Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

When Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns home to Santa Mira in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he finds that a lot of his patients are worried about family members who no longer seem to be themselves.  Eventually, it turns out that the town has been invaded by a form of plant life from another planet.  The seeds grow into pods that take the form of anyone who goes to sleep in their vicinity.  These pod replacements, being plants, have no emotions, which is why they seem to be strange to their family members.

After a while, everybody in town has been replaced by a pod except Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), the woman he loves.  When she gets taken over by a pod, he runs out onto the highway leading out of town, where he discovers a truck leaving Santa Mira full of pods, which will soon be taking over the rest of the world.  Miles runs down the highway screaming, “You’re next!  You’re next!”  That ending was considered too bleak, and so a frame story was added, in which Miles is picked up and interrogated by people who think he is crazy.  Eventually they believe him, and as the movie ends, we have the sense that the federal government will be brought in to stop the pods.

Critics debate whether this movie is an allegory for communism or the communist witch hunts. In other words, are the pod people supposed to be like communists or like the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities? My own reaction to this movie, which I saw when I was ten years old, leaves me with no doubt. I was born in 1946, and in the 1950s I heard people talk about communists, and I saw shows on television dramatizing the dangers of communism. Essentially, communists were depicted as being cold and unfeeling, driven only by their ideology toward the goal of a complete takeover of the entire world. This attitude is somewhat parodied in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), when the communist Dr. Yen Lo refers to guilt and fear as being peculiar American inventions, implying that communists are unencumbered by such emotions. Of course, that movie came much later. In any event, I was too young at the age of ten to say to myself, “These pod people are just like communists, because they have no emotions, and they want to take over the world.” But I know I immediately sensed the similarity between the pod people and what I had been told about communists.

Unfortunately, as good as this movie is, it has a big plot hole.  At first, a pod takes on the form of any person it is near when that person goes to sleep, duplicating everything but his emotions. The first time we see one of these pods in action is when Miles and Becky are called over to the house of some friends of theirs, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones).  They show Miles and Becky an unformed man lying on the pool table.  Ominously, it seems to be similar to Jack in height and weight.  Jack cuts himself when Teddy points this out.  Later, they fall asleep.  When they wake up, the “man” on the pool table has a cut in the same place on his hand.  In other words, it takes a long time for the pods to fully develop, and even when Jack falls asleep, he is still Jack.  We get the impression that a full night’s sleep is needed for the duplication process to be completed.  We never find out what happens to a person after he has been duplicated. Presumably he is killed and his body disposed of. But by the end of the movie, the presence of a pod no longer seems necessary, and the person himself is altered merely by sleeping instead of being replaced by a duplicate. Neither Miles nor Becky has slept near a pod, so no duplicate has been formed. Actually, a duplicate of Becky got started but never had a chance to be completed, and some later duplicates were destroyed by Miles.  In any event, when Becky does finally fall asleep near the end of the movie, there is no pod nearby. Moreover, she only falls asleep for a few minutes, whereas we saw earlier in the movie that it took hours for a duplicate to form. And yet, she is completely transformed. Finally, when we return to the frame story where Miles has finished his narration, we are left with the sense that once he falls asleep, he is doomed. But again, there is no pod nearby, so there is no reason to think that his going to sleep will do anything.

Still, this is the best version, and that is mostly because of the stark contrast between the way people are before and after they have slept near a pod. The town of Santa Mira is full of friendly people. We see how warm and loving they are, and so when they are taken over by a pod and become cold and indifferent, we experience a feeling of loss. In the 1978 remake, most of the characters are unlikable to begin with, so every time one of them gets taken over by a pod, there is a definite improvement in his personality. Halfway through the movie, I was pulling for the pods. In Body Snatchers (1993), this remake is set on an army base. So, people walk around mindlessly obeying orders without any emotion, and then when they get taken over by a pod, they walk around mindlessly obeying orders without any emotion.

The novel on which the first version of this movie was based had an interesting ending. I haven’t read it in a long time, but the way I remember it, Becky and Miles are running away from a mob of pod people, just as in the movie. But when they come to the field where all the pods are growing, Miles uses gasoline to start a fire, which completely destroys the entire crop. When the mob of pod people see what happened, they realize their plans of replacing more humans with duplicates are ruined. Because they have no emotions, they are not angry and do not avenge themselves on Becky and Miles. Instead, they just turn around and walk back home. At the end of the book, Miles says that the population of Santa Mira is slowly declining, and if you ever happen to pass through that town, you will find that the people who live there are not very friendly.

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