****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum
screenplay by W.D. Richter, based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
directed by Philip Kaufman
by Walter Chaw I've come to believe that Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not only better than Don Siegel's honoured 1956 original but also one of the best films of the best era in filmmaking. Even in so deep a well as this New American Cinema of ours--one that has forgotten gems like Cockfighter, Fat City, Law and Disorder, Night Moves, and Electra Glide in Blue in there propping up films like Chinatown, The Godfather I/II, Apocalypse Now, Nashville, The Conversation, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and on and on, trailing into incandescent, brilliant eternity--this little work of absolute paranoid craftsmanship bears up under multiple viewings and close scrutiny and provides a succinct, prescient, terrifying précis of the decade before and the decade to come. What better analogy for the looming Reagan administration than pods stalking in lock-step, armed with arbitrary titles and senses of entitlement, steadfastly incapable of heeding the drumbeat of doom in the black jungles around us? It's a film about the absolute horror of complete conformity and non-engagement, as well as a reintroduction to the McCarthy-ian ideal that the only thing to get terribly exercised about is the ferreting out and excoriation of differing values. Arriving as it does in 1978, at the tail end of the most creative period in American film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers offers up a warning against complacency in the immediate wake of Jaws and Star Wars, which sounded the death knell for the artistry of this period arm-in-arm with the dawning of some unknown, mass- consumed and marketed ethic.
Overzealous health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) treats his civil-servant post like a petty fiefdom and nurses an unrequited love for best friend and colleague Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), who is, as the movie opens, married to Warriors fanatic Dr. Geoffrey, DDS (Art Hindle, of Black Christmas and The Brood fame). Matthew is lonesome and just this side of unpleasant in high '70s anti-hero style; when he hears of possible strife in Elizabeth's relationship, his reaction is so hungry, so opportunistic, that his desire can arguably be seen as an analogy for the opportunism of the coming invasion. The pods--plants that mimic humans in every respect, save their humanity--present the hive mind as the path to least resistance and explain, incidentally, the popularity of the promise of salvation in the life of a sheep. They seek to propagate, but their ultimate goal appears to be merely bland domesticity. When the film layers in an extended satire of New Age spiritualism in a tuned-in/dropped-out San Francisco subculture, it equates the paranoia of the picture with social commentary about peoples' ultimate desire to be led by the nose. Invasion of the Body Snatchers shares the idea with its New American Cinema brothers that the American Male is no longer capable of affecting change, is solipsistic and neutered and engaged in small professions like mob lawyer, hairdresser, investigative journalist, surveillance expert, and garbage collector--heroes who offer no greater resistance to the advancing flood than good intentions. But the picture also puts forth a sort of Camus-inspired idea that there's actually a desire in most to heed the popular clarion--that individuals and proponents of free thought and the minority viewpoint are hindrances to collective happiness. Gadflies, once treasured stirrers of the proverbial pot, are gunned down like dogs in our post-modern dystopia in movable Golgothas.
Kaufman's direction is extraordinary. Again, in a decade of singular auteur moments, this masterpiece stands out as a unified vision of wrong angles, subtle magnifications, inexplicable attention to perverse details, and breathless payoffs. Consider Robert Duvall's cameo in the opening of the film as a Catholic priest on a swing who's paying entirely too much attention to a group of schoolchildren; the peppering throughout the film's first act of people pressed up against their windows, watching the camera pass by; the dump trucks full of mysterious grey matter; the unsettling close-up of a telephone cord snaking back into its hole; and the double- and triple-takes as our heroes come to the realization that something is amiss, though they're not quite sure what it is. It's the chiding admonition of Buffalo Springfield's 1967 hit "For What It's Worth" delivered with acid irony ten years on. Consider, too, the performances--the extraordinary comfort Sutherland has with Adams and a moment before the horror begins in earnest where he asks her to do a little trick with her eyes that lends the couple years of backstory in an instant. Sutherland, between this and Don't Look Now, gives the '70s its best men-in-relationships performances; between this and her turn in Days of Heaven, Adams is his distaff equivalent. And the picture starts off so beautifully that I've stopped the film before at the introduction of pals Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Sally (Veronica Cartwright) in their spa to watch the beginning all over again.
The entirety of Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves repeated viewings, not just to luxuriate in its craft but to marvel at the way that Jack Finney's story of dehumanization and paranoia has been applicable in various ways to no fewer than four different decades. It's tighter than a drum despite its sprawl across the whole of a major city (making it the perfect travelogue companion to Hitchcock's haunted Vertigo), using the motif of a banjo-playing busker as a disquieting insight into the fallibility--the insensibility--of the pods in their will-to-power while putting a totally fucked-up sentence in the mouth of a Chinese dry-cleaner in a way that feels neither disrespectful nor inappropriate. ("That not my wife," indeed.) It's a film about the failure of the rational in every walk--the ultimate paranoid statement of helplessness in the face of greater machinery. It's Chinatown and The Parallax View, a shrug of helplessness and a literal martyrdom made all the more futile for the complete uselessness of its sacrifice. Its heroes are small and their dreams are small, and when what happens happens, it happens with the inevitability of a bug crushed in the gears of an unknowable, immutable ideology. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is America at a crossroads, surrendering the last, wispy vestiges of its heroic image of itself in the face of all that agonizing mendacity and predicting, in its pregnant, portentous way, a national urge to elect the supreme pod to the highest office in the land and bask in his beatific, Eisenhower glow.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Fox brings Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Blu-ray in an oddly-configured package that ports over the featurettes from the Collector's Edition DVD (in 16x9-enhanced standard definition) but drops the commentary. That said, this is one of those combo deals where the flipper DVD is included as well, and since Kaufman originally recorded his first-rate yakker for that release, it's technically still a listening option available to Blu-ray owners. Kaufman points out things I somehow never picked up on, like the slow, almost imperceptible push-ins he employed to create a sense of closeness without being obvious about it, or the fact that Sutherland and Adams ad-libbed large portions of their scenes together to mimic how lovers respond to one another. The cherry on the sundae is a brilliant anecdote about a homeless guy giving an ad hoc, unsolicited opinion on the wisdom of remakes during the filming of Kevin McCarthy's cameo.
The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer of the movie proper ups the stakes considerably for a title that, gratifyingly, hasn't gone quietly into the sweet night of home-video oblivion. Detail is excellent, taking into account DP Michael Chapman's penchant for darkness and oblique, sometimes soft, focus. He lends the film an ineffable quality of crepuscular discomfort that comes through better than ever here; although the black areas of the warmly grainy image remain a charcoal grey at best, the eye is no longer apt to gloss over them. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track marks the first time the film's trailblazing Dolby mix has been done justice by any video format. Dialogue retains that slightly brittle Seventies quality but everything else has improved, with Denny Zeitlin's experimental score sounding both less shrill and nicely delocalized. Meanwhile, even the most innocuous ambient sounds, when produced by the rear channels, feel like breath on the neck. And, perhaps needless to say, the alien wails--you know what I'm talking about--are particularly pee-generating in lossless audio.
Those four shortish documentaries kick off with the stupidly-titled "Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Pod" (16 mins.), which gathers Kaufman, screenwriter W.D. Richter, and an unusually jovial Sutherland, among a few others (like the ubiquitous Christopher Vogler), to chat about the remake's inception and influences. "Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod" (5 mins.) tackles the kitchen-sink F/X that went into the opening shots of the film (alas, "A five-dollar tube of goo!" elicits a yawn and a "ya don't say"), while "The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod" (13 mins.) is a fairly informative riff on the use of Dolby in the great Ben Burtt's mixing of the soundtrack. Lastly, "The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod" (5 mins.) is a look at select elements of Chapman's work on the film that's better treated in Kaufman's yakker. Invasion of the Body Snatchers' theatrical trailer rounds out the platter, in HiDef. Originally published: October 26, 2010.