By now there’s something all too familiar in the disappointing experience of watching a remake of a beloved movie. When dealing with science fiction and horror movies, producers of remakes often believe that outdated special effects and make-up need modernization. All it takes is money to achieve those goals, but updating a script and finding the perfect cast are hurdles rarely cleared. The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, now available on Blu-ray, is a textbook example of how to do everything right when crafting a new version of an old classic.
At the root of the story, despite many different interpretations, Invasion of the Body Snatchers depicts a society in which people succumb en masse to conformity. Independent thought and unique personalities become a thing of the past, as even the most extraordinary individuals give up their souls to join the herd. There are numerous metaphors, many centering on political views, that have been applied since the original movie was released in 1956. Drawing one’s own conclusion is recommended – after all, one of the key points here is resisting groupthink. The bottom line remains, the characters inhabiting the world of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are literally being replaced by soulless, emotionless automatons.
Taking over leading man duties first handled in the ’56 version by the recently deceased Kevin McCarthy is Donald Sutherland. He portrays health inspector Matthew Bennell. Despised by the restaurateurs who’s establishments he must threaten to shut down, Bennell swims against the current as a matter of course. When he finds a rat turd in the soup, he cannot look the other way – even when a restaurant’s staff is on the verge of becoming an angry mob. Bennell is a highly intelligent and educated man, so much so that he dismisses the concerns of a co-worker, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), as paranoia. It seems Driscoll’s husband hasn’t been himself lately, and she is convinced the he has in fact been replaced by another person somehow. Bennell becomes convinced only after more such cases are reported.
Revealing more of the plot is unnecessary. The basic story is so firmly lodged in the public consciousness, chances are you already know the gist even if you haven’t seen it. And if you’re lucky enough to have no idea, the movie will be that much more suspenseful. Director Philip Kaufman has kept the story absolutely relevant, largely by playing it straight. The only direct nod to the original is a dynamite cameo by Kevin McCarthy. Otherwise, Kaufman keeps the proceedings taut and intensely creepy, never allowing for the intrusion of camp.
Contributing to the movie’s overall effectiveness is an exceptional cast. Sutherland is riveting as Bennell, a man who’s emotions are already tightly controlled. With every ounce of his intellect, he wants to reject everything he can see transpiring around him. Sutherland works wonders with the role, carefully displaying Bennell’s unraveling psyche as the movie progresses. Leonard Nimoy delivers as well, portraying a psychiatrist friend of Bennell who believes there is a logical explanation for the changes being observed by so many. Another friend of Bennell, Jack Bellicec (a young Jeff Goldbum), is more emotionally distraught over the obviously mutating society. Bellicec and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) join Bennell, forming a very small resistance to the invasion.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks very good on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC encoded transfer. It’s thirty-two years old and looks it, but that’s not a bad thing. Most aspects of the visual presentation that might inspire complaints were inherent in the original cinematography. With all the rampant digital noise reduction that so many purists are furious over (with good reason), it’s worth noting when a movie retains its period look. Yes, the picture is grainy – but that’s how it looked in theaters too. What’s important is that the visual presentation is thankfully free of digital artifacts.
The movie has a slightly soft-focus look overall. It doesn’t present a razor sharp image, but I guess that was by design. Compared to the 2007 special edition DVD, the Blu-ray boasts a noticeably higher level of detail – especially during night scenes, of which there are quite a few. This is a dark, shadowy movie and black levels aren’t as consistently deep as they could be. There’s sort of a low contrast look to the film, with a muted color palette and grayish blacks. Again this is largely due to the original work of cinematographer Michael Chapman.
The 5.1 DTS-HD audio does a very effective job of making the viewing experience as creepy as possible. The sound effects envelope the viewers, utilizing different channels at the right moments. The transformation scenes, with pods opening and replacement bodies forming, feature unsettling rear channel effects. Some everyday noises, like a phone ringing or a dog barking, are intentionally more prominent in the mix, giving the viewer unexpected jolts when heard from the right or left channel. Dialogue is consistently clear and free of distortion, never overwhelmed by the rest of the sound design.
The special features on the Blu-ray disc have all been ported over from the 2007 special edition DVD. They are presented in standard definition. Kind of a mixed bag, the various short featurettes help shed a little light on the production. Mostly they cover the technical aspects of the movie. Curiously missing from the Blu-ray is the director’s commentary. The standard DVD included in this combo pack has the Philip Kaufman commentary for anyone interested. Speaking of the standard DVD, this is not the more recent special edition release but rather the non-anamorphic original version from 1998. This is virtually useless in the age of 16:9 televisions. Maybe Fox was hoping to emphasize how solid the Blu-ray presentation is by including a horrible looking, twelve-year-old piece of crap.
The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic; proof positive that remakes can equal the original. Fox Entertainment gets a big demerit for including a non-anamorphic coaster in their combo pack. Otherwise, this movie belongs in any comprehensive collection of science fiction movies.