It was 1978. Thanks to the previous year’s Star Wars, every studio in Hollywood wanted a science fiction film. Not that Star Wars was science fiction, but that's another story. Producer Rob Solo had obtained the rights to remake 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for a modern retelling. Wisely, he chose Phillip Kaufman to helm the project. At the time Kaufman was known mostly as the director of the The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and the screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. For those of you who haven’t seen Josey Wales, that’s the one where he plays a cowboy out for revenge.
Ha ha, I’m kidding.
Kaufman is a consummate filmmaker and brilliant writer. He would go from Invasion to co-write the story for Raiders Of Lost Ark with his friend George Lucas and, as director, bring Thomas Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being to the screen. At the time of his hiring, Kaufman had yet to read the original Jack Finney novel, The Body Snatchers, but he was a big fan of Don Seigal’s 1956 film version. Kaufman saw his movie not as a remake but as an extension of the original story. Seigal's original ending had with Kevin McCarthy running blindly through traffic screaming, “They’re coming! You’re next!” Early in Kaufman’s reboot, we find Kevin McCarthy still running through traffic, still screaming his warning, as if, in Kaufman’s words, he'd been “metaphorically” running around the country since the original film.
As stated previously, the original film was seen as a metaphor, by and large, for the faceless, silent invasion of the scourge of Communism, a nightmare extrapolation of a population surrendering its individuality for conformist groupthink. Although Communist Russia was still in existence in 1978, it was running on fumes and the threat of a faceless infiltration had given way to overt fears of a nuclear shooting war. The Cold War spiraling out of control and going hot in its waning days.
So what would the new Invasion be about?? Director Phillip Kaufman was born and raised in Chicago but moved to San Francisco and became a part of the city’s burgeoning counterculture movement. According to Christian Knoppler, a German academic who wrote about the film, Kaufman’s Invasion is a lamentation on the slow death of the American counterculture. By 1978, the hippie dream was dead. The flower children and revolutionaries of the sixties were, one by one, turning off, tuning out and dropping back in. In two short years, the eighties would get underway, and the same generation that smoked grass and turned their back on materialist western culture would discover coke, head to Wall Street and insist that greed was cool.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers 1978 starred Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as former hippies who had dropped back in by working for the San Francisco Health Dept. A very young Jeff Goldblum plays their San Francisco standard-issue-angry-poet pal. The stand-out is Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner, a cliché-spouting pop psychologist (and based on what comes out of his mouth, a terrible one, to boot). Kibner is such a pompous weirdo that when he becomes a pod person, it’s hard to actually tell.
The real star of the film is the city of San Francisco itself. If there was ever a city to set a version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, that tale of biologically forced conformity, it was San Francisco, the city that celebrates non conformity like no other in America. As a former resident, I can attest that even the city itself refuses to conform. Located in sunny California, it’s always cold and kinda wet.
In Kaufman’s tale, Sutherland, Adams, Nimoy and Goldblum, these countercultural stalwarts, sixties holdovers being dragged through the seventies, kicking and screaming as the go-go eighties approached, fall one-by-one to their emotionless pod replicas. The city becomes a claustrophobic, concrete-walled, shadow-painted maze as Sutherland and Adams struggle to escape. The final scene, in which Veronica Cartwright cautiously approaches Sutherland, unsure if he is still who he was, is a classic, surpassing any single shot of the original.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers 1978 itself failed to conform to the norm in the sense that was a remake of a classic movie that was both a critical and box office success. None other than Pauline Kael lead the critical charge by stating in the New Yorker that it, “may be the best film of its kind ever made.” Variety said that it was so successful an undertaking that it, “validates the entire concept of remakes.”
As stated previously, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers would be remade twice more (as of this writing anyway), Body Snatchers in 1993 and The Invasion in 2007. It’s central conceit, people being overtaken by emotionless replicas, would be seen in a number of other films, most notably, of all things, another remake. A remake that surpasses its original and went to become a high water mark for the genre.
Next time, One Of You Ain’t Who You Say You Are. John Carpenter’s The Thing.