Saturday, January 1, 2011

Film #44: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director: Don Siegel

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previous Seen: once (about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Doctor discovers growing fear of strange, replica impostors of the denizens of his all-American hometown.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In a Californian hospital in the mid-1950s, Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is raving and being restrained by the police. A psychiatrist arrives on the scene and calms Bennell down into semi-coherence. All he can muster, though, is that everyone is in danger of some kind of looming menace that has taken over his hometown of Santa Mira, California. Once further eased, Bennell traces his story back...

A few days prior, he had returned from a conference out of the state to his hometown. Santa Mira seems like the fully realized American dream town, as defined by widely shared post-World War II sentiments: white picket fences, a clean downtown area where the tallest buildings are a mere three stories, and a populace of genial folks, all of whom know and like each other. Upon his return, all seems to be normal to Dr. Bennell. Then, slightly odd things emerge:

While driving back to his office, he nearly runs down a local boy who is running from his grandmother, screaming that his mother is “not his mother.” When Bennell returns to his office, his nurse informs him that nearly all of the patients who had scheduled appointments earlier in the week had canceled, saying that they were now fine. In addition, a cousin of Bennell's former girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), claims that her uncle is no longer her uncle.

Becky Driscoll and Doctor Miles Bennell.

This final claim spurs Bennell to investigate. He goes to Becky's cousin's house where the young woman explains that, while her uncle looks the same and has all of the same memories, there is a strange lack of emotion and tenderness in his eyes that had always been there previously. Bennell feels that it is simply some kind of misunderstanding and assures Becky's cousin that it will surely pass.

That evening, Bennell begins to try and rekindle his past relationship with Becky. However, before he can make any real progress, he receives an urgent call from a friend and local writer, Jack Belicec and his wife, Teddy. Bennell goes to their house to find their shocking discovery laid out on their pool table: a lifeless, humanoid form that bears a close resemblance to Jack. No one is sure where the body came from, but they decide to leave it there, with the Belicecs keeping an eye on it, while Bennell takes Becky home.

Jack Belicec reveals his discovery of his own pod replica to Bennell and Becky.

At the Driscoll house, Dr. Bennell gets a disturbing feeling from Becky's father, whom he finds ascending from the basement below. He leaves, only to sneak into the basement and find another near-facsimile growing in their basement dumpster, this one resembling Becky. Bennell sneaks upstairs and rescues a slumbering Becky from the house.

Back at Bennell's house, the doctor calls the police and brings them to the Belicec's to see the “Jack” replica. The doppelganger, however, is now gone. Bennell then brings them to the Driscoll's to expose the “Becky” form, which is also gone. Just then, another police officer tells them that they have just found a burned body matching the description of the “Jack” form. The investigators chalk Bennell's notions up to delusions, and the doctor is sent home.

The next day, things start to become eerily normal again. The young boy and Becky's cousin, both of whom had claimed close relatives to no longer be themselves, now have no problems and claim that everything is fine. That night, while preparing a barbecue with the Belicecs, Bennell makes a harrowing discovery in his greenhouse: four bizarre, large plant pods. As he watches, they hatch and spill out steadily growing human shapes, each one taking on the structure of the four people present. They try to call the police, but the operator tells them that all lines both within and outside of the city, are busy. Bennell gives up and decides to leave the house with Becky, but not before destroying the pod bodies. The Belicecs decide to try and escape town on their own, leaving Bennell and Becky to do the same.

In traveling through the town, the two quickly discover that essentially all of their friends and neighbors have been transformed into pod people. Not only that, but they are trying to do the same to Bennell and Becky. The two see no immediate way out of town, and pursued by the police, escape into Bennell's office in town. Here, with some time to think, they decide that he pods take over a person's identity when the person sleeps. With this in mind, they dose up on amphetamines and decide to wait until morning.

After the sun rises the following day, Becky and Bennell see the greatest horror thus far. In the middle of town, hundreds of the people of Santa Mira, now clearly pod people, gather thousands of new pods to disperse to outlying towns and neighborhoods. The goal is clear: eventually turn every living human into a pod creature. Jack Belicec then shows up at the office with a few police, though we quickly learn that they are now, too, pod people, and the full, horrifying story is told. A few weeks prior, a few pods had rained down from space and landed near Santa Mira. The plants are parasites that can mimic any living form and take over their identities by absorbing their minds when they sleep. The new person seems to be a perfect copy, physically and mentally. The one thing missing, though, is emotion. The pod people who explain all of this to the doctor and Becky implore them to give up, ensuring them that emotions such as love are more of a hindrance than a help. The two refuse to listen and fight their way out of the clutches of their near-captors.

Becky and Miles flee from the now completely replicated townspeople of Santa Mira.

Now alone and completely on the run, Becky and Bennell frantically flee from the entire town of Santa Mira. They hide briefly in a cave, throwing the townspeople off of their trail for a few hours. Bennell eventually leaves Becky in the cave to investigate the outside, but the exhausted woman can no longer stay awake on her own. Bennell returns to her to discover that she too is now a pod person. He runs for the highway and just manages to beat the chasing townspeople.

Flash forward to the hospital. Doctor Bennell's story has failed to convince anyone of any more than that he is suffering from an intense hallucination. That is, until they receive a call from the local police detailing a traffic accident that has just sent a large truck spilling out the contents of its bed: hundreds of strange, pod-like structures. Hearing this convinces everyone in Bennell's presence of the veracity of his story, and they rush out to combat the menace. The viewers can only assume that they will emerge victorious.

Take that, you green, replicating pieces of space trash!

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Pretty average.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a mildly interesting plot with some thought-provoking psychological suggestions, but ones that have been plumbed far deeper and more skillfully by many a talented science fiction writer (see anything by Philip K. Dick, for instance). The acting is adequate, but certainly nothing special. The direction and cinematography are solid, but far from revolutionary.

So why is this movie considered such a seminal one in science fiction films?

I'm sure that my further research will reveal or confirm some of my suspicions about the answer to this question, but there are several easy speculations to make:

One is that it may have been one of the first sci-fi movies to strike at deep, universal psychological fears. The clearest one is the ever-present question about human emotion. Is love truly such an enviable feeling? When one considers the pain and suffering that it can cause when lost, how many of us would really clutch so tightly to it? This is the question that the pod people pose to Bennell and Becky towards the end of the movie. Their response is the typically humanistic one – an outright refusal to exchange ostensible peace for their ability to retain their emotions. Still, while this is a curious thought experiment, its one that probably requires a more austere setting than a “vegetable aliens crash land and take over” context to ponder with any true gravity.

Here's the link to a youtube clip that gives a good sense of when things get cranked up: the all-American barbecue with friends so rudely interrupted by usurping space plants. (Sorry for the lack of an embedded clip)

The more obvious explanation for the endurance of this movie is the time in which it was made. Of course, 1956 was when the Red Scare of communism was roughly at its height. Though the ideal of a “perfect America”, as envisioned by Anglo-Americans, had crystallized and been informing popular entertainment (a la Leave it To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show and The Honeymooners), the perpetual threat was the notion of communism. And of course, detractors of communism claimed that it was a system in which people would become little more than machines, whose sole purpose was to subsist and procreate. Invasion of the Body Snatchers clearly latches onto this primal fear of Americans and runs with it. There's even a moment during the grand exposition in Bennell's office when the doctor asks, “So, we would all be the same?” to which the pod person responds, “Yes.” Pretty hard to miss that one.

While the concept of using science fiction as a vehicle to create symbolized versions of communism isn't unique (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Blob, filmed here in my home of Phoenixville, PA), I believe that Invasion may have been the first film to be so blatant about it. The science fiction veneer is so thin that I find the filmmakers' notions a bit ridiculous: that viewers would equate the blank-faced pod people spawned by extraterrestrial plants with the reality of communism. It borders on contempt for one's intelligence, perhaps no more so than during the finale, when a frantic doctor Bennell is running along the highway, screaming for help and madly attempting to explain his pursuers: he stares directly into the camera and yells, “You're next! You're next!!” It may as well have been Senator Joseph McCarthy himself doing it.

The final aspect of this movie that I feel may be seen as influential is the juxtaposition of the bizarre and terrifying with the exceptionally “normal.” By giving the viewer the town of Santa Mira, a carefully-constructed vision of the Utopian, 1950s American ideal, and injecting an all-consuming, hidden, alien threat, it relies on the time-tested formula of tapping into the terror of the familiar and comfortable becoming alien and deadly. It's something that has been notably used by the likes of David Lynch in Blue Velvet and the cult classic TV show, Twin Peaks. Invasion a of the Body Snatchers is the earliest piece of film work that I've seen that uses this combination, and I suspect that it may have influenced later filmmakers.

Whatever the reason is for this movies's status within the cinema world, I feel no need to watch it again. Science fiction to me, a person who really loves a good sci-fi tale, is all about ideas. The primary thrust of it all, from H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, through Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a.k.a Blade Runner), to Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, is the emotional and social impacts of humans' increasing grasp on universal knowledge and technology. These stories are, by nature, cautionary tales, but the best ones are not so heavy-handed with the warnings. Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't make much pretense about its political and social commentary, and its one that is rather outdated in my view. And while sometimes a science fiction film's other qualities can overcome an outmoded theme, Invasion doesn't quite hold up in 2010.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

In reading a bit more, I realize that my first take may be a little bit harsh. Still, I stand by the general feeling that, while it's far from a bad movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not one that I would rate nearly as well as other science fiction movies.

First of all was that this movie suffered that same, cruel fate of several others: the Hollywood studio demand for a more “up-beat” ending. The result was that, instead of the original intended ending of Doctor Bennell running maniacally down the highway, screaming “You're next!!”, we got the happier version in which the earth will be saved by people's zero-hour realization of the invasion. Hence, in the same fashion as films like Baby Face, The Lady Eve, and others, Invasion of the Body Snatchers just misses the chance to leave its audience a bit more ponderous for being left with a more fatalistic outcome.

The lingering question and area of debate over this movie is, to no one's surprise, the allegorical question. Was it meant to be a commentary on McCarthyism or not? While director Don Seigel and star Kevin McCarthy (nominal coincidence, anyone?) deny this, I remain skeptical. Some also argue that the story is meant to warn against the danger of general conformity, whether it be through communism or dogmatic political stances. This is likely the reason that it has been remade three times, most recently in 2007's The Invasion.

Whether the film's creators had any specific political agenda or not, it is clear that the engine that drives the movie is people's fear of losing their emotions and individuality. When this is taken into account, I have to give the movie a little more credit. When one does watch and think about it, there are clearly several frightening notions suggested by the ultimate goals of the pod people.

Here's another link to the iconic ending scenes. Once again, no ability to embed the clip into the link, unfortunately.

The only other factoid of interest that I dug up was a very curious cameo. During a very brief scene at Dr. Bennell's house, Bennell nervously discovers the local gas man in his basement, reading the meter. That young, thin, polite and mustachioed young man is none other than “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, the visionary director who would make some of the most revolutionary and violent popular films in history, notably The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. “He wasn't an real conformist, but he did play one in a movie.”

That's a wrap. 44 shows down, 61 to go.

Coming Soon: The Searchers (1957)

Yeee-Haaaawww!!! We finally ring in the Western in one of the best possible ways. Our first (but far from last) Western features none other than the embodiment of that truly American film creation: Mr. Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.