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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Release Date(s)1978 (September 14, 2010)
Studio(s)MGM (20th Century Fox)
Whenever anyone tries to make the case that not all remakes suck, they always use John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly as Exhibits A and B. These are obviously great examples but they’re brought up so frequently that you might start to believe they’re the only good remakes ever made. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those other two. In fact, in at least one important respect, I’d say it’s an even better example of how good a remake can be than either The Thing or The Fly.
With all due respect to the original versions, Kaufman had a much more impressive legacy to live up to than either Cronenberg or Carpenter. Sure, the 50s versions of The Thing and The Fly were fun but they’re really not in the same league as Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
One of the things that Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter (who the supercool among you will recognize as the director of Buckaroo Banzai) did so well was to recognize that while paranoia itself is timeless and universal, it takes on specific forms depending on the time and place. 1950s paranoia was considerably different than 1970s paranoia. Back then, Americans worried that our friends, colleagues and loved ones might be working for The Other Side. While it was awful to imagine that we might not know these people at all, at least it was still Us versus Them. There was a system, an ideology, even if it was one we despised and feared.
By 1978, the system itself had collapsed. It was no longer Us and Them. It was Me and Everybody Else. Everyone was looking out for number one. It was the era of I’m OK, You’re OK. Kaufman and Richter took that bland statement of mutually assured adequateness to its nightmarish conclusion. The pod people have no highs or lows or spark of personality. They have the same memories they used to but they don’t mean anything to them anymore. It’s simply a frame of reference for how they should carry on with their lives.
Kaufman handles this material with just the right touch. He takes the fear and paranoia extremely seriously, working with cinematographer Michael Chapman to create shadowy, disorienting shots that heighten the drama at every turn. Leads Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams lend the movie a seriousness that commands your attention. But Kaufman isn’t above having fun with the genre. Casting Leonard Nimoy as a celebrated peddler of pop psychology is a cheeky stroke of genius. Veronica Cartwright, who screamed and wept her way through several genre pictures around this time, is perfectly paired up with the neurotic Jeff Goldblum. And unlike so many other remakes, Kaufman treats the original with the utmost respect. Director Don Siegel appears as a cab driver and original star Kevin McCarthy turns up in what may be my favorite reference to another movie ever filmed.
I’m surprised at how well Invasion has made the jump to high-def. The picture quality is fantastic, although you’ll surely disagree if you don’t like grain on your Blu-ray Dee-Bee-Dee. This definitely looks like a film from 1978 but the level of detail is extraordinary, especially in the opening space sequence. The disc looks great and sounds just as good. Ben Burtt’s sound design is a key element in the movie’s success, so I’m extremely pleased at how impressive it sounds here. The Blu-ray includes all of the featurettes from the 2007 Collector’s Edition release, featuring interviews with Kaufman, Richter, Chapman, Sutherland, Cartwright, Burtt and others, as well as the original trailer.
You also get a commentary by Philip Kaufman (which gets better as it goes along, so stick with it) but you’ll have to switch to the DVD to listen to it. And that’s the weird thing about this set. The DVD isn’t the 2007 version, it’s the original non-anamorphic flipper disc released back in 1998. It’s handy if you want to quickly see how crappy this movie could look on disc. But it begs the question, why isn’t the commentary on the Blu-ray? I really can’t find any rhyme or reason in how Fox is bringing the MGM library to Blu-ray. Return of the Living Dead had all of the extras on both the Blu-ray and the DVD. Misery had no extras on the Blu-ray but included the collector’s edition DVD. Escape from New York has nothing at all on either disc. And now we have this hodge-podge. Look, I’m not even complaining about the fact that they aren’t producing any new extras for these releases. But when it comes to delivering the bonus material that already exists, in the immortal words of Daffy Duck, would it be too much to ask if we could make up our minds, hmmmm?
I suspect there are a couple of reasons why Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t as fondly remembered as those 80s remakes I mentioned earlier. For one thing, Hollywood has gone back to the pod with increasingly diminished returns, first with Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers and more recently with The Invasion (I’m still waiting for the next remake, which I assume will be titled Of The). Telling the same story too often does tend to make even the good versions seem less special. But Kaufman’s version is also very much a picture of its time, missing out on the golden age of maverick early 70s films but predating the renaissance of great genre movies that started to appear in the late 70s and early 80s. Whether you’re seeing it for the first time or for the first time in years, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is well worth revisiting on Blu-ray.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke