Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Rating: B

Dir: Philip Kaufman
Star: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright

RIP Donald Sutherland. From what I’ve seen of his work, he seemed a reliable, steadfast type of actor. You’d rarely “notice” his performances, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not every role needs to be filled with obvious acting, and Sutherland was always low-key effective, rather than showy. You could make a case he’s one of the best actors never to have received an Oscar nomination; his style wasn’t the kind of portrayal which the Academy favours. Of all his work, it’s weird – yet not inappropriate – that the one which sticks in my mind, doesn’t see Sutherland utter a single word, as Kate Bush’s father in her video for Cloudbusting.

This is the first in the Holy Trinity of great remakes of fifties sci-fi movies, followed by The Thing and The Fly. However, it doesn’t go through the same process of wholesale reinvention. With the notable exception of the ending, this stays fairly close in plot and tone to Don Siegel’s 1956 version [Siegel has a small role here as a cab driver, in addition to its star Kevin McCarthy’s memorable cameo as a freaked-out guy in the streets of San Francisco]. A change in location, from rural America to the urban variety, is one of the most notable differences. Small town paranoia from the McCarthy era – and here I mean Joseph, not Kevin – tastes very different from the big city variety in the seventies.

Twenty years of advancement in special effects, plus the relaxation of the Hays Code, does help this version. It allowed Kaufman to get into the grungy details by which people are replaced with emotionless alien duplicates, while they sleep. This reaches its peak where Matthew Bennell (Sutherland) drifts off, narrowly escaping the same fate, before smashing the pod person version in the face with a spade. Towards the end, there’s also a truly WTF? moment where a dog with a human face joins the chase of Bennell. Another memorable new element is the iconic “pointing and shrieking” thing the replacement people do when they find the unconverted. This plays an important part in the finale, which even Sutherland didn’t know about until the day before shooting. 

I did feel there was something weird about the relationship between Bennell and Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams), his colleague in the Department of Health. She acts like his girlfriend, even though she’s actually living with a dentist. I guess that was perhaps San Francisco in the seventies. But then again, it feels like the film’s message about conformity in terms of urban isolation, “fitting in”, and alienation in general, leans into the awkwardness of their relationship. I do think there would be scope for another adaptation, set in the post-pandemic, social media era. It has been seventeen years since the last effort, 2007’s underwhelming The Invasion. The themes here are certainly no less relevant than they were. Mind you, the current state of California suggests the pod people may have already won.