Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t mess too much with a good formula, and it benefits because of it. In both films, alien pods come to earth and methodically replace humankind with emotionless duplicates. Fall asleep, and you may just become a pod person.
That premise rests on a bed of paranoia, which makes the ’50s version, with all of its Cold War/Red Scare subtext, a much more interesting film, at least academically. Kaufman’s version may be almost entirely free of much subtext at all, but it’s an extraordinarily effective sci-fi chiller, with an excellent Donald Sutherland performance at the heart of it.
Sutherland stars as Matthew Bennell, a public health inspector in San Francisco. When his colleague and crush Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) starts complaining that her live-in boyfriend (Art Hindle) doesn’t seem to be himself, Matthew is about the only one who takes her seriously. He’s heard similar complaints around town, and the two eventually discover the pod people plot, along with friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright).
They have a harder time convincing psychologist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who dismisses the theory as preposterous. But the evidence is there — more and more people are turning into stiff, lifeless shells of a person.
Kaufman creates a stifling atmosphere of fear — sometimes with a quiet, barren street and sometimes with frenetic camera work and canted frames that are a direct homage to the visual strategy of the original film. Like the original as well, Kaufman’s version is best when it’s not leaning too heavily on effects work — a grotesque dog-man hybrid isn’t a bad special effect here, but it’s comes across as tonally incongruent.
Another change to the original — the pod people let out a blood-curdling screech when they discover an unchanged human — seems to put the film into more straightforward horror mode, but the decision ends up being an excellent one as it pays off in the film’s brilliant final scene.
Invasion of the Body Sntachers contains a storyline that has been reused to the point of exhaustion, but Kaufman’s version proves you can create an effective work out of old parts.