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October, 2005 : Criticism:

Sleep No More

Why the Pod People Won't Go Away

As you read this, plans are being made for Invasion, tentatively scheduled to star Nicole Kidman, for release next year. It will be the fourth movie version of Jack Finney’s novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The original and, arguably best, version is Don Siegel’s 1956 film. The ’50s were a golden age for SF features and a touchstone for fans of the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, while several films of the era have been remade — including The Thing, Invaders from Mars, The Blob and, most recently, War of the Worlds — the obsession with Body Snatchers puts it into a category by itself. What is the appeal of this story, and why does it keep coming back to haunt us?

The common reading of the original film is that it is a thinly disguised critique of the Red Scare or what historian David Caute has called “the Great Fear.” Senator Joe McCarthy claimed there were Communists in the State Department, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hollywood, people in all walks of life had to sign loyalty oaths. To be sure, our fear of the Soviet Union wasn’t a completely irrational fear. The USSR had swallowed up Eastern Europe behind the “Iron Curtain,” and they began testing their own atomic bombs. We were in a Cold War. It was a nervous time and there was plenty of suspicion to go around.

So along comes Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy; no relation to the senator) returns from a trip to the sleepy California town of Santa Mira. He’s glad to be home, and to meet up with his old friend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), since both are recently divorced and a bit lonely. However something odd is going on. There’s been an outbreak of an odd delusion, with people claiming that family members aren’t themselves.

As Miles investigates he uncovers the truth. Strange pods from outer space have landed in Santa Mira, and they bring a deadly threat. When left near a human the pod forms an exact physical duplicate of the person. When that duplicate is complete, it absorbs all of the human’s memories, kills the real person in the process. The “pod person” then takes his or her place. The pods are soulless and emotionless but, as with all good ’50s invaders, they are relentless.

Slowly the pods take over Santa Mira until only Miles and Becky are left. Miles objects to a world without love, but as his psychiatrist colleague Danny Kaufman (Larry Gates) points out, both Miles and Becky have been in love before — with their ex-spouses — and it didn’t last. Danny proceeds to spell out the new world order: “Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them life’s so simple, believe me.”

The film was originally meant to end with Miles alone, after Becky succumbs. He’s screaming on the highway — as truckloads of pods are being shipped to other American communities — “You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” And, of course, no one believes him.

When the producers saw the finished film they were panic stricken — not at Miles’ fate, but at the downbeat end of their movie. This was more than a decade before George Romero shocked everyone with the nihilistic finale of Night of the Living Dead (1968) where the good guys didn’t make it. Siegel, who would go on to a distinguished career that included several films with Clint Eastwood (including Dirty Harry) and John Wayne’s final performance (The Shootist), did not yet have the clout to insist that the film remain as he had shot it. Instead, screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring persuaded him that they could save the film by “fixing” it themselves. They brought back McCarthy and shot the framing device in which Miles is brought to a hospital and relates the story in flashback, ending with him finally being believed. The authorities now know to destroy the pods.

For many people, the film’s political message is easy to read. Miles is the well-meaning but complacent American not paying attention to the threat of the pods (read: Commies) until it directly affects him. Then he discovers that this alien regime wants to transform America into a regimented society where everyone will think and act alike. Those who deviate will be captured and held until they become pod people too. It’s not an unfair interpretation of the film, and certainly fit the mood of the country at the time.

Many SF films of the ’50s played on audience’s fear of World War III, and not just the movies with giant atomic insects or mutants. In Destination Moon (1950) American industrialists are skeptical about financing a private venture to send men to the moon until they are warned that if American doesn’t conquer space, another nation might do so and put missiles up there aimed at us. The checkbooks quickly open. The following year Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warned humanity about the dangers of nuclear war in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In one of the most curious films, The 27th Day (1957), aliens select five humans and give them pellets capable of destroying the world. One of the humans is from the Soviet Union.

So for many viewers and critics, the time of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its story of fighting a menace seeking to crush the will of the individual for a collective purpose fit right into the template of the Red Scare. However it’s a mistake to limit the film to political allegory. In interviews director Don Siegel felt that the movie wasn’t warning about Communists or — as some have asserted — the Red-baiting witch hunters. As he told film critic Stuart Kaminsky, he was warning about turning into pod people:

“Well, I think there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill health, and mental disturbance are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you with a very dull world, but that, by the way, my dear friend, is the world that most of us live in. It’s the same as people who welcome going into the army or prison. There’s regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions.”(1)

Instead of being a film with a political agenda, it seems Siegel was warning us about people of whatever persuasion who are all too willing to let others do their thinking for them. It didn’t matter whether it was Joseph McCarthy or Josef Stalin. If you unthinkingly accepted whatever you were told and acted accordingly, you were a pod person. The film is a condemnation of thoughtless conformity of every type. It was fear as real as the Red Scare, which found its expression in the Beat movement and in non-fiction like The Organization Man and The Hidden Persuaders. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a mainstream Hollywood feature released that same year focused on a man questioning a life lived according to the expectations others have for him — The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit..

Twenty-two years later, Miles was still running down the public streets trying to warn people, but now it was just Kevin McCarthy doing a cameo in the 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman.(2) Some critics lamented the lack of a political subtext for this new version, but as memories of Watergate and Vietnam faded into the malaise of the Me Decade, it was really narcissism that was the new danger. It’s worth noting that the character who was an authoritative psychiatrist in the original turns into the author and self-help guru played by Leonard Nimoy in the new version. It was an era of est and Silva Mind Control and other such fads. People had discovered new ways to become pods and let others do their thinking for them.

Although the action has moved from the small town to the big city of San Francisco, there’s one important difference: audiences were not put off by downer endings any more. In the more than two decades since the original Americans had seen the assassination of one president and the resignation of another. We had experienced a long and unpopular war where if we didn’t quite lose, we couldn’t really say we had won either. Cities had exploded in riots in the ’60s, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been murdered, protesting college students were gunned down at Kent State. We still liked our happy endings but we were no longer surprised when we didn’t get them. Movies from Bonnie and Clyde to Carrie dared to violate the Hollywood formula.

So now when the rechristened Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) flee for their lives at the end, we had no certainty they would make it. Fans of the original knew Elizabeth was doomed, and weren’t disappointed. It was the film’s final moments that caught us unawares. Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), wife of Matthew’s friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum), has somehow not been taken by the pods. Trying to pass as one, she’s startled to see Matthew. She’s not alone! She speaks to him — and the pod-Matthew lets out a blood-curdling shriek, announcing to his fellow pods that he’s found yet another unconverted human. This was even more horrifying that the original ending for the ’56 film, and it packed a wallop.

There was no last minute rescue. The government could not save the day. It was hopeless. We weren’t so sure of ourselves any more, nor could we be certain that those pods wouldn’t prevail.

By 1993, director Abel Ferrara was ready to tackle the story in what was released as Body Snatchers. The action was moved to an army base, and the protagonist was no longer a wise adult professional but a teenage girl (Gabrielle Anwar) who moves to the base with her father and stepmother. The soldiers and officers start succumbing to the pods, but as Don Siegel might have asked, how could anyone tell? Already living a regimented life in uniform, with a strict chain of command, many of them are already pods before they’re taken over. The film might have explored whether the military really wants unthinking conformity, or it could have focused on a teenage girl at odds with her family discovering that they really are different from her. It could not successfully do both.

Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers are, on one level, about the fear that you will lose the ability to trust the people whose stability and reliability are a matter of personal faith. It’s losing one’s friends and neighbors, family members and colleagues. In Invaders from Mars (1953) the Martians take over humans through surgical implantation. The young boy sees nearly everyone he’s supposed to trust taken over: his father, his mother, the police. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) a new bride can’t understand why her husband has changed so much since the wedding, not realizing he’s been taken over by aliens. In real life we may not fear creatures from outer space, but sometimes someone close surprises us by suddenly acting in ways we don’t expect of them. Is this merely a side we haven’t seen, or is it a sign that something is seriously wrong?

So now we anticipate yet a fourth film version of Jack Finney’s tale. Reportedly the focus will be on a psychiatrist (to be played by Nicole Kidman) trying to protect her young son from something strange that’s happening around them. It’s coming at a time when we take our shoes off at the airport to be x-rayed out of fear that the person next to us in line might have hidden an explosive in them. We are so divided as a country that we talk of “red states” and “blue states” and people listen only to those opinion leaders who will reinforce their views. President George W. Bush is a divisive figure whose supporters claim is a great leader and whose detractors claim is one of the worst presidents in our nation’s history. If the pods were to come today, how would we know? Whichever side you’re on, don’t your political opponents already seem like pod people, letting their favored politicians and media figures tell them what to believe?

The time seems right — indeed, overripe — for a new Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If the makers of Invasion can think for themselves, they just might have something.(3)

Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Don Siegel, ed. Al La Valley, Rutgers Films in Print, 1989, pp. 154-5. [Back]
  2. Don Siegel had a cameo, too, appearing as a cab driver late in the film. [Back]
  3. The announced director is Oliver Hirschbiegel who did The Experiment(2001) and Downfall (2004). [Back]

Copyright © 2005, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Oct 10, 20:34 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of [the many makes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Daniel M. Kimmel's discussion of the films.

The article is here.
Oct 12, 06:22 by James Pfundstein
Daniel Kimmel wrote (in part):
For many people, the filmís political message is easy to read. Miles is the well-meaning but complacent American not paying attention to the threat of the pods (read: Commies) until it directly affects him. Then he discovers that this alien regime wants to transform America into a regimented society where everyone will think and act alike. Those who deviate will be captured and held until they become pod people too. Itís not an unfair interpretation of the film, and certainly fit the mood of the country at the time.


It does seem to me to be an unfair interpretation of the film. The obvious psychological issue that makes the movie frightening (still) is the terrible pressure a society can put on an individual to conform. That the Soviet Union enforced conformity in a particularly horrible form is not really subject to reasonable dispute, but in the USA (in the 1950s, especially) it was Anticommunism that insisted the citizen conform in word and thought and deed. And 1956 (when the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released) was a couple years after McCarthy had imploded on television. The mood of the country was a little different than when McCarthy was at his red-baiting zenith or nadir.

But I have a bigger problem with interpretations like this. It allows the critic (not Daniel Kimmel, but those many who find the film's political message "easy to read") to slander the film however he or she chooses. Insert "Gays" or "Evangelical Christians" or "Atheistic Existentialist Unitarians" in place of "Commies" and the argument flows the same way. Criticism should do more than find a higher ground from which to sneer at the work under discussion. (Again, I'm not associating Daniel Kimmel with this; I'm just saying there's a lot of it going around.)

JMP

James M. Pfundstein
Oct 14, 08:20 by Adrian Simmons
There is a book that came out recently called 'The Sociopath Next Door'. Long and short of it: they look like us, they can act like us, but they are not us. They have emotional connection to anyone else. And they tend to occupy their time trying to control others.

I see some strong similarities between some of the survivors' tales in 'Sociopath' and the violation of trust/personality change in the 50s movies. There is also the creepy tendancy for sociopaths to alter the behaviour of the people around them- infecting them, if you will- turning them against each other and forcing them to take sides.

Y'know what somebody should do? A movie where the pod people are beatnik hepcats.. Where they cry when they watch 'It's A Wonderful Life' because Potterville was such a swingin' place.

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