Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has proven one of the most fruitful pieces of modern literature for screen adaptations, with no less than four film versions (so far): Don Siegel's 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake under the same title, Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers, and Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 version, The Invasion. (The title variations now appear to have been exhausted.) Siegel's original was reportedly hamstrung by studio interference; the humor was mostly stripped out and the downbeat ending was amended with a more hopeful coda. Kaufman sought to rectify both of those issues with his take, which is a high-spirited, giggly, scary-movie kick, capped off with a sucker-punch of an ending.
Kaufman changed his setting from Siegel's small town America to eccentric big-city San Francisco, which is slowly turned upside down by the arrival (via thunderstorm) of an alien life force that forms into small pods in pink flowers. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) brings one home and notices an immediate change in her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who goes from laid-back to button-up. Elizabeth and her boss, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) begin to pick up on other reports of strange behavior around the city--people saying that their loved ones don't seem like themselves. Bennell's friend and psychiatric author, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) dismisses the talk as "some kind of hallucinatory flu going around," but when Jack Bellicec (Jeff Golblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) find a gooey, hair covered pod person in their Turkish bath, they understandably have a full-on freak-out.
The story of replicated "pod people" replacing humans is presumably so timeless because it is so adaptable. The McCarthy-era novel and original film were a fairly obvious allegory for fear of the Red Menace (they could be your friends! Your neighbors! You'd never know!); Kaufman's adaptation, made in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, sinks its fingernails into the fruitful bounty of anti-government paranoia. "It's a conspiracy," notes Jack at one point. "What's a conspiracy?" asks Matthew. "Everything," Jack replies. Later, as the scope of the invasion becomes clear, Nancy says (with a tremor in her voice), "They're all a part of it."
As with the best of politically-tinged science fiction, however, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter have some fun with the tale--while, at the same time, never ribbing or winking at the audience too broadly. The picture works on two levels: as a basic creature feature shocker, and as a knowing indulgence in the tricks (and treats) of the genre. Kaufman keeps the first third or so (before the Bellicecs find that first pod) at a pretty slow boil, using stillness and dead quiet to build dread, but once the narrative gets going it's like a locomotive, with Kaufman tossing in a full compliment of scary sound effects, trilling shock cues, and slam-bang tilts and zooms.
Kaufman's cinematographer, the great Michael Chapman, replicates the angularity of the Frisco locations with delightfully askew compositions. The camerawork, while dark and moody, is simultaneously playful; for instance, our first look at the already-angular Sutherland is in a fisheye peephole shot. Sutherland, traipsing around the city in his gumshoe-style brown trenchcoat, is just right in the leading role--he plays it serious without taking it too seriously--and Adams is charmingly unpredictable in what is, by no stretch, a standard ingénue role. The supporting cast is quite capable, though Goldblum is certainly the standout; though still relatively new to film, he arrives with his oddball persona already fully formed, and he and Sutherland share a scene of delightfully overlapping dialogue early on.
In little moments like that, we can see that Kaufman was interested in doing more than a standard remake, though throwaway gags and overheated set pieces can only carry a narrative so far. By the time the film arrives at the arsony climax, the events on screen begin to feel a tad rote and lifeless, as if the action-heavy ending was an obligation. No matter; up until then, Invasion of the Body Snatchers packs in plenty of laughs and thrills, and that closing scene is still a chiller.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Your feelings about the 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC transfer will depend greatly on how you feel about catalogue titles and the place within them for heavy grain. To be sure, Chapman shot the film in a deliberately dark and moody style, and the 1.85:1 image is frequently played in deep swaths of black. This being a film from 1978, we certainly can't expect the kind of deep, inky black levels we're accustomed to from more recent efforts. But the density of the image causes some pretty thick grain, and not just in night scenes--Sutherland and Adams's first shared scene in the lab, for example, is downright hazy and not terribly attractive. The well-lit scenes (like the daytime driving shots, or Sutherland's scenes in the dry cleaner) look fabulous, and the saturation is terrific (check out that bright red blood rolling out of the pod's "nose"). But there are occasional problems with the image (there are oddly flickering light levels on Sutherland's profile in a rooftop scene about an hour in), and the noisiness of the darker scenes does occasionally reach a point of distraction.
In the early days of Dolby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was considered a showcase film for the new sound-mixing technology, so the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is unsurprisingly first-rate. Sound effects are the show here, from the rumbling distant thunder and squeaking swings of the opening scenes to the pulsing sounds of replication and unnerving screeches of the oncoming pod people later on. Separation is outstanding throughout, and dialogue is mostly solid, though there is some occasional tinniness and moments where the tense music overpowers the dialogue track. Overall, though, it's a sharp, clean mix.
The original 2.0 Dolby Surround track is also included, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
MGM and Fox's Blu-ray release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes as a two-disc set, with the original 1998 DVD release included as a bonus. That flipper disc, featuring both full-frame and non-anamorphic widescreen versions of the film, also includes an Audio Commentary by director Philip Kaufman--which, oddly, is not included on the Blu-ray. I'm not sure why Fox is making a habit of this (they pulled the same shenanigans with the Thomas Crown Affair Blu-ray earlier this year), but it's a bad one.
On the Blu-ray disc proper, we get all of the bonus features from the 2007 "collector's edition" DVD. "Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod" (16:14) is a comprehensive and well-made featurette on the making of the film, going back to the original Siegel film (and the Finney book), and explaining the filmmakers' aims and intentions in the remake; director Philip Kaufman, screenwriter W.D. Richter, director of photography Michael Chapman, and actors Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright all pop up to offer up their thoughts.
Kaufman returns, along with effects man Howard Preston, for "Practical Magic: The Special Effect Pod" (4:38), detailing the creation of the memorable opening sequence's special effects. Next is the enjoyable featurette "The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod" (12:47), profiling Ben Burtt, who explains how he created the "special sound effects" for the picture (with additional commentary by supervising sound editor Bonnie Koehler). "The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod" (5:24) takes a closer look at Michael Chapman's shooting style and his evocative, noir-inspired photography. The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:12) plays up the sci-fi and plays down the humor, but it's still a pretty tight preview.
In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, director Philip Kaufman visits some familiar scary movie themes (don't go to sleep!) and pokes at some fascinating subtext (who can you trust, really?) without sacrificing a genuine sense of full-on, B-movie fun. He's telling a story that's only grown more familiar and iconic in the passing years, but his Invasion remains the genuine article.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.