The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956, is widely considered to
be a metaphor for the anti-communist crusade by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
By relocating the remake in a contemporary major American city, director Philip Kaufman, producer Robert H. Sole and writer W. D. Richter, felt their version would take on an even more terrifying angle.
After all, in an urban setting...virtually everyone can seem a stranger and no one person would be able to recognize the subtle changes in people as they pass on the street. It was a brilliant move.
The 1978 film is in some ways an improvement on the earlier picture (no easy feat) while also managing to take some not so subtle potshots at the then popular New Age philosophies so common in the "ME" decade.
Deep in the outer reaches of space, an organic alien life form prepares for departure from
a dying planet. The matter drifts into our solar system and heads for Earth, where it settles upon the vegetation in the great metropolis of San Francisco. Soon, a strange new plant life springs up all around the city.
While walking home, biologist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) notices and picks up an interesting flower. She takes it home and attempts to show it to her boyfriend.
Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is too busy watching television to be bothered. Elizabeth reads a passage from a textbook which she thinks pertains to the flower. It talks about what happens when two different species cross pollinate
and produce a third dangerous weed. Again, Geoffrey is disinterested in the subject.
Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a public health inspector, shows up
in the kitchen of a local French restaurant. He finds a rat turd in the stew, among
other things. The inspector vows to bring up the establishment for permit revocation
and when he leaves, he sees that the windshield of his car has been smashed. Nearby, some of the workers look on menacingly.
He calls Elizabeth, his co-worker at the Department of Health, and tells her what happened. He also requests that she come in early to work the next morning.
Elizabeth settles into bed for the evening with Geoffrey, with the flower resting in a glass of water on a night table next to them. When she awakes the next morning, she sees her boyfriend picking up broken glass off the floor. He doesn't respond to her. Puzzled, she watches out a window as Geoffrey dumps the contents of a waste basket into a waiting garbage truck.
The episode so unnerves Elizabeth that she arrives to work late. When she explains to
Matthew what happened, he kids around by telling her there's nothing unusual
about Geoffrey's behavior. Elizabeth walks down the corrider and bumps into
a man who has a cold, expressionless face which unsettles her.
Later, she tries to find out what's wrong with Geoffrey. The couple was supposed to go to a basketball game but Geoffrey has cancelled their plans...telling her he has to go out that evening to a "meeting." Elizabeth is left hurt and confused.
She goes to Matthew's apartment and again tells him that Geoffrey is not himself. She says
he is devoid of all emotion and feeling. While sympathetic to his friend, Matthew recommends that she see his psychiatrist...whom he says might be able put things into perspective.
The next day, Matthew has a strange occurance when he drops off his laundry.
The proprieter, Mr. Tong (Wood Moy) tells Matthew that his wife is "sick" and that there is
something wrong with her. The Asian woman hides behind a curtain gazing suspiciously. On his way to work, Matthew walks through the park and says hello to Harry (Joe Bellan) - a musician who sits with his dog all day and plays the banjo.
He tries to call Elizabeth from his office but can't reach her. Suddenly, she appears and startles him. She is terrified and in tears. Matthew comforts her and takes her for a drive in his car. She tells him there is a conspiracy
going on and that she keeps seeing people recognizing each other...something is passing
That morning, she showed up at Geoffrey's office but he wasn't there.
She spied him out the window talking to a nurse. Then she saw two businessmen appear
and do something with a bundle. She followed Geoffrey all day and everywhere he went, there were strange meetings with people she didn't know.
What scares Elizabeth the most is that it's not just Geoffrey - but people all over her city...there's something different about them. Matthew again tells her to see Doctor Kibner and invites her to a book party for him.
While at a red light, a man (Kevin McCarthy) approaches Matthew's car. He's screams, "they're coming" and tells Mathew and Elizabeth that they're in danger. He runs off and is chased by a large crowd...but ends up getting hit by a car.
Elizabeth and Matthew arrive at the party. They see Matthew's friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum) who goes on about what a horrible book Kibner has written. Finding a phone, Matthew and Elizabeth quickly place a call to the police about the car accident. To their surprise, there is no report of it. Elizabeth's attention is suddenly diverted as she hears a woman crying.
She watches as a woman named Katherine (Lelia Goldoni) tells Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) that her husband is an imposter. Dr. Kibner tries to console the woman by joining her hand with that of her husband Ted (Tom Luddy). As the couple leaves, Elizabeth grabs hold of Katherine and tells the woman to give her a call at the Health Department. Elizabeth explains to Matthew that the husband is someone she saw Geoffrey with earlier in the day.
Matthew then introduces her to Dr. Kibner. Elizabeth describes her experience to the doctor but he dismisses her with some New Age psychobabble and tells Matthew to take her home. Elizabeth finds a note from Geoffrey which says "for you" along with a plant which has the same exact flower on it that she recently found.
Jack arrives at his mud bath business, where his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) is
busy with a client. He heads for the steamroom to relax. While closing up for the evening, Nancy approaches a body covered with a sheet. Believing it to be Jack, she pulls the sheet off but finds a hideous humanlike form instead. Nancy screams and Jack rushes in and sees the odd discovery.
They call Matthew and ask him to come over immediately.
Matthew thinks it must be some kind of joke. The body doesn't have
any distinguishing features or fingerprints - but the group senses the eerie similarities to
Jack's physical attributes.
Matthew phones Elizabeth but she is in a drugged-like stupor and cannot respond. Sensing trouble, he heads over to her place...while Nancy calls for Dr. Kibner. At Elizabeth's house, Matthew finds a life-like replica of his friend in the greenhouse. He sees the real Elizabeth sleeping and sneaks her out.
As Nancy waits for Dr. Kibner, she is shocked to see the eyes of the alien form suddenly open. Jack has fallen asleep in the next room and Nancy rushes in to wake him up. The couple flee and run right into Dr. Kibner...who of course...doesn't find any trace of the Jack lookalike.
Matthew arrives with Elizabeth and calls the police, telling them to meet he and Dr. Kibner at Elizabeth's house. Once again, the form has been disposed of.
The next morning, the group tries to make sense of the situation. Dr. Kibner is not buying it - as Elizabeth tries to explain that people are being duplicated. In a quiet moment on the roof deck, he promises Matthew he will get in touch with the mayor, who is a patient of his. When he leaves, Dr. Kibner climbs into a black Mercedes. Sitting in the car are
Geoffrey and Ted...the guy from the party.
Meanwhile, Jack picks a blossom from a vase. Nancy says it is the same kind of flower a customer brought to the baths. Elizabeth tells the couple she couldn't find it in any of her books and says she'll take it to work for testing. At the lab, her boss pretends to study the flower; in reality, he pays no attention to it.
Matthew meets with the mayor's special assistant but is not satisfied with their talk. He places a series of calls to no avail. At the chinese laundry, he finds it odd that Mr. Tong is no longer suspicious of his wife. Elizabeth has a similar encounter with Katherine...who tells her that everything is fine with her husband.
Nightfall brings Nancy, Jack and Elizabeth together at Mathew's place again. Dr. Kibner is also there but is of little help to their growing uneasiness. He gives Elizabeth a pill to help her get some sleep, before leaving.
The four friends soon doze off, creating an opportunity for new life forms to be born. Pods in the garden begin giving birth to these new lives, each an exact replica of the four. Sensing danger, Nancy wakes up and begins screaming at Matthew to do the same.
Dazed, Matthew looks around in disbelief and tells her to wake
the other two. He tries to call the police but hangs up when the operator calls him by
his name, which he hadn't given her.
When he tries to phone a friend in the Justice Department directly, an operator intervenes. It seems everyone is part of the conspiracy. Suddenly, the power is cut and they notice the house is being barricaded. Matthew sends the others into hiding under the stairs...and then smashes the face of his duplicate with a hoe.
A group of pod people appear and let out a hideous shriek, as though to signal to others that there are humans among them. The four friends begin a run for their lives, as a helicopter hovers above them. Jack goes off by himself, in order to distract attention away from the others. Nancy runs after him. With the group now separated, Matthew and Elizabeth hail a cab.
They discover that the taxi driver (Don Siegel, the director of the original film) is only intent on turning them in. The two dash out just in time. Walking past Harry the banjo player (and his dog) sleeping, they see a pod next to them. Matthew steps on it, sending a stream of fluid out from the flower.
They make it to the Health Department building, where they are able to witness an eerie scene unfold from a window. Dozens of people are lined up and ready to receive the alien pods. Suddenly, a group descends on them, lead by Dr. Kibner and Jack. Jack tells them it "would have been easier" if they had gone to sleep the night before.
The doctor forcibly injects both Matthew and Elizabeth with a sedative in order to make them sleep. But they manage to escape. Matthew gets a choke hold on Jack, before jabbing a dart into the base of his skull. Elizabeth smashes a bottle on the doctor's head and they place him
in the freezer. Dr. Kibner is locked in as he howls and bangs on the window.
Matthew and Elizabeth bump into Nancy in the stairwell, who tells them that the pod people can be fooled.
They just need to hide their emotions and feelings. Outside, the three try and blend in with the crowds. They continue along undected until Elizabeth looks down and lets out a scream...as she sees the horrific by-product of an injured pod: a mutation of both the banjo player and his dog.
Matthew and Elizabeth jump onto the back of a truck, which takes them to a warehouse where the pods are grown.
They are near a dock and hear a ship being loaded. Matthew temporarily leaves Elizabeth
to get a closer look. When he returns, he sees that Elizabeth has fallen asleep. While he
cradles her in his arms, her skin begins to flake off and her body decomposes. Just then, the replica of Elizabeth rises from the bushes.
Matthew sneaks into the warehouse and cuts the ropes that hold the greenhouse lights. This causes the lights to short circuit on the ground and burst into flames. Soon, the entire
warehouse is on fire. From out of the wreckage, Elizabeth appears and points Matthew
out to his pursuers. Matthew manages to make it to the dock and hide. He can hear a voice say, "He can't stay awake forever!"
The next morning, on a dreary San Francisco day...Matthew is wandering the city. He stops by the Health Department where he sees Elizabeth and her co-workers appear motionless as they listen to instructions being broadcast outside. People everywhere are being told what to do and where to go.
Matthew then walks through the park - where he sees Nancy, who tentatively approaches him. Finally, she seems to have found one of her friends. As she gets closer, Matthew raises his finger and lets out a piercing shriek. Nancy, now alone and helpless, can only cover her ears and scream.
Philip Kaufman's direction is flawless. When Invasion of the Body Snatchers appeared at the end of 1978, it was well received by critics and audiences alike. Pauline Kael, the renowned critic for the New Yorker, called it "the best movie of its kind ever made."
The special effects are first-rate. By this period, filmmakers were able to show what was only hinted at in the original version. To create the terrifying spectacle of the pods actually snatching human bodies and creating duplicates, the producer brought in Tom Burman and Edouard Henriques...two of the most respected make-up artists around. They did a superb job.
This Body Snatchers is excellent on all levels. The acting is perfect, being at times subtle and yet always believable. Both Sutherland and Adams are pros and together they carry the film throughout terrain that today's performers would undoubtedly find ways to bungle.
The subtexts, meanings and symbols of the film (which the viewer can choose to extrapolate and interpret himself) are merely icings on the cake.
Kudos to the particularly downbeat conclusion...which leaves the viewer with the impression that the situation is hopeless - unlike the '56 version in which the National Guard is called in at the last minute.