Adam Nayman on Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Reviewing Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers upon its release in 1978, Pauline Kael panted that it “may be the best movie of its kind ever made”—a characteristically hyperbolic statement that I happen to agree with. But maybe that’s easier to say than it sounds because there isn’t really another movie quite like the ’78 Invasion, which orbits several distinct genres or film movements without ever landing in their midst. The lush textures of Michael Chapman’s cinematography distance Invasion from various modest midnight movie landmarks of the 1970s (though the gooey, fetus-centric special effects are uncannily close to Eraserhead), while the deluxe studio horror pictures of the period, like The Exorcist and The Omen were comparatively solemn enterprises boasting bigger movie stars: Gregory Peck vs. Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn vs. Brooke Adams.
Kaufman was tight with the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls crowd, but Invasion isn’t a “personal” vision like Taxi Driver or a grand-national narrative à la The Godfather or The Deer Hunter. In its deft blending of tones and embedded cinephilic references, it maybe more closely resembles the supple, scary-funny early efforts of Steven Spielberg (Jaws) or Brian De Palma (Carrie) but it’s less muscular and more melancholy than either. And while its hothouse paranoid atmosphere can be reconciled with any number of other post-Watergate thrillers—from The Parallax View to Winter Kills—its allegories are looser and more polyvalent. Its immersive portrait of a San Francisco fissuring between blanded-out pod-person converts and a dwindling, quasi-bohemian human resistance could be construed as an earnest portrait of (counter) cultural warfare or a jaundiced joke about the propagation of such exaggerated polarities.
And first and foremost, Invasion is one of the great San Francisco movies along with Vertigo, drawing great gulping breaths of atmosphere from its breezy bayside locale. Setting a tale of creeping conformity in the American west coast’s most heterogeneous metropolises was a genius move by Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter. I’ve written elsewhere about the primacy of the film’s sound design to most of its effects, but it’s equally true that Invasion gains potency from San Francisco’s myriad visual possibilities and famously cosmopolitan character. A clandestine meeting between Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and a faceless government functionary in Union Square wittily references The Conversation; the increasingly cloudy outlooks of its main character find corollaries in the fog lurking at the edges of so many establishing shots. And the scattered patches of verdant green—all of the parks and carefully maintained Haight-Ashbury lawns—take on an increasingly menacing character as the true nature of the alien plot comes into focus: a plan that gives a whole new meaning to the idea of Flower Power. The result is a film where we don’t just take the characters at their word when they say that they feel like something weird is going on around them; Kaufman makes sure that the shift registers visually, whether in subtly fish-eyed street-level imagery—a crowded streetcar’s worth of people staring boredly out the window –or brisk cinematographic flourishes like a sharply canted angle in the scene which confirms that soft-pedal New Age guru Dr. David Kibbner (Leonard Nimoy) is indeed One of Them.
Nimoy’s casting as the friendly face of interplanetary gentrification is one of about a half-dozen wry movie in-jokes that are attributable to Richter’s famously wiseacre sensibility (he probably came up with the surreal, startling homage to Yojimbo—the dog that trots by wearing its master's head—as well). But for all its literate levity—like the bit where Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) blithely recommends Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel Star Maker to an obviously extra-terrestrially inhabited massage client—Invasion is also a deeply grave piece of work—a film that does more than pay lip service to the theme of the erosion of individuality. In Drew Goddard’s new and extravagantly lauded Cabin in the Woods, a group of sharp, likeable protagonists are forcibly reduced to generic stereotypes within the film’s storyline to prove some larger point about pandering to audience expectations. Kaufman’s thirty-four-year-old film is no less postmodern in its operations—why yes, that is Don Siegel, director of the original Invasion, in a cameo as a conspiratorial cab driver—but it’s far less instrumental in its treatment of its characters. When the previously tetchy and contentious Jack Bellicec (Jeff Golblum) flatly tells Matthew “we should have just gone to sleep,” the emphasis is on the latter’s sense of horror, loss, and betrayal than the filmmakers’ boldness in hollowing out such a humorously vivid figure. (This is undoubtedly the ur-Goldblum performance, trace elements of which can be found in The Fly and especially Jurassic Park).
Many roughly contemporaneous films proudly wore their bleakness as a badge of honor: think of the thick narrative ironies of The Parallax View or the overdetermined twice-lived tragedy that knots up Blow Out—or even the extra-diegetically earned despair of Chinatown’s hastily rewritten denouement. Invasion is no cheerier than any of these films—it’s actually apocalyptic—but there’s nothing high-handed about the story’s grim downward spiral or the (literally) down-in-the-mouth final shot. (That horrifying j’accuse gesture is not a finger wagging at the audience). The overall impression is of pleasure: it’s in the appealing, maturely sexy performances by Sutherland and Adams (whose final, post-assimilation scene is a marvel of twisted eroticism); the playfully sustained sense of suspense (a group chase sequence shot beneath the knees could be bracketed off into its own perfect little short film); the deeply satisfying splats of the makeup effects (when Matthew batters his own half-formed doppelganger into a pulp, it’s a brisk, unbelaboured bit of pop existentialism). In its best moments (which is most of them), Invasion of the Body Snatchers feels like the ultimate contradiction: it’s a remake without any precedents. “We’ve always expected metal ships,” says Nancy, almost as if she’s exhilarated by the fact that they’re absent in the process. But this alien invasion movie needs no UFOs, because it is one itself.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is playing Saturday, April 28, as part of Reverse Shot's See It Big series at Museum of the Moving Image.