Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
There’s always been a case that no matter the quality of the remake, it’s the original films that are always timeless. Looking forward to see what will age better, John Carpenter’s Halloween or Rob Zombie’s, it’s tough to really refute that. Except for Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Don Siegel’s original is no doubt a good film, but today it seems kind of goofy and bombastic in all its red scare hysteria. While the similar Village of the Damned still manages to chill to this day, the original Snatchers seems very much a product of its time. Kaufman’s 1978 remake, though, is one that just gets better with every encroaching year. It’s one of those near perfect horror films, with a meticulous attention to all the elements, from the A-list performances and tense, tragic direction to the organic effects work and groundbreaking Dolby surround. It’s an amazing looking and sounding movie, one fit for the highest presentation standards possible, and whaddya know, here’s MGM with the Blu-ray. Like the body snatchers themselves, the question remains: is this new iteration good enough to do away with the original, or is DVD still the best?
Elizabeth (Brooke Adams, Shock Waves, The Dead Zone) returns home to see her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle, The Brood, Black Christmas) on the couch. He sits there lifeless, staring off trance-like away from her. No, he’s not an alien, he’s just watching television. But he will be. Soon. On her way home from work, Elizabeth picked a rare-looking flower. It had a beautiful pink bud attached to a pod. It started off as a rare discovery, but quickly the pods multiply, attaching themselves to vegetation all over the metropolis. Inside them, clones ready to take the form of your loved ones.
Elizabeth’s boyfriend is the first to be replaced by the body snatchers. His lazy couch potato mentality quickly becomes one of stern indifference and hushed business meetings. His emotions are gone, and his “colleagues” are increasing exponentially. When Elizabeth questions the identity of her “new” boyfriend to her co-worker, health safety inspector Matthew (Donald Sutherland), he takes her observations as delusional. He recommends her to the mod psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), but even his intellectual musings cannot rationalize the fact that her boyfriend is not the same man she used to know. He’s an alien.
It takes a few more days for Matthew to notice that it’s not just Elizabeth’s husband that’s changing. Nature is being sucked out from under the society, with bird chirps replaced with garbage trucks, and peaceful scatter replaced with the conformity of organized pod meetings. It’s clear world domination is on the aliens’ minds, and unless Elizabeth, Matthew and their two friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), do something, human life will be forever extinct. If they sleep, they are replaced. If they show emotion, they are replaced. Their scream will be their last…and their body snatchers’ first!
The original 1956 film was black and white not only in aesthetic, but also in its conception of good and evil. It was the good old fashioned American dream against the soul-sucking commies. Philip Kaufman’s version operates in a much messier world, organic but never perfect. It’s evident with hypnotic televisions, unsanitary restaurants and vandalism that the world before the aliens come is far from perfect. What Kaufman argues instead is that even in an imperfect world, the idea of humanity, of unpredictable events and emotions, of love and pain, of laughter and leisure, is a life worth preserving. It’s a timeless concern, which dates this Invasion of the Body Snatchers far less than the knee-jerk hysteria of Don Siegel’s campy original.
That’s not to say that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t without references to its place in history. If the first is about the commies, then this is about the yuppies, since by 1978 the hippies started to settle down, take all that “Me” generation personal exploration and instead look at how they can make themselves more money. With Geoffrey as their figurehead, the aliens look and act like business caricatures, from their ironed suits, standup posture and calculated business meetings. If there is one thing that sucked the life out of peace, love and happiness, it’s the idea that money was needed in order to achieve that. Kaufman effectively taps into the American zeitgeist with his generalizations about where the country was to tread in the Wall Street era of the eighties.
Yet what makes Kaufman’s film much better than Siegel’s is that broad generalizations are only brush strokes to a more personal painting. Through Sutherland and Adams, he reduces humanity to two likable, generous citizens star cross’d by the pods of big business. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an amazingly humanistic film in a genre usually defined by faceless adversaries and Final Girls. When Adams shows Sutherland her humorous eyeball trick on the beach, when Goldblum rants about new psychology and mod culture, or when they all call for each other in times of survival, you get the sense that they are real, living people. It’s thus not good versus evil for the finale, but us, humanity, versus death, conformity, extinction.
Of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those rare remakes that betters the original(s) not only because of the story, but because of the top notch production values. It’s hard to think of the film without noting the awesome pod growth reversal shots, those menacing otherworldly screams, and the lengthy, arty takes. With the sound designer responsible for Star Wars, the cinematographer responsible for Taxi Driver and the space effects designer responsible for camera innovations that would win him two Academy Awards behind the film, it’s no surprise it’s a technical marvel. While the realism of the performances and the high concept story highlight the text, it’s the flourishes of art in the technical areas that help round the film out as a timeless classic.
The other two remake holy grails, The Fly and The Thing, are just as easily remembered for their effects, too. They still really haven’t been beaten, and in that respect they’ll always keep the films pertinent. Yet for these films, and Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s the artistry of the directors that make these films so special. In each case, they’ve found a unique voice and articulated it with a style that’s singularly theirs. They’ve taken popular stories, classic stories, and made them feel as if they’ve never been told before and as if they could never be told better.
The 2007 DVD was a noticeable improvement in terms of resolution, color and detail, but in the process it introduced the heavy grain that’s inherent in the high speed film stock that was used for the film. As a result, heavy grain could at times be distracting. The grain is present in this new Blu-ray, but because of the HD resolution, it’s able to achieve a natural, filmic look whereas before it became a fluttering distraction. The grain adds texture to a scene now, where before it would impede on the sharpness and detail on the compressed DVD. Michael Chapman’s work on this film truly is amazing, and this Blu-ray again elevates his groundbreaking work for a new level of appreciation. The gamma looks to be toned down a bit on this release, resulting in a more natural darkness that still preserves detail in the shadows. Colors pop a lot more here than they did on either DVD, and it’s no question that overall, this is an upgrade in all respects. Some moments are sharper than others, particularly those telephoto shots of leaves and growing pod people, but the overall Blu-ray is no doubt sharper and clearer than any DVD before it.
When it comes to older soundtracks, few have held up as well in our surround-heavy world as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was one of the pioneering films to be mastered in the Dolby Surround format, and the track, with all its experimental and atmospheric sound effects work, has always sounded cutting edge. It’s sounded so good that even on the 2007 DVD, MGM opted to use the same Dolby Surround track in favor of a 5.1 upgrade. The landmark track is still present on this Blu-ray, sounding better than ever, but it’s now also finally been expanded to full 5.1 via a DTS-HD Master Audio track. The added punch is noticeable right from the start with all those space sounds and distortion reverberating through the sound field during the opening credits. Everything, from a phone ringing to a car ambulance whizzing from left to right speakers really sounds that much fuller in 5.1, with the LFE addition the most obvious upgrade. It’s a powerful, engulfing track, and I suppose my only complaint is that a few pivotal moments weren’t quite as jarring as they could have been, like the iconic final scream. Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a very welcome landing in DTS.
Once again proving the upgrade to Blu-ray is not quite a seamless one, this new Blu-ray and DVD combo pack isn’t quite the upgrade you’d expect. For one, the informative commentary with Philip Kaufman, which itself is getting up there in age like the film, can only be found on the DVD. Weirder, still, the DVD is the old, non-anamorphic flipper from back in 1998, which features widescreen and standard versions on either side of the disc. MGM must have had a lot of old stock sticking around. The fact remains, though, that MGM has given us an outdated DVD that nobody should want to watch, yet those who want to hear the commentary are going to have to watch it. Considering the previous 2007 Collector’s Edition had two discs, one with the extras and one with the film and commentary, giving us the first disc would have been much preferred. Anyway, that’s the bad news.
The good news is that all the remaining extras from the 2007 DVD have been ported over to the Blu-ray, presented in anamorphic standard definition. They are as follows:
The second disc starts out with “Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod” featurette. The name is long, but the length really isn’t, at 16 minutes. Still, the big three are interviewed here, with Kaufman, iconic cinematographer Michael Chapman and Donald Sutherland. The writer, W.D. Richter (Buckeroo Banzai) is also aboard, as well as a literary scholar. The two join Kaufman in first discussing the forming of the story, which is then followed by Chapman and then finally Sutherland with some nice anecdotes about his time with Brooke Adams. It’s a shame Adams wasn’t brought in for the extras, since her and Sutherland’s rapport really make the film. Kaufman talks throughout these extras, so the highlight is seeing Sutherland speak so highly of the film.
Effects man Howard Preston talks about his work on the pods and the opening sequence in the short 5 minute “Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod” featurette. They reveal the secrets behind how they achieved those sequences (although Kaufman goes into even further detail on the commentary), and they play the sequences as they were originally shot to help give a better perspective.
“The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod” follows, and as the title suggests, it delves into the making of all those creepy sound effects that have helped make the audio for the film so iconic. Sound effects man Ben Burtt talks about his method, and reveals the real life inspiration behind much of the sounds in the film. Who would have thought that whimpering babies and pigs would help create such a scary soundscape? This is a fascinating featurette, truly revealing the kind of art that goes into even the most unnoticeable of sound effects. It runs a nice 12 minutes.
The last featurette is with my man Michael Chapman, the great cinematographer who brought us Taxi Driver. In “The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod” he dissects much of the unorthodox shooting techniques he did in the film to help give it its memorable veneer. Him and Kaufman talk about how they wanted to transcribe the film noir into color, and how several portions of the film were done with Chapman just out and around San Fran with his handheld camera. The look of the film is beautiful, and it’s great to see it paid tribute in this short but sweet 6 minute affair.
The original trailer rounds off this fine set.
Few films, especially from the seventies, have aged as well as Philip Kaufman’s bohemian attack on capitalism, conformity and a lack of compassion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a film that withstands (hell, it begs for them!) multiple viewings, rich for both the heart and the mind. It represents a special and fleeting moment in cinema, where the grindhouse and the art house could co-exist for a visceral punch to the gut and a cerebral stimulation of the mind. Not quite as good a hybrid is MGM’s new Blu-ray, which awkwardly couples the old, non-anamorphic DVD with the new Blu-ray, and makes the commentary track available only on the DVD. Thankfully, the Blu-ray picture is a quality improvement, and Invasion’s jump to 5.1 has never sounded better. I recommend this disc to all, but those with the 2007 DVD might want to hang on to that for the commentary on an anamorphic print. Snatch this one up however you can; the movie’s a masterpiece.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Uuhh, I think u mean attached 2 a pod, not a attacked lol! :)
I remember first seeing this flick at the drive-in back when it was first released. I still see Donald Sutherland's mouth agape and that God awful scream !!! Good review. Thanks.
I love both the original and the 70's versions of Body Snatchers. I do, however, find it funny that Rhett lambasted the original for being a "Red Scare" film (i.e against the "terror" of communism) yet praises the 70's version for being against Capitalism....something you're not telling us, Rhett? :D:D:D
Haha, I collect DVDs, posters, magazines and old video games...I am through and through a capitalist.
What I meant, was that the original's themes seemed much more reactionary and shallow, while Kaufman's remake had a much deeper, thoughtful touch. It was about capitalism, but it was about neo-psychology, the ME generation, technological isolation, the breakdown of communication, and so much more. In Siegel's movie, I can't picture the pods as anything other than either monster hokum or Cold War hysteria.
Perhaps the '78 remake resonates more now in part because there were just so many more socio-cultural threads going on at the time compared to in the '50s. But regardless of the message, Kaufman just works with a more artistic, personal and powerful hand. His action scenes are better, his performances are more intimate and his use of visuals and sound are far more artistic. Says the capitalist.
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