Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Invasion '78: Beyond Bipartisan Politics

A few weeks ago, John Kenneth Muir wrote a pair of blog posts about Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers and the 1956 movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Mr. Muir promised to tackle the entire series – four feature films based on the same source novel – but he’s been a little preoccupied lately, writing his own sci-fi series (The House Between), so I thought I’d help him along. In all fairness, I should note that John has already written about the 1978 remake to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in his book Horror Films of the 1970s. So if you don’t care for my thoughts on the subject, you know where to go next…

From my perspective, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a series in 1993, with the release of Abel Ferrara's screen adaptation. It is not the kind of series that I was familiar with as a child of the 80s – a Hollywood franchise spitting out formulaic sequels. Instead, it is a constantly evolving myth along the lines of George Romero’s Dead series, where new characters and new perspectives consistently overwhelm the basic plot. But that almost wasn’t the case.

Producer Robert Solo bought the sequel rights to Don Siegel’s original film in the early 1970s, when big-budget science-fiction films and remakes of low-budget horror films were practically unheard of. His initial plan was to tell the same story with updated special effects. Luckily, writer W.D. Richter and director Philip Kaufman had other plans. They didn’t want to remake the original film; they wanted to “re-imagine” it, creating a “variation on the original theme.” Today, this distinction is a running gag – every writer, producer and director in Hollywood uses the word “re-imagination” as an excuse to make money off of someone else’s older, better ideas – but “re-imagination” is nevertheless an apt way to characterize Invasion ’78. In Kaufman’s film, the people, places, and pods have evolved just as much as the special effects… giving the already-famous story a new subtext.

Donald Sutherland fills Kevin McCarthy’s shoes as Dr. Bennell (now named Matthew instead of Miles), and he’s much closer to Finney’s original conception of the character: passionate and goofy enough to be in stark contrast with the emotionless pod people. One of the most effective scenes in the film comes when he and Elizabeth Driscoll (played by beautiful girl-next-door Brooke Adams) are having a late-night dinner; Matthew’s main goal in this scene is to make Elizabeth happy, for her sake rather than his own. When she laughs, we can’t help but love them both. Likewise, we gradually learn to love their eccentric friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec, because they’re considerate and idealistic and… well, fun. In short: The film does a masterful job of emphasizing that the struggle between these characters and the pods is a struggle between the human and dehumanizing aspects of the everyday world they live in.

In the original film, the soulless menace invaded small-town America, corrupting the general industriousness of the people who lived there... turning them into single-minded slobs who don't spend money. By contrast, the remake is set in the city of San Francisco, where business is booming. The filmmakers thought it would be more appropriate to locate paranoia in a contemporary urban landscape, where people are so busy and distracted that they’re unlikely to notice subtle personality changes in their loved ones, let alone their neighbors. By setting the film in San Francisco, the filmmakers also updated the theme of Finney’s book and Siegel’s film: the idea that the American Dream is being slowly corrupted from the inside. San Francisco was known throughout the 60s as a counterculture enclave, but the movement had subsided by 1978. Many “hippies” had become “yuppies” (or, in the parlance of this film, “pods”); peace and love have been replaced by money and power. In this case, industriousness is not being rooted out of humanity. Rather, it seems to be causing the loss of humanity.

When Matthew attempts to warn the government that businessmen are destroying humanity, he learns that they government has already been overrun. What American moviegoer in 1978 would be surprised by that? The system is corrupt and the individual doesn't stand a chance of changing it. In the end of the film, the takeover is complete. The implication is that American life in 1978, even after those embarrassing blunders known as Vietnam and Watergate, was not so different from life during the McCarthy era. Capitalism is king. The “pods” have won.

I’ve been thinking about a passage I read recently in Howard Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States”, in which he tries to sum up the last 50 years of American politics: “The United States was trying, in the postwar [WWII] decade, to create a national consensus – excluding the radicals, who could not support a foreign policy aimed at suppressing revolution – of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, around the policies of cold war and anti-Communism. Such a coalition could best be created by a liberal Democratic President, who aggressive policy abroad would be supported by conservatives, and whose welfare programs at home (Truman’s “Fair Deal”) would be attractive to liberals. If, in addition, liberals and traditional Democrats could – the memory of the war was still fresh – support a foreign policy against “aggression,” the radical-liberal bloc created by World War II would be broken up. And perhaps, if the anti-Communist mood became strong enough, liberals could support repressive moves at home in which ordinary times would be seen as violating the liberal tradition of tolerance.”

Zinn argues convincingly that this is the “new normal” we live with: Democratic and Republican administrations alike consistently carry out the will of big business (the biggest being the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961) rather than the will of the common citizen. It’s only fitting that the third feature film adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel (released in 1993) should deal directly with the military-industrial complex.

I don’t mean to suggest that Kaufman’s remake is any more politically motivated than Siegel’s original film or Finney’s book... it’s just irresistible to mine the Body Snatchers stories for political subtext. But like its predecessor, Invasion ’78 can also be read as an “anti-ism movie” – a movie about the human condition that simply reminds us (as individuals) to be aware of our surroundings, to think for ourselves, and to always continue to think critically in a culture where media, government and big business are constantly telling us what to believe. Screenwriter W.D. Richter has said that, if the film has any kind of message for the audience, the message is “don’t sleep." That’s a message that continued to pop up in horror films throughout the 1980s and beyond... including Abel Ferrara's The Body Snatchers (1993).

On that note, I’m going to pass the microphone back to John Muir

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