Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers / Cert: 18 / Director: Philip Kaufman / Screenplay: W.D. Richter / Starring: Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy / Release Date: Out Now
The movie that is to xenophobes what Jaws is to aquaphobes, Philip Kaufman's superb retelling of Don Siegel’s classic 1950s, cold-war paranoia head-trip takes the supposition that people are strange and, via a standard alien invasion plot device, makes you see how ugly they really are when you're alone.
For those not already familiar with the story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the tale of an extraterrestrial invasion carried out by an organism that can replicate humans perfectly, in the physical sense at least. When Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams) notices that her partner seems to have changed on some fundamental level, she looks to a work colleague at the San Francisco Health Department, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), for help. Soon they discover that he's changed more drastically that Elizabeth imagined and, along with Matthew's friends Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), they seek to alert the authorities to the nightmare that is soon unfolding.
One of the most compelling aspects of Kaufman's film (and an area where it improves upon Siegel's equally riveting original) is the way in which he imbues almost every frame with a palpable sense of paranoia and dread. A scene that illustrates this brilliantly comes mid-way through the story when Matthew and Elizabeth, stood on a bustling New York street, begin to suspect the huge scale of the invasion. Kaufman cuts to shots of everyday city folk, staring out of bus windows, standing at street corners and moving en masse at pedestrian crossings. In itself there's nothing unusual about any of it but within this context it becomes something that is deeply unsettling. This juxtaposition of the protagonists' mounting panic and the dead-eyed expressions of normal people going about their business, something that all of us witness every day, is enough to make you lock the door and phone your boss to tell her you’re not coming in. Permanently.
Whereas Siegel's original was informed by America's fear of post-war communism, concealing and feeding that fear within the pods from which untrustworthy and dangerous doppelgangers emerged, Kaufman's film turns its gaze inwards to American society itself. Having just emerged from the Vietnam war and still nursing its bruises over the Watergate scandal that brought a President down, the US was suddenly confronted with a vision of itself that did not necessarily conform to the white stetsoned good guy it had long believed itself to be. Mix into this an examination of consumerism, isolationism and selfishness and you have a cocktail that screams ‘the enemy is within!’
But if you'd rather not be doing with political or sociological subtext then hey, that's cool, because what you also have here is a terrific chase movie, one that is thrilling and unpredictable for the entirety of its two hours' running time as Bennell and his associates evade the alien interlopers while trying to find someone in a position of power who can help. Ah, but who to trust? The Government? The police? Leonard Nimoy? The dog with the man's head? Arggghhhhhh!! And is that bland reassurance and patient indifference displayed by authority figures merely the placatory fobbing-off we've all experienced or is it something else, something that conceals a far darker truth? (To be fair you've probably guessed which of these it is by now.)
As for the image, there is some pronounced grain in the darker portions but for a film of this vintage it's looking and sounding as good as we could reasonably hope for. The extras package is superb and of all the versions released so far, this Arrow release is probably the one to go for, with Kaufman's commentary and a round table discussion featuring Kim Newman, Ben Wheatley and Norman J. Warren being particular highlights.
Full of chillingly effective little moments (“Amazing Grace” playing over loud speakers at a dock where pods are being loaded for shipping abroad, the line of school children being marshalled into a conversion centre unaware of their fate, and the memorable final scene that stays with you long after the credits have rolled), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film that any self-respecting fan of '70s or science fiction cinema should own. It is one of those rare instances of a remake that matches and in some ways improves upon the source, added to which it features, thanks to appearances from Robert Duvall and the original version’s Kevin McCarthy, two of the most enjoyable film cameos ever.
Extras: Audio Commentary with Philip Kaufman /Round table discussion / Interviews / Documentaries / Trailer / Collector’s booklet