REVIEWS: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Drowned in the Foundations of Normalcy
A low-resolution version of this film can be found on the Internet Archive, available for download. It can also be streamed from Cinemax, HBO Max, Apple TV, and Vudu.
What a tragedy for modern American cinema, that in our fourth year of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the best satire of the ongoing disaster remains a film that came out over four decades prior - even better, it's a reboot of a previous film with the same name. Of course, the 1970s lacked a nigh-infinite army of visual effects artists, and endless landscapes of green and blue voids to generate imagery that stretches to the furthest extents of the human imagination, such as blue laser pillars from the sky and spandex meatheads zooming through skyscrapers like 9/11 was a professional sport.
Directors were forced to be clever in their filmmaking with cinematography, practical effects, puppetry, and other tools, instead of shrugging and casting off responsibility to a "second unit director," or saying "we'll fix it in post." The directors of this time had to be incredibly creative in how they transformed the stories of the script and storyboard onto the frames of a moving reel, using the limited resources of their time. Parallel to how bad faith pro-viral influencers can design a bad randomized control trial to justify their previously settled conclusions which falls apart upon strong analysis, a lot of modern horror & science fiction films fail to stand the test of time - chasing cheap thrills instead of substantial, lasting impact from atop a well-constructed foundation.
It takes true talent and craft to make a simple scene of a random gaggle of people running down the street in the dead of night to be an absolutely harrowing and terrifying cinematic moment - much like it takes a team of qualified researchers with different talent backgrounds to research, develop, and engineer quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) without the deployment of unethical Randomized Control Trials. The film’s director, Philip Kaufman, really takes full advantage of his limited resources and incredible cast, to make what is an instant classic that nearly half a century after its reveal, is so painfully relevant to the current crisis that many Americans are facing during the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Oh, don't get me started about the cast. The cast is an absolute tour-de-force here - with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Brooke Adams, and a young Jeff Goldblum really batting a thousand here. We have Donald Sutherland in his most hard-hitting, action-packed role of hypermasculinity manifest as a city health inspector in the heart of one of America's culinary capitals, San Francisco. Leonard Nimoy is a celebrity psychiatrist & author - hated by a young Jeff Goldblum, a failed poet & full-time mud bath attendant.
So yes, we have a film where the central hero is an officer of public health by the name of Matthew, his female co-star is Elizabeth Driscoll, a lab technician, and they share center stage alongside a celebrity psychiatrist by the name of David Kibner, and a failed poet Jack Bellechek who works at a mudbath. Can you believe it? A science-fiction film centered around real people with grounded backgrounds, who are thrown into an extraordinary crisis where they have to use their skills and expertise to try and understand what's unfolding, instead of pulling out neon blasters and leveling half a city block to save the day. Wild to think that's what science fiction films used to be, instead of an onslaught of bad videogame imitations that leave you looking for a controller port.
Oh, and the crisis these people have to try and navigate - it's a wild ride that many of the PAI’s readers will relate to. For a little under a 2-hour runtime, the first hour of the film has you trapped alongside these characters, struggling to navigate the mystery - and you feel the growing anxiety alongside them, knowing that something is clearly wrong, but unable to put a finger on it. Of course, this is the joy of rewatching the film - when you understand the central mystery, you realize just all the little hints the director snuck into the film, with a little social commentary tucked in, that really stick out like a sore thumb upon rewatch.
As an aside, a clever double-feature you could put alongside IOTBS is John Carpenter's They Live, with the immortal Rowdy Roddy Piper (RIP!) and Keith David facing a similar threat - the threat of a society that has turned twisted, alien, sadistic, and all too unfamiliar. The tension that many people who are still donning an N95 in public to protect themselves from SARS-CoV-2 infection have felt, whether its snide comments, nonconsensual photos for social media, or even outright assault on some occasions. It's all so alien and nasty - an attempt to cut out people who are high-risk from COVID out of society entirely or bring them to kneel against this new and alien virus, quietly hoping it "culls the weak."
One of the clever parts of how the plot unfolds is how the first people who detect that something is clearly wrong are women - the lab technician's husband is clearly not himself, almost as if his body... were snatched, even. We use this as an opportunity to establish Donald Sutherland as a heroic character, because the leading man doesn't immediately dismiss the woman's concerns - he may joke a little, but he's genuinely empathetic and trying to help - proposing an introduction to Leonard Nimoy's character, the celebrity psychiatrist David Kibner, which leads to a really fun line that is all the more prescient in our modern dystopian era:
"I'm not crazy!"
"No, no, no. Not like that. It would eliminate a lot of things. It would eliminate whether Geoffrey was having an affair, whether he'd become gay, whether he had a social disease, whether he'd become a Republican..."
There's a genuine empathy and tenderness of a real friendship here, something you really struggle to find in a lot of modern filmmaking - especially set to smooth jazz. Looking at the modern discourse from so many public-facing COVID “experts,” it's such a stark contrast. Especially since there's such an obscene effort by so many, like "Democratic Socialist" Natalie Shurley, to write off the millions suffering from Long COVID, disability resulting after infection with a vascular disease, as simply psychosomatic, aka "crazy." There is a “New Normal,” and it’s far more dire for everyone’s health and well-being than mask mandates and disease prevention.
It's these bonds between our characters that help them navigate the many challenges that lie ahead of them, set to a truly oppressive atmosphere with a visceral and unsettling soundstage - pulsating wavelengths that feel like some sort of alien heartbeat, feeling trapped in a world that's slowly becoming no longer your own. We follow Elizabeth, this poor lab technician, who has become incredibly isolated and struggling for answers in an unsettling and oppressive nightmare.
In the Biden Administration's delusional deathmarch towards an artificial illusion of normalcy, there has been a surge of anti-mask sentiment and abuse leveraged, mainly by rightoid voices, against mostly women - especially Asian women. This is largely anecdotal, because nobody's bothering to accumulate these stories into workable data - data that conflicts with the reporting from Zients time stomping around the White House in early 2021 wondering when we can ditch all this masking. I've recently been the target of such harassment and nearly assaulted - from someone clearly disturbed, fed an endless buffet of rightoid anti-public-health & disease prevention hate via any number of sources. It was quite the unpleasant experience.
After a disastrous run as COVID Czar, Zients was promoted for his failure to Chief of Staff, and as the picture painted by what data we do have about long-term effects on the body after a COVID infection has begun to form, including brain damage, there has been no national effort to course correct. Almost as if the virus itself is sitting in the Oval Office hotseat, snatched from the President people elected to "shut down the virus."
Of course, Matthew's idea of bringing anxiety-ridden Elizabeth to Celebrity Psychiatrist Kibner totally explodes in their faces - as Kibner uses the evidence that something is wrong as an excuse to go on some unrelated rant about the death of family values or what have you, totally shrugging off the woman's problems to the point that her male friend has to step in and say "David, you're not listening to what she's saying," and Kibner is so far up his own ass with his own grandeur and theories that it's like he's off on an entirely different planet from the rest of our Away Team. Leonard Nimoy is so uniquely sinister in this role, it's a shame we didn't get more opportunities to see him as a villain, instead of as the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D’s iconic First Officer.
In the context of COVID, Nimoy plays this incredible archetype that so many have frequently encountered in these past few years of calamity: the "minimizer." As our hero of the Public Health Department starts asking Kibner about this "hallucinatory flu going around" and whether or not to raise the alarm, Kibner immediately laughs it off. Soon enough, this all comes to a head at a nail-biting scene in the midpoint of the film set in the bedroom of Elizabeth and her partner, as the truly sci-fi elements of the film have come to the surface, and our heroes find themselves gaslit at every turn.
We learn so much about what's going on and about the characters involved in this argument, with Matthew, Jack, Kibner, himbo Geoffrey, and the police who become involved - less so from the direct dialogue but instead we're informed subtextually - including audio tones, camera movements, nonverbal acting, and the claustrophobic, oppressive feeling of being trapped in such a small space with people that refuse to believe what is such a ridiculous premise in the first place.
There's just so much you pick up from this film, especially through the lens of the ongoing pandemic, that rewatching that makes it impossible to talk about without spoilers. It's a terrifying, agonizing experience of trying to survive an ever-shifting "normalcy" that has developed such sinister undertones, and in the context of SARS-CoV-2 and how this has affected our social fabric on a macro level, there's so much to take away from this film.
Because in these past few years, something has changed. Something has truly changed on quite a sinister level: our leaders demanding total submission to a new and barely understood virus that has killed and disabled millions in rapid fashion, repeating all the same mistakes we made in the past, like with Yellow Fever in New Orleans. Disease prevention went from a central societal goal to a character trait to be ostracized and expelled, enforcing a delusion that by openly embracing a deadly and disabling virus, it would somehow make us stronger, happier, and "free."
Except, y’know, for the many who have died, or the many more now disabled.
There’s a lot more to talk about, but we should come back to it after everyone has had a chance to see the film, which is freely available on the Internet Archive in low resolution or on streaming from many popular platforms. See you next week!