'Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect men on ships?'

James Plath's picture

Director Philip Kaufman made some interesting choices when he decided to film a remake of the popular "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), which is perhaps why he earned a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He added a large infusion of humor--something studios denied the writer and director of the first classic film--and he chose to film with limited color, which gives the 1978 update a dark look and a near-noir feel.

It's also plenty interesting (and it shows the kind of respect Kaufman had for the first film) that he cast director Don Siegel in a cameo role as a cab driver, and Siegel's star, Kevin McCarthy, as the man who runs across your screen near the film's end screaming "They're coming!" Speaking of cameos, those banjo sounds you hear being picked by a street musician were laid in by none other than Jerry Garcia, and if the priest swinging at a playground in the film's opening looks familiar, that's because it's Robert Duvall.

Siegel's 1956 film was a B-movie by all accounts, shot in just 19 days on a scant $300,000 budget. Kaufman had three million dollars to work with, and produced a version that many people think may be the best--partly because it returns to the spirit of what the original script called for, partly because of those noir effects, and partly because of iconic moments such as Donald Sutherland's "scream." In his review, John J. Puccio called it his favorite because of the tension it sustains. I have to say, though, that I prefer the original . . . partly because the Me Decade has a certain cachet about it that makes it hard to take anything seriously, whereas the '50s were such a time of innocence and Cold War paranoia that it was easy to be scared silly.

But Kaufman's version is still strong. The script by W. D. Richter relies less on clichés and stock situations that most thrillers of this type, and gives us character development so that we care what happens to these folks. Set in San Francisco, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" opens with a shot of globby space gloop launching itself towards Earth. Where it lands, it appears like sticky dew, then quickly turns into a pod with a bright flower on the end that entices Earthlings to pick it up. And then . . . .

Well, then the pods do their thing. They send out little tendrils, suck out the person's life (and DNA), clone the person, and after the clone has fully developed, the original is destroyed, leaving an unfeeling alien being in its place. Makes sense that they're virtual vegetables, since, after all, they're cloned by apparent plant matter.

Sutherland plays a Health Department worker who, with his colleague, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), sense something is wrong and try to investigate. Assisting them are two friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, plays a Dr. Phil type who thinks it's nothing more than a type of mass hallucination. This was, remember, the time when some people were seriously worried about hippies putting LSD in the water supply.

What Kaufman does very well is to convey that sort of paranoia and an ubiquitous strangeness, to where people staring on the streets, men in suits running, or characters talking to one another suddenly take on an ominous air. In this respect, it reminds me a great deal of a real period piece, "The President's Analyst." Where the film suffers is in Richter and Kaufman's insistence on using more than a single climax. We get a series of dramatic moments near the end that make it feel as if they didn't quite know how or when to finish the thing.

You can really see a surprising amount of detail in the shadows, for a standard DVD. I wondered if the video was the same as the last release, since no new transfer was announced, but my colleague, John J. Puccio, says that "The new bit rate is not only higher, it's more consistently higher. The picture is still a tad grainy, but overall it looks sharper and more detailed than before, with deeper, richer colors than the old, lower-bit-rate, nonanamorphic transfer." And that's a huge difference. The Collector's Edition is enhanced for widescreen TVs and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.

As John noted in his review, there's not much in the way of surround-sound effects. In fact, the English or Spanish Dolby Surround doesn't sound appreciably different from the French Mono. Only when something happens like a telephone ringing sharply that comes through the left front speaker do we remember that it's in stereo. And yes, it scares the hell out of you. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Fans of the film were disappointed by the lack of extras in the first release. For them, there's an extra disc. This set comes housed in a double-disc keep-case with a cardboard slip-case and a full-color stapled booklet (technically, just four pages long, if you don't count the covers).

Disc one has Kaufman's commentary from the first release, and it's a pretty low-key reminiscence. After all, it's been 30 years now since the film was made, so it's unreasonable to expect the kind of intensity (or memory detail) you'd get from a commentary of a more recent film. But Kaufman is interesting to listen to, both here and on some of the featurettes.

Disc two has four short features, plus the original trailer. "Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod" lays out Kaufman's basic philosophy in remaking/updating the 1956 film. "Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod" has a talking head recalling how some of the shots were accomplished--though compared to special effects features on most DVDs these days, it's surprisingly casual and superficial. "The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod" focuses on what the title says, while "The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod" talks about that aspect. I have to say, though, that collectively these short features really don't make much of an impression. They're all pretty routine, with not much in the way of surprises.

Bottom Line:
One of the characters says, "Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect men on ships?" Ultimately, what's frightening aren't the images on the screen. It's the subversion, the idea that something, or someone, can take over your body and destroy it without your knowledge. No wonder audiences responding to the first film saw it as a parable for the Communist scare or the McCarthy witch hunt, depending on their politics. And no wonder people in the '70s and early '80s saw it as a warning against drugs or Big Brother--again, depending on their moral sense of the world. As long as people have something to be paranoid about, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" will continue to be frightening. Unlike John, I just don't think this version is the best.


Film Value