Friday, October 3, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Philip Kaufman

WARNING: the clip below is from the end of the movie, so don't watch it if you care about spoilers or whatever.  Also, this movie is almost forty years old and a remake of a sci-fi cultural touchstone so if you're worried about spoilers... come on, dude.

I'd never seen the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I never really felt like I needed to.  I got the gist.  Aliens, pod people, paranoia, etc.  This one had just recently popped up on Netflix and with a cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy, I figured I'd be into it.  And I was.  For parts of it, at least.

I think my main problem was in the pacing.  It starts out pretty brisk and tense.  Strange flowers appear all over San Francisco.  We meet Elizabeth and her basketball-obsessed dope of a husband.  We meet uptight health inspector Matthew.  We get the status quo and then we wake up the next morning and something about Elizabeth's husband is different.  He wears a suit, he's cleaning up after himself, he skips out on the basketball game to go to some kind of late night meeting.  And he's not the only one.  Other people in the city seem a bit off as well.  There's a pervasive air of discomfort that we feel in the first half hour or so of the movie, but that creepy momentum doesn't really carry into the rest of the movie.  
Instead what we get is a bumbling investigation by a group of non experts who keep deferring to Leonard Nimoy's character, an asshole self-help book writing psychiatrist who is never in any real position of authority.  Seriously, they keep coming to him with what they find, and he keeps listening to them and telling them they're hallucinating or whatever.  Even if he did believe them, what could he possibly do about any of this??

It's not all tedious stumbling around, though.  There are some very unsettling and strange moments that are scattered throughout the second act of the movie, and by the time we make it to the third act, the movie seems to have finally hit its stride, offering up the paranoid horror it had been building towards.

That's the thing about this movie, I think.  There are individual moments that are shocking and scary, but the true horror of this movie comes from the big picture concept.  There's this great bit where Matthew and Elizabeth are captured, and one of the pod people starts to explain about how they are refugees from a dead planet.  He is about to go deeper in his exposition, but he gets interrupted when the two decide to take this soliloquy as an opportunity to get the jump on their captors, strangling one of them and locking the other in a freezer before they rush off to their escape.  It's a great moment that works as a comment on the futility of ever speculating on where these creatures came from, what they want from us, etc.  At this point in the invasion the reasons are no longer important.  The only thing that matters is survival.

That idea of futility is the truly terrifying thing about this movie.  The risk and paranoia that comes from the fact that any of these people you see could be one of "them" is understandably scary and exciting, but I think the crux of the horror here comes from the fact that you can't change any of it; there's no winning this one.  None of our protagonists knows anything about these body snatching alien plants, they're just picking it up as they go, and each minute that goes by another human comes under their control.  They are massively outnumbered and all they can do is run, but to where?  They don't know how widespread this invasion is.  They don't know how long it's been going on.
There's this great scene near the end where Matthew and Elizabeth, both fighting off the effects of a sedative, have narrowly avoided being discovered and find themselves in a shipyard.  Matthew plans to stow them away on a boat so they can at least get out of San Francisco, maybe warn the human race.  He leaves Elizabeth to hide herself as he runs to some massive cargo ship to see if there's a way on, but he has to stop and turn back when he sees that the ship's cargo is just giant pallets full up with more of the alien plants responsible.  It's at that moment where we feel the weight of defeat along with Matthew.  Any attempt to survive truly is futile, and humanity is unquestionably doomed.  I like that kind of stuff.  I just wish they'd gotten to that bit sooner.

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