Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) … Greatest Remake Ever?
Before remakes became as common as dirt, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978 was a great success, perhaps inadvertently giving every studio executive in Hollywood an idea about how to create a remake. In 2012, RottenTomatoes named it the number seven best remake ever made, out of fifty, which I’m not sure means much considering they named the Jeff Bridges’ True Grit remake number one. The 1978 Body Snatchers is a great film, in my opinion, and continues the legacy of science fiction allegories that began in the 50s, most notably with It Came From Outer Space (1953) and the original Body Snatchers.
I have never watched this film for any allegorical meaning, but Roger Ebert has, and that’s good enough for me, so I decided to look a little deeper into this movie to see if I could discover something more. Ebert stated in his 2010 Movie Yearbook that the 1956 Body Snatchers film was about McCarthyism, much like It Came From Outer Space was. However, the 1978 version departs from its predecessor’s Communist overtones with ones about Watergate, keeping tabs on people, and control over the public or public opinion.
The Watergate scandal happened in 1972 and Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, but in 1978, I’m sure the hot topic was either Vietnam or Watergate. Authorities in Body Snatchers 1978 often tell the characters not to worry. Like they are trying to summon the spirit of the 60s, the dependable federal institutions tell the characters in the movie everything will be alright, when the viewing public, the audience for this movie, knows everything is not alright, even in their own government. Distrust of government grew in the 70s and this feeling is portrayed well in Body Snatchers 1978. Early in the movie, authorities give Matthew the runaround over the phone, much like everybody on Earth did to Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, with the only difference being that Matthew can’t break through the red tape and conspiracy in any conclusive way, while Robert Redford can.
Remakes differ in a number of approaches, but this one works by modernizing the 1956 story and making many themes contemporary. It is set in the big city for one, instead of a rural town. There are a number of characters who go to high-tech businesses and work in fast paced environments. They have relationship problems, discuss them in their everyday dialogue, and Leonard Nimoy plays a psychiatrist trying to help people cope with their problems. All of these things are contemporary features.
All of the suspense comes from each character’s fear, about what is happening to friends, boyfriends, and wives, not necessarily to themselves. John Muir, in his book “Horror Films of the 1970s”, said that this reaction mirrored society’s feeling about marriage. In fact, he states that most of the dialogue, such as characters complaining that “he’s not the same person”, could be direct allusions to what was really going on in society at that time and how people were reacting to their marriages in the 1970s. This reaction was a growth in the divorce rate. I have never watched this movie as an allegory about divorce or bad relationships, but it clearly has themes of isolation and loneliness to support that.
Whether about Watergate or divorce, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) still is a good movie and every one of the actors does a good job. The director, Phillip Kaufman, won a Saturn award in 1979 for crafting this excellent film, while a number of other people in the movie were also nominated for awards. Kaufman made this into a horror film, which is probably what the 1956 version is too. It is successful as a horror film, but the tension and suspense are probably what the 1978 version does best.
Matthew is played by Donald Sutherland and he tries to help Elizabeth, his co-worker. As such, they get caught up in a romance together, as she complains that her boyfriend is “not who he was”. That turns out to be literally the truth, which is sorta amusing. Leonard Nimoy’s character is the first major authority to make them doubt their story. He gives them a hug. He tells them that their problems are in their head. He tells them it’ll be okay. These things are exactly what other nameless and faceless authorities say to quell the dissent in society, especially in Matthew. Leonard Nimoy’s character is not a pod-person at first, but he’s still a part of that control anyway. He then literally becomes part of the conspiracy as a pod-person. A pod-psychiatrist, I guess. Quite ironic.
There’s just something unsettling about this moody film, which I think works well. There are a couple of jump scares, but the film has a creepy, dark tone throughout, supported by some of the horror visuals. Even things like emotionless people standing around a deadman on the street give me the chills. As Matthew and Elizabeth drive by, they can only wonder what happened to a man who tried to warn them about an alien invasion only moments before. There is no freedom to say whatever you want and everyone is listening, perhaps the most obvious, direct allusion to Watergate, if there ever was one.
In the end, Matthew can’t do anything about the conspiracy and becomes part of it. I think the performances are good and the themes are interesting to think about, in connection with Watergate, divorce, or government control. This movie is definitely a creepy improvement over the 1956 original and I think it still works today. The inclusion of a conspiracy in the film makes the characters doubt what they see, which I think is reminiscent of other modern movies. There are no shiny UFOs in this movie and there are no little grey men to find, because the threat to human individuality is a far greater fear in this movie. To answer my own question, I’m not sure if this is the greatest remake ever, but it comes close and succeeds in warning us that there is some real horror in conforming.