Directed by Don Siegel, 1956. Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jeanne Willes, Ralph Dumke. 80 minutes.
A small-town doctor discovers that his neighbors are being replaced by sinister alien duplicates.
There’s going to be a bit of a temptation to say that Invasion of the Body Snatchers hasn’t aged well. I believe I’d agree with that statement, to an extent, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what I mean by “hasn’t aged well.”
First of all, let’s remind ourselves the fact that Invasion was released in 1956. Every film made in the mid-‘5os is going to be dated, to some extent or another. The state of the art, both in cinematography and in effects, has moved on. Storytelling technique has changed, visual grammar has changed, acting styles have changed.
When I say the film “hasn’t aged well,” I’m definitely not talking about effects. I’m not going to claim I don’t notice the quality of effects, but for the most part I don’t care unless either the effects crew is completely incompetent or the effects are one of the film’s main selling points. (Being a fan of the original Doctor Who will have that effect on you.) Also, while most of Invasion‘s effects look like crap today, I can’t imagine they didn’t look like crap in 1956 as well—the film’s budget was just over a quarter of a mil, which was bargain-basement even at the time. Not that it’s an excuse for shoddy effects, but it is an explanation. There isn’t all that much in the way of effects here, anyway, so I don’t consider it much of an issue.
Everything else—structure, storyline, acting, cinematography—I find generally acceptable for a film of its time. Most of these elements I’ve found good if not necessarily remarkable, with the exception of a few shots that have some genuine creep factor. Modern audiences are going to have to make concessions in order to appreciate it, but again, that holds true of any film made before (let’s pick a year on a totally arbitrary basis) 1977. And my expectation is that the majority of people who are going to seek Invasion out virgin realize they’re going to have to make those concessions. At the very least, they’re probably willing to try.
What I actually mean by “hasn’t aged well” is that Invasion is too familiar and its subtext is largely irrelevant.
The Body Snatchers, the 1955 Jack Finney novel on which Invasion is based, is hardly the first treatment of the “alien invaders who look just like us” trope. But it is the earliest definitive film or TV treatment of the concept; in the intervening years, the trope has mutated into a hoary cliché. Alien infiltrators have appeared in the movies (Invaders from Mars, They Live) and on TV (The Invaders, V). There have been two film versions of earlier works based on the “they look just like us” concept: The Puppet Masters in 1994, based on a 1951 novel by Robert Heinlein, and The Thing in 1982, based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” (I’m not counting the original Thing from Another World, as it jettisons entirely the shapeshifting aspect of the Thing’s nature, turning it into a generic marauding monster.)
We’ve even had three remakes of Invasion (or three more adaptations of The Body Snatchers, depending on your perspective), in 1978 (the Philip Kaufman version starring Donald Sutherland), 1993 (Body Snatchers, directed by Abel Ferrara of Bad Lieutenant fame), and 2007 (The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig).
So we may want to yell at Miles Bennell, Invasion’s hero, for being stupid, but stupidity isn’t his problem; his problem is that he’s never seen The Faculty and has no idea how to react to alien infiltrators. (It should also be noted that over the years, audiences—admittedly, moreso mainstream audiences than horror diehards—seem to expect horror heroes to also act as action heroes. “Strong female protagonist” has become a code-phrase meaning “clone of Buffy Summers.” Bennell is very decidedly not an action hero.)
So that’s the problem of familiarity. What about relevance? We’ve lived with the idea of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is really about Communist infiltration” for so long that we no longer question it, even though Finney always maintained it was never an intentional subtext in his original novel. (It seems that Invasion was originally read as an anti-McCarthyite screed…) But it can’t be denied that once you start reading Invasion as such, the idea becomes very hard to shake. (At any rate, in most science fiction works dating from 1950-1980, any time an alien menace that “looks just like us” shows up, it’s almost always a Communist metaphor.)
One of the things that struck me recently about Western culture is that if you’re looking for an Enemy, you don’t have to look very hard. All you have to do is find someone who might be a Muslim. Failing that, find someone who might be in the country illegally. Easy as pie. Paranoia was a bit different during the Cold War: anybody could be a Communist. Communists look “just like us”…but remember, at this point in time, looking “just like us” meant being white. One thing that struck me during my most recent viewing of Invasion: all the cast members are white. The closest thing to an ethnic minority in Santa Mira is Dr. Dan Kaufman; while it is only an assumption that Dr. Kaufman might be Jewish—based entirely on his surname—I expect it’s an assumption that most viewers of the time would have made.
The encroachment of communism is less of a concern today than the spread of terrorism. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people today who are worried about socialism…but even then, ask them who the most visible proponent of “socialism” in America is today. Ten to one they’ll specify the guy in the White House, who is black and is probably (you guessed it) a Muslim. But I’d argue that to the American mainstream, the idea that America is under subtle attack from communists is, well, quaint and a little outdated.
So that’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a nutshell. It’s a good movie, a lot of fun. But it is a relic of a different time, and in order to appreciate it you’re going to have to adjust your expectations somewhat.
Moment of Zen
“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next…”
R.I.P. Kevin McCarthy 1919-2010
“This community means about as much to me as a festering ball of dog snot!”