Friday, January 10, 2020

An Ode To Urban Paranoia

I’m usually not a huge fan of remakes, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is a notable exception—I find it even more engrossing and entertaining than the original. This retelling of the classic 1956 sci-fi chiller, given a stylish and sophisticated treatment by director Philip Kaufman, provides a time capsule into the late 1970s, but its themes of urban angst and conspiracy are just as valid today.

Spores travel through outer space, pushed on by the solar winds, forming a gelatinous oozing substance and spawning strange flowers from pods feeding on existing flora. A humanlike life form develops from the sweet-smelling flowers, the pods giving birth to human duplicates who suck the life from their progenitors. The pods’ rapid widespread growth, due to cross pollination with other species (including humans!), allows them to take over an entire city virtually overnight.

In the 1970s, aptly nicknamed The Me Decade, loss of identity is the ultimate dread. Assimilation into the hive mind of the establishment is a devastating blow to the children of love and self expression in the newly dawning Age of Aquarius. (Here, the concept of “flower power” is literally turned on its head.)

Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell

In the post-hippie, pre-yuppie era of the late 1970s, urban society displayed a preoccupation with the self-help movement (“I’m OK, you’re OK”), an urgent new interest in ecology and environmental concerns, and a collective fear of becoming less human, less individualistic, and succumbing to unbridled capitalism and totalitarianism.

But this film also promotes the invaders’ point of view —that we humans have nearly destroyed our home planet through our mismanagement, and the newcomers who take over will do better. 

The atmospheric production design creates an eerie visual and aural landscape upon which the film’s themes are played out. Dizzyingly crooked camera angles are amplified by the city of San Francisco’s famously steep and hilly terrain, creating an off-kilter reality. There is an homage to film noir with the camera lingering in dark hallways, revealing frightened faces at windows and strange things lurking in the shadows. 

Brooke Adams as Elizabeth Driscoll

The innovative sound design, with unsettling screeching, squealing, crackling, rasping and wheezing effects, enhances the terrifying scenes of the birth of the simulacrums from the bulbous space pods.

The film unfolds in a leisurely fashion, depicting everyday life in the late ’70s city by the Bay, but the normalcy is punctuated by a palpable tension. It’s an elegant buildup of paranoiac suspense as quiet dread gives way to sudden explosions of terror. The vacuous city dwellers in the background are undergoing a crisis we are not privy to. Brief moments of panic subside, resulting in blank faces and business as usual.  

The story is told through a group of compellingly flawed and engaging characters, portrayed by a powerhouse cast. 

Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner

Prolific Donald Sutherland, who is still working steadily today after over five decades in the business and must have more acting credits than any living actor (On TV, flipping channels, you may glimpse him in fare as wide and varied as 1965’s Die Die My Darling to 2014’s Hunger Games: Mockingjay, with iconic portrayals in films like Don’t Look Now, Klute and Ordinary People in between), is our quirky protagonist here.

As Department of Health restaurant inspector Matthew Bennell, a curly-haired Sutherland strides the crooked San Francisco streets in a flapping trenchcoat, in search of rat turds in the kitchens of fine restaurants and pining for his lovely coworker, scientist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams).

Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec

Adams, a throaty-voiced beauty and one one of the most intelligent actresses of the decade (she basically gave up her career to raise a family with husband Tony Shalhoub), gives an equally strong performance as the shaken Elizabeth, who discovers that her live-in dentist boyfriend Jeffrey (the handsome Art Hindle) is definitely not quite himself lately. 

Jeffrey is one of many undergoing the same personality change all over the city—a transformation into a cold and emotionless automaton, exhibiting somnambulistic behavior and rendezvousing with strangers for mysterious meetings.

Veronica Cartwright as Nancy Bellicec

Leonard Nimoy is Dr. David Kibner, self help guru and celebrity psychiatrist who calms the cresting fear epidemic in the city, explaining away the furor with '70s pop psychobabble—people fearing they are becoming less human and shutting their feelings off; it’s a “hallucination flu” going around that will all blow over in a day or two.

Smug and all-knowing and holier than thou, Nimoy’s elegantly villainous Kibner is an arrogant prick who’s even more logical and less empathetic than Mr. Spock! 

Art Hindle as Jeffrey

At the Bellicec Mud Baths, Matthew’s friends—neurotic, frustrated writer Jack Bellicec (perfectly played by a young Jeff Goldblum) and his free-thinking wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright of Alien) find an undeveloped body covered in the telltale gelatinous substance. (The unformed creature is tall, the same height as 6’4” Goldblum!)

How does your garden grow?

The transformations from human to alien are unforgettably and terrifyingly portrayed: The grasping tendrils attach themselves to sleeping humans and siphon off their life force to fuel the new life forms. Garbage trucks full of strange cobwebby debris roll through the streets, picking up what’s left of the human race. The scene where Elizabeth’s body disintegrates completely as her essence is assimilated by the invader is particularly vivid.

Fighting to stay awake, the group attempts to blend in with the invaders, showing no emotion. But resistance is futile, to quote the Borgs of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Eventually exhaustion gives way to acquiescence.

Nimoy reassures a terrified Leila Goldoni

“You’re evolving into a new life form,” intones Nimoy’s Kibner gravely, “Born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety and pain—and love.”

Paranoia pervades as Matthew and company uncover what’s actually happening. When Matthew dials the operator to alert the police and the disembodied addresses him as “Mr. Bennell,” he is aghast: “How do you know my name?” Panic ensues when the group’s wild conspiracy theories prove all too true. 

It's all too much for Nancy

Darkly comedic moments leaven the feverish proceedings: Cartwright’s Nancy is particularly hilarious, especially while pulling a morbidly obese man out of the mud bath and giving him a rubdown; as well as warning Goldblum to steer clear of his unformed double (“Don’t touch it, Jack…you don’t know where it’s been!”).

The battle of the individual vs. society depicted here is just as relevant today, as progress and technology and media attempt to put society on the same wavelength,  promoting cookie-cutter conformity while giving lip service to diversity.

If you’re a big fan of dystopian conspiracy classics like Soylent Green and John Carpenter’s They Live, as I am, I believe you’ll truly appreciate Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (I recommend skipping the subsequent retreads from the 1990s and 2000s, which have much less to offer, in my opinion.)

This is an entry in the Beyond Star Trek blogathon hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette of Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Thanks for inviting me to participate; I look forward to reading everyone’s posts!