AFS will be playing Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers next Tuesday at 9:45 pm at the Alamo Drafthouse south. I’m very excited about the screening and hope you will all attend. Here are my program notes for the film:
Philip Kaufman and W.D. Richter’s 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic example of a moment in American cinema when a genre film could be as unique and tangible as the characters that inhabit it: real people thrust into fantasy situations and reacting as someone we know might, rather than superheroes behaving with the shallow, stylized determination of a character in a video game, or as mindlessly shrieking prey condemned to die the moment they are introduced onscreen.
The original 1956 version of the film, helmed by gifted action director Don Siegel, was weakened when the studio tacked on an incongruous prologue and epilogue. Without those, the film has a grim feeling of inescapable paranoia. Often read as an anti-communist screed, Siegel resisted specific political interpretations. He maintained that the film used broad strokes that could just as much encompass the McCarthy HUAC witch-hunts of the 1950’s as the specter of Communist infiltration itself. In short, the film is simply anti-conformist. The power of the best in science fiction has always been to state the fantastic literally in a way that suggests a world of metaphor. As our world changes so too do our political and philosophical readings of these films. This is why they stay fresh and relevant while specifically political films often become dated or the dogmatic views of their creators begin to show through. Our own apophenia creates new meanings for the fantastic in each new context in which it is placed.
Inspired by the Jack Finney book with nods to the Siegel version, Philip Kaufman’s updated Invasion of the Body Snatchers escalated the red-scare paranoia of the original film to a more potent and personal existential fear- The terror of loss of identity, a fear and mistrust of society as a whole, from governments, to cities, to the relationships between lovers, friends, and those we look to for comfort and guidance. The film is set in a post-Watergate culture of paranoia, and steeped in the self-help craze of 70’s San Francisco- a city of self proclaimed individualists desperately searching for equilibrium in a world where traditional values had been exposed as facades, or worse, as outright lies. Pauline Kael was noted for exalting the film as possibly the best of its kind, and as a genre movie it is certainly an iconoclastic standout.
In the film, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), his co-worker (Brooke Adams), and their married friends (Jeff Goldblum and the classically histrionic Veronica Cartwright) are part of a small group of San Franciscans who begin to dimly sense an encroaching invasion of alien doppelgangers, gradually replacing the cities’ inhabitants. As their nameless dread mounts, self-help guru Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) tries to assuage their fears and return them back to their routines, using a combination of EST-flavored psychobabble and clinically incredulous condescension. The film manages to build an air of paranoia with only minimal effects, through the use of vertigo inducing camera angles and unsettling visual cues. For instance, Robert Duvall dressed as a priest sitting silently on a playground swingset is a red herring in terms of advancing the plot, but as one of many images that steep the mood of the film towards hysteria and doom, it is intensely effective.
Director Philip Kaufman’s career began with his 1965 film Goldstein. Written and directed by Kaufman, the film won Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes and opened the door (albeit slowly) for writing and directing jobs in Hollywood for the filmmaker. After gaining attention with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kaufman helped pen Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and received a story credit. A string of filmmaking landmarks followed, including The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and Henry and June (1990).
Writer Richter is also notable for directing the 80’s cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), which did poorly at the box office and caused Richter to fold his fledgling production company.
That the story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been retold so often in cinema shines a light on its position in our collective unconscious, along with the grandest and oldest of myths. Each retelling has been unique in its tone and message, but, in my opinion, the 1978 version you are about to see is the most unique, the most immediate, and the most relevant. In that science fiction uses broad Rorschach blots to show us our own fears, hopes and conflicts, this film seems to hold the mirror closer than most, eliminating the topical and painting an all too vivid picture of the terror of dissolution that lives in us all.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers | Austin Film Society