Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978)

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After a while, everybody in town has been replaced by a pod except Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), the woman he loves.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 of world domination. 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. Furthermore, even if there were a pod nearby, the duplicate would not have had the time to take Becky’s clothes off her and put them on itself. 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.

The 1978 remake tries to justify its existence by filling in some of the plot holes in the 1956 original, but with mixed results.  When Matthew (Donald Sutherland) leaves Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) for just a few minutes, same as Miles left Becky, Elizabeth is transformed, but only because there was a pod nearby.  And when the transformation is complete, she crumbles into dust, while her naked duplicate stands up and takes over.  So, we have to give this remake two points for explaining what happens to the original body and not confusing the idea that a person is duplicated during sleep with the idea that a person is transformed during sleep.  On the other hand, we have to deduct a point for failing, like the original, to be consistent as to the amount of time needed for the duplication to take place.  At the end, Elizabeth has only been asleep for a few minutes before she has been completely duplicated by a pod.  Earlier in the movie, she had been asleep for the better part of an hour, and yet the pod her boyfriend placed near her still had not finished duplicating her.  Other scenes also indicated a lengthier time period for full duplication.

The 1978 version cannot help but be self-aware, because most people watching it had seen the original.  So, it is amusing to see Kevin McCarthy running down the street, yelling, “You’re next!”  And we have to smile when Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) plays music for her plants, because, she says, “Plants have feelings, you know, just like people.”

Speaking of Nancy, she is the last one that is still human at the end of the movie.  Because she also seems to be the least intelligent of principal characters we have been following, we despair of her being able to stop the pods.  So the original downbeat ending of the 1956 version is preserved, more or less.

All things considered, the original is the best version by far, 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, when Elizabeth tells Matthew that Geoffrey, the man she is living with, is different from the way he usually is, Matthew replies, “That can only be an improvement.”  That’s a joke, but you could actually say that about most of the characters in this movie, including Matthew himself, because so many of them are unlikable to begin with. Halfway through the movie, I was pulling for the pods.

In fact, the world itself seems to be a less desirable place to live, if for no other reason than the emphasis that is put on the ugly side of life.  For example, at one point, Matthew and Elizabeth pass by some theaters featuring live sex on stage.  In an earlier scene, Matthew, who works for the Health Department, enters a restaurant to do an inspection, wherein he finds a “rat turd” in the sauce, which he holds up in front of the manager and defies him to eat it.  Do we really need this?  The Production Code would not have allowed such a scene in 1956, of course, but that aside, this sort of thing would have been unthinkable in the original.

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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