When discussing cinema, it’s rare to find ourselves in praise of a remake. In our current climate of filmmaking, Hollywood is run amok by remakes, reboots and retellings of movies from the past. While tiresome and counterproductive to the artistic nature of filmmaking, there are times when these remakes are a success. I am sure that, while reading this paragraph, you have already thought of a few examples of excellent remakes. But how many of those eclipse their successors? How many of those completely shift and adjust their themes to suit a different era in which they are set?
Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 reboot of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (adapted from Jack Finney’s iconic novel) completely changed the landscape of its predecessor to talk to a generation of Americans that were concerned with sexuality and the yearning for individualism. Wasting no time, the film begins with an obvious rendering of sexual symbols. Unlike the original, which was set in a small California town where every face was familiar, the remake takes place in San Francisco where every face is likely a new one.
Until she becomes romantically involved with Matthew (Donald Sutherland), Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) shares an apartment with a doctor named Geoffrey (Art Hindle). The decor in the house stresses heterosexual coupling. Statues of man and woman drape the shelf; a pair of Oriental dolls, male and female, stand on the mantle. Even the only painting in the house is a simple one: a boy and a girl. Since one of the members of a couple is eventually transformed into a pod, threatening extinction, the locus of betrayal occurs between man and woman. This stresses the growing concern of individuality, isolating the humanity of this big city with duplications that nobody cares about until it is drastically out of hand.
Kaufman relies on kinetic, peculiarly inventive camerawork, his cast’s dynamic performances, and his menacing filmmaking oeuvre to bring Finney’s novel to life. Cinematographer Michael Chapman’s kinetic style shines in fast-paced sequences on bustling city streets where everyone is a duplicate and no one will listen to Matthew’s conspiracy theory about an alien takeover. Denny Zeitlin – a jazz musician – brings an offbeat, uncanny quality to the only film he ever scored, at times using inharmonious sounds and at others, a slower tempo.
At the end of Kaufman’s film, Matthew and Elizabeth, finally realizing their mutual love – after individualism had kept them apart for so long – struggle to stay awake until “Amazing Grace” echoes from a ship at the dockyards. Matthew leaves Elizabeth alone to get a better look and, when he returns to Elizabeth, he finds her asleep and cannot wake her—her duplicate has already formed. He is cursed and condemned for not sticking with his counterpart, rather – even in a realization of romance – deciding to pursue an action as an individual rather than as a couple. At this moment, isolation occurs. Matthew decides to incinerate a pod factory in an act of revenge and rebellion; but after he narrowly escapes, the final shots leave us wondering how Matthew made such an escape. The following frames find him blankly going about his routine at the Department of Health, as if nothing had happened. When a variation of “Amazing Grace” starts up, given the anthem’s established comparison with false hope in the film, we should already know what Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) is in for when she spots Matthew. She rushes up to him, delighted to see a familiar face in a world of duplicates, born out of the selfishness and individualism of society. That final shot of Matthew raising his arm and screaming that blood-curdling scream remains one of the most horrifying, moving, and effective moments in cinema history. No other film, or piece of media, has more haunting impact than that hideous alien scream—a grating shriek that announces exposure, betrayal, and terror in a singular audiovisual nightmare.
When Invasion of the Body Snatchers released on December 22, 1978 – with a bizarre PG rating to boot – it went on to make around $25 million at the box office; a hit among filmgoers and critics alike. Pauline Kael – a critic for The New Yorker at the time – wrote the most loving opinion, and though some may scream hyperbole, she accurately stated that it “may be the best film of its kind ever made.” It’s hard to disagree with that notion. No sci-fi/horror feels more alive, its consequences so palpable, and its setting so tangible.
Anne Billson once wrote “great horror movies are like Frankenstein’s monster—considerably more than just the sum of their tacked-together body parts.” Philip Kaufman heeded this advice, transforming Invasion of the Body Snatchers from a strong remake of a paranoid and scatter-brained ’50s sci-fi tale into a meditation on sexuality, intertextuality and a stunning cinematic experience. It truly deserves to share a berth alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) as one of the few Hollywood remakes that outdoes its predecessor. Its body parts have been meticulously stitched together, every facet zapped with creativity. Though the film embraces individualism it also stealthily satirizes the idea of such, underscoring how individualism remains under undying hostility by conformist notions. More than any metaphors the sprawling adaptations of Finney’s novel may have inspired, Kaufman’s iteration results in a theme that, while in many ways is very specific to the film’s San Francisco setting, also feels like it could metastasize in 2018. It is an incredibly entertaining, gorgeously assembled sci-fi/horror that still feels important and brimming with life 40 years later.
As previously seen on Talk Film Society