MGM // 1978 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 24th, 2010
"I keep seeing these people all recognizing each other. Something is passing between them all -- some secret. It's a conspiracy. I know it." -- Elizabeth Driscoll
One must look to early '70s porn to find a more terrifying permanent wave and moustache combo.
Weirdness is afoot in San Francisco. Famed self-help guru Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) has seen a rash of patients claiming their loved ones have changed, that they are no longer themselves. Among them is Health Department scientist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone), who believes her boyfriend has suddenly become involved in a citywide conspiracy of some sort. At first, her colleague Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland, M*A*S*H) thinks she's suffering from emotional stress, but he becomes a true believer when his friend Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park) and Jack's wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright, Alien) discover a partially formed duplicate of Jack growing in the couple's spa. Convinced that the city is under an attack of some sort, the friends struggle to unravel the nightmarish mystery in which they find themselves, while avoiding the sleep that allows the seemingly alien force to consume and replace its victims with doppelgängers grown from pods.
The remake is a much-maligned Hollywood gimmick -- and for good reason: most of them stink like old sweat socks. A tiny minority is as good as or better than the films that inspired them. The 1970s and '80s, for instance, saw a trifecta of successful science fiction-horror do-overs: John Carpenter's The Thing, David Cronenberg's The Fly, and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In each instance, the filmmakers demonstrated that by focusing on character and tapping into primal fears, their updates of old classics could be visceral, terrifying, intelligent, incredibly entertaining, and as timeless as the original movies. Kaufman's film is one-part remake, one part reimagining of director Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, which was an adaption of Jack Finney's pulpy 1955 science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers. Siegel's movie terrified audiences in the 1950s with its layers of paranoia, and a stellar performance by Kevin McCarthy, who goes from straight-laced physician to unhinged madman in the span of 80 minutes. In a decade that produced countless schlocky science fiction and horror flicks, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a stand-out, a genuine classic that continues to occupy favored spots on critics' lists of the best science fiction and horror movies ever made. Kaufman had his hands full when assembling his remake; the deck was stacked against him. But he delivered on all fronts. His movie is thoroughly modern (or was in 1978), intelligently written, expertly performed, beautifully shot, and creepy as hell.
If Kaufman's remake is sometimes compared unfavorably to Seigel's original, it is usually on the grounds that the earlier film is a classic because it tapped into the Red Scare paranoia of the decade in which it was made, the paranoia that led to McCarthyism, hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Hollywood blacklists. The story, some critics claim, just isn't as relevant to the socio-political climate of the late '70s. I couldn't disagree more. Kaufman's film is perhaps less allegorical than Siegel's, but Jack Finney's alien collectivist nightmare is as resonant in the deeply cynical post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era of the late '70s as it was in the Cold War mid-'50s. Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn't good storytelling because of rigid allegorical precision, but because it touches so many raw nerves simultaneously, playing on our fears of oppressive government authority; attacks on our bodies by toxins and disease; death; the loss of our uniqueness as it is defined by our minds and primal drives; and the terrifying suspicion that those around us may not be who they seem, or that they may be out to get us. Finney may not have been a world-class novelist but, whether intentionally or accidentally, his book managed to tap into many of the universal themes that made literature as far flung as Bram Stoker's Dracula, George Orwell's 1984, and Franz Kafka's entire oeuvre classics. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter (Big Trouble in Little China) play with all of these ideas brilliantly, creating a dense conceptual tapestry supported by fine, naturalistic performances by the entire cast. Take for instance our introduction to Matthew Bennell. Transformed from a family doctor in Siegel's movie to a government health inspector in Kaufman's, we first encounter Bennell as he conducts a terse, adversarial inspection of the kitchen in a French restaurant. His discovery of a rat turd in a stock pot full of soup tweaks the audience's innate fears of exposure to disease, while simultaneously touching on our frustrations with government bureaucracy in the aggravated response of the restaurant's cooks, who see Bennell as a threat to their livelihood. These fearful themes are further bolstered by subplots involving Elizabeth Driscoll's boyfriend suddenly becoming detached and strange, and Jack Bellicec being confronted with a lifeless, not fully formed duplicate of himself. Making this roiling mass of paranoia even more disturbing is the fact that the characters cannot sleep if they want to survive (what's more terrifying than the notion that an unavoidable biological function necessary for the maintenance of our own sanity could result in a complete loss of personal identity?). Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the stuff of multiple nightmares -- and that's not even taking into account the scene with the dog that has a man's face.
What makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers a truly special science fiction-horror experiment is that it stubbornly grounds its thrills, chills, and ideas in character. Fine performances by Sutherland and Adams anchor the film, lending the outlandish story a surprising sense of realism and gravitas. The plot wouldn't be nearly as terrifying if the actors weren't so successful at delivering honest emotional performances that produce a visceral, vicarious experience for the audience. Sutherland brings a sense of resolute integrity and dogged intensity to Bennell that is perfectly contrasted by the emotional warmth and genuine chemistry on display in his quieter scenes with Adams. Brooke Adams, in turn, successfully grounds Elizabeth Driscoll's emotional vulnerability in an intelligence that prevents her from being a one-dimensional damsel in distress. The leads are supported by Jeff Golblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy, all of whom deliver performances that reveal a greater interest in their characters as human beings than as sci-fi stereotypes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an intelligent piece of science fiction storytelling that gets its ideas across less by appeals to intellect than repeated below-the-belt punches delivered through the experiences of realistic characters with whom we can readily relate because of their complex emotional lives.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot by cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) with a rugged, realistic beauty in keeping with the movie's favoring of drama over dazzling visual effects (its limited number of special effects shots are practical and effective, yet look like they cost very little to execute). The upgrade to high definition benefits the film more than one might expect. Detail is substantially improved over the transfer on the Collector's Edition DVD (which was a fine piece of work). Colors are accurate and natural. Grain is mostly tight and appealing, though it does run coarse in low-light sequences. I love the way movies made in the era before stylized, computer-assisted color timing can look in high definition. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of an old movie done right in high def. No attempt was made to give it the smooth, glossy sheen of a modern production. Instead, the image looks very much like good old fashioned celluloid. The transfer is 1080p MPEG-4 in the AVC codec, and is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The movie includes an atmospheric sound design by Ben Burtt (Star Wars) that replicates the low-frequency thrums and swishes a fetus hears inside the womb. Burtt's work sounds great in the disc's uncompressed DTS-HD surround mix. The only noticeable problem with the audio is that dialogue is washed out and difficult to hear in a couple brief, isolated scenes. It's definitely an annoyance, though a minor one.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was twice released on DVD before making the transition to high definition. In 1998, it came out on a flipper disc, one side of which presented the movie in non-anamorphic widescreen, while the other delivered a full frame version. 2007 saw a gussied up, two-disc Collector's Edition that upgraded the widescreen transfer with anamorphic enhancement, and piled a batch of decent featurettes on top of the fine audio commentary by Philip Kaufman included on the original release. This two-disc combo-pack is yet another odd Blu-ray release from MGM (though not as disappointing as their barebones BD of John Carpenter's Escape from New York). Disc One contains the feature, along with all of the featurettes from the Collector's Edition, while Disc Two is a copy of the ancient flipper (which includes Kaufman's commentary).
The featurettes: "Re-visitors from Outer Space, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod" (16:14) is a retrospective making-of piece that covers the movie's themes, its production, and its connection to Don Siegel's original. Philip Kaufman and Donald Sutherland both provide interview segments. "Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod" (4:38), "The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod" (12:47), and "The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod" (5:24) are short pieces whose titles are self-explanatory. The Blu-ray also contains a theatrical trailer for the film. The great news is that the featurettes and trailer are all presented in high definition.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers undoubtedly deserves better than a slip-shod Blu-ray release with repackaged extras, no HD exclusives, and the insulting inclusion of a decrepit old DVD edition with a transfer incompatible with widescreen displays. But it's difficult to complain when MGM did such a fine job on the video and audio fronts. The bottom line is that this excellent film looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. That's reason enough to celebrate.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* DVD Copy