Thursday, October 2, 2014

Invasions of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

I worry sometimes about old, black and white movies that I won't be able to fully enjoy them, given how much cinema has progressed over the years, and the different sensibilities that previous generations have had. But in the case of the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I had nothing to fear (well, except for the body snatchers themselves). This was the most compelling black and white film I'd seen since the original Night of the Living Dead. Though I'm not the sort of stuffy horror fan who is always complaining about the dire state of modern horror, there may be at least some merit to the claim that modern movies focus too much on gore and cheap scares, to the exclusion of character depth and constructing a truly unsettling atmosphere.

Certainly, as cliche as the subject of alien "body snatchers" may have become, it's a terrifying premise - that seed pods from outer space can almost perfectly replicate human beings - with only the faint hollowness of their going through the motions of human emotion to hint that anything is wrong. Who can you trust when everybody around you that you know and love starts doubting that their friends and family are who they appear to be, and you can't be sure who's still human and who has already become one of them? The theme is rife with potential for symbolic interpretation (e.g., fear of conformity, communist paranoia), and the subject itself represents a haunting psychological phenomena. But even without any deeper meaning, the superficial sci-fi take involving alien pods is scary enough all by itself.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The 1956 film tells the story (in voice-over) of a doctor's experiences as the invaders gradually take over a small town. The 1978 version uses the same basic outline, but with a health inspector in downtown San Francisco. I don't know how much the fact that this story seems better suited to the sensibilities of 1950s America contributes to this, but the 1978 version feels hollow somehow - like it has the shell of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, but the heart is missing; it's just going through the motions. There are some memorably creepy moments - like the otherworldy intro, the pod garden transformation scene, the dog scare, and the scream at the end - but overall it didn't feel to me as gripping as the '56 version.

And this is in spite of a very prominent cast that includes Donald Sutherland in the lead, with a very pretty Brooke Adams, a young Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright (who played second female behind Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien movie - and is just as panicky here), and even Leonard Nimoy as an obnoxious psychiatrist (who heavy-handedly introduces the film's theme of emotional detachment in then-modern society as a red herring to explain away the alien invasion). Although, it could certainly be said that having so many distinctive faces on screen takes you out of the movie a bit.

Body Snatchers (1993)

The 1993 film Body Snatchers is a decidedly grittier adaptation of the story, with less concern for strictly adhering to the outline of the previous two versions, while still covering all the bases. This time, it's an EPA agent bringing his family to a military base for a working vacation. The primary protagonist is, however, his teenage daughter, played by a very delicious-looking Gabrielle Anwar. Though only in minor (but important) roles, R. Lee Ermey and Forest Whitaker round out an otherwise unfamiliar cast, though Meg Tilly channels the creepiness of the pod people very well, and Billy Wirth counters that as an at times unsettlingly deadpan human.

The performances are all mostly understated (to good effect), except for Forest Whitaker, who goes maybe just a little bit overboard in his big scene. I'm glad that this movie reprised the alien scream from the 1978 version, which was probably the best contribution it made to the Body Snatchers legacy. There are a few parts of this movie that feel like maybe they would make more sense to somebody already familiar with the story, but since this was the third version I'd seen, that didn't bother me. You might - and I stress that this is merely a guess - be better off if this is not the first version you watch, though. I would recommend the original, followed by this one.

The Invasion (2007)

One of the interesting things about these Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies is that they all do a good job of capturing a snapshot of the times when they were made - the '50s, the late '70s, the early '90s. And the 2007 adaptation, simply titled The Invasion, is no exception, with its emphasis on a drug-addled population in the internet age. Indeed, the body snatchers are re-imagined as an infectious disease this time, that takes over people's bodies in their sleep, instead of the plant pod body replacements of decades past. Apart from that, this version of the story resurrects some basic elements (and characters) from the first two adaptations, relocating to a big city like in the 1978 version, albeit not adhering to the formula quite as strongly as that version did.

This movie seems to make several nods to previous versions, with last time's EPA agent upgraded to the CDC, and both a doctor and a psychiatrist in leading roles (yet here, the psychiatrist is a protagonist). The latter are played by Daniel Craig (who we all know as the new "James Blond") and Nicole Kidman, continuing the tradition of featuring an uncommonly attractive woman in one of the lead roles. Veronica Cartwright also, interestingly, returns in a cameo role. The Body Snatchers movies have all prided themselves on their special effects - even going all the way back to the original 1956 version. The 1978 version probably struck the best balance between spectacle and excess. Unfortunately, the CG graphics in the 2007 version largely fail to impress (the switched focus on disease instead of plants surely contributes to that).

One thing this movie does a decent job of, thanks to the ubiquitousness of 24 hour television news networks these days, is demonstrate the difference between human nature and alien pod nature on a global scale. Always has there been an emphasis on the lack of emotion - the source of conflict between humans -  in pod mentality, but to see a world dominated by pod people resulting in global peace treaties, and nuclear disarmament, and an end to terrorism - really drives home the question of whether human nature is really worth preserving after all. Although there's been more than enough Invasion of the Body Snatchers adaptations already, I'd like to see one credibly written from the body snatchers' perspective.

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