufman and Richter didn’t just rehash pod paranoia thrills for the Watergate generation — their vision of American evolution after just twenty years says a lot about the Pod Takeover, as a metaphor for the belief that humanity has become less human.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Sound:Excellent 5.1 Surround & Lossless 2.0 Audio
4K UHD DISC 1:
Two separate audio commentaries: with Director Philip Kaufman, and with Steve Haberman
BLU-RAY DISC 2:
Same audio commentaries as on the 4K version.
Star-Crossed in the Invasion with Brooke Adams (9:06), Re-Creating the Invasion with W.D. Richter (15:43), Scoring the Invasion with Composer Denny Zeitlin (15:34), Leading the Invasion with actor Art Hindle (25:04), Writing the Pod with Jack Finney Expert Jack Seabrook (11:14).
Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod (16:14), Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod (4:38), The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod (12:47), The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod (5:24).
TV Spots, Radio Spots, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K UHD disc and one Blu-ray disc in Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Josh Olson on Kaufman’s classic: