Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Richard Manning
From the novel by Jack Finney
Executive Produced by Walter Mirisch
Cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Robert S. Eisen
Production Design by Ted Haworth
Special Effects by Milt Rice and Don Post
Widescreen, black and white, a man in hysterics is brought under police escort before a doctor and a psychiatrist at an emergency room. He has a whale of a tale to tell: a saga of alien invaders taking over human bodies and minds. Much like the 1950 film noir D.O.A., we get the grim story in flashback:
A doctor returns from a conference to find his hometown transforming before his eyes.
The community seems to be suffering from some sort of mass hysteria. People are claiming their loved ones have stopped being who they once were-a mother is no longer a mother, a father is no longer a father. Oh, sure, Dad looks exactly the same as always, same face, same eyes, same nose, the voice is the same-in other words there's no chance that it's some stranger attempting a bold impersonation. But something is different about Dad. Something subtle, yet huge. The emotions are not quite right. This new father, or new mother, has less emotion than before, and the whole thing is inexplicable. It's the kind of thing you notice about someone you've known all your life, but that maybe wouldn't be so obvious to someone outside of the family. A crucial detail has been erased giving the lie to this . . . duplication.
You try to call the police, or a psychiatrist, maybe your general practitioner-you try to get someone to believe you when you say that this person you've known all your life is no longer that very same person. And all you get is a blank stare, a condescending smile, and a recommendation to lay off the sauce. The especially understanding doctor in this movie, Dr. Bennell (played by the great Kevin McCarthy), might give you some pills to help you relax. Help you sleep.
Dr. Bennell doesn't know it at first, but that's when they get you. When you're asleep. Seed pods from outer space. They duplicate you, mind, body, and maybe even soul, if you want to go there.
We're talking about the world famous Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a stark example of weird horror built out of paranoia, insomnia, film noir lighting dialed down a few notches, and the fear of the total loss of one's individual humanity. Director Don Siegel, more known for his hard-boiled crime thrillers The Killers, Coogan's Bluff, and Dirty Harry, among others, keeps the pace tight, and parcels out some effectively gruesome, yet mysterious, moments of gooey shock. Quite a bit is left unexplained. The ending is ambiguous, but cautiously hopeful. We in the audience are either witnessing the end of the human race or a very close call.
One big thing that is left mysterious is the exact mechanism by which the alien seed pods duplicate people. When you watch this film, ask yourself: do individual pods bond with individual human targets? Is some sort of psionic power involved in order to scan and duplicate the mind? Is this same psionic facility, if that's what we're dealing with here, the same method by which certain parts of the original person's personality are excised? Or are we dealing with imperfections in the duplication process? Maybe when a person is duplicated by the alien seed pods some elements of the person's mind and personality are accidentally eliminated. So the changes in the duplicated person may not be sinister or malign in any intentional way. The alterations are just by-products of the aliens' natural survival functions.
Will the process of duplication ever improve? If this duplication process could ever be perfected, then what would the difference be between an original and a perfect copy? Why all the fuss? I mean, if the pods win, no one would care. We'd each be a duplication, and we'd get on with business as usual. Especially if the aliens get better at duplicating people. But even if they don't, well . . . people get used to things. You know?
As Dr. Bennell investigates this eerie situation he comes to see himself as a lone agent pitted against an overwhelming force that's seeking to erase the essence of the human spirit. Dr. Bennell offers this rather stirring speech:
"In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind . . . All of us, a little bit, we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear."
Dr. Bennell later confronts one of these pod people accusing it of wanting to erase love, passion, desire, and ambition from the hearts of men. The duplication calmly tells him that all these things aren't really necessary, that love and passion inevitably fade, and he'll wake up the next day feeling much better with no more worries and concerns. And besides, the duplication says, "You don't have a choice." That doesn't go over too well with the fiercely individualistic Dr. Bennell.
I find it funny that a horror story could be built around the idea of how awful it is to be a conformist. People want to conform. People want to belong to a group, to a family, to a tribe, to a nation; or maybe just root for the home team. Humans love to gather at political rallies or places of religious worship, or college football stadiums and respond in socially approved ways to ritualistic speeches and spectacles. Sure, horrific things grow out of such activities-genocide, war, greed, racism, homophobia, misogyny, ultra-nationalism, imperialism, religious corruption of secular government and education, beer guts-but that's just human nature going back thousands of years. We don't need aliens to give us such atrocities. Maybe the pod people, with their dialed back passions, and their hyper-logical outlook on existence, are really an improvement on the old model of humanity.
We'll never know unless we give the pod people a chance.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers trailer: