“Body Snatchers” – Basics
This film is a remake of the 1956 movie of the same name (dir. Don Siegel). Both are based on the science fiction novel The Body Snatchers (1954) by Jack Finney. Philip Kaufman directed the 1978 version, which starred Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams. Major supporting actors included a very young Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy (R.I.P.). W. D. Richter wrote the screenplay. Robert H. Solo was the producer. United Artists released the film in U.S. theaters.
“Body Snatchers” – Story Summary
The members of an alien race float on solar winds from deep space to Earth. There they descend upon San Francisco in a rainstorm in the form of clear, gelatinous spores. They germinate into small flowering pods that people start collecting and taking home with them. A short time thereafter, some people start noticing that others seem oddly and disturbingly different. Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), a health inspector for the City of San Francisco, first learns of this phenomenon from his associate, Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams). She has noticed a disturbing change in her boyfriend Geoffrey’s (Art Hindle) personality. This transformation happened, coincidentally, after she brought home one of the flowering pods. She is so upset about the change in Geoffrey that Matthew asks her to speak to his psychiatrist friend, Dr. David Kibner (Nimoy). Soon it becomes clear, however, that it’s not all in her head. Matthew’s writer friend Jack (Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Cartwright) observe evidence of the body snatching process at work at her mud-bath spa business. As more and more San Franciscans become emotionless”pod people,” devoid of individuality, Bennell seeks Kibner’s help in trying to stop the aliens’ conquest of planet Earth. Soon, however, the small group of friends is on the run and greatly outnumbered by the aliens. Can they escape — or will they be assimilated?
“Body Snatchers” – Relationship to the Original
The 1978 film contains evidence of serious efforts to make homage to the original. For example two major figures from the original appear in cameo roles in the remake. According to IMDB, Kevin McCarthy — the star of the original movie — plays the strange man who suddenly falls onto Matthew’s car, screaming and pounding at the windows, warning “They’re coming! Something terrible! You’re in danger!” Don Siegel, the director of the original movie, is the sinister looking cab driver who drives Matthew and Elizabeth to a police roadblock that is arresting people attempting to leave the city. Sutherland and Adams are realistically terrified in this scene because Siegel “had lost much of his vision and was driving through the dark streets of San Francisco without his glasses,” again according to IMDB.
There are some not-unexpected differences between the two films. In the original, Bennell is a medical doctor, not a health inspector. The setting in both films is California, but is rural in the original and urban in the remake. The original film also has a much more hopeful ending than that of the 1978 remake. This difference is due to the studio’s insistence on adding a prologue and epilogue that led to the use of flashback to relate the main story. Bennell tells his entire story to a psychiatrist who he does not know and whose presence is due to a plot device. In the remake, he confides in and relies upon a psychiatrist who is his friend — and a key character in the story (Wikipedia).
“Body Snatchers” – Commentary
The basic plot that informs both films is one of paranoia. Outsiders who are radically different from the main characters move in and threaten to replace them. This is an example of the primal fear of the Other being realized. What is clever about the plot of “Body Snatchers” is that the main characters actually become the Other in the process. As more and more humans are replaced by “pod people,” those who remain become a smaller and smaller minority. This minority faces the very real possibility of annihilation, a situation that is the polar opposite of their prior conditions of existence. The fact that this reversal happens so quickly serves to heighten the horror of a paranoid fear becoming reality.
The belief that people who one knows well are being replaced by identical impostors is a well-known psychiatric phenomenon known as Capgras Syndrome. Originally described in patients suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, it is also seen in various organic brain conditions. Thus, it’s not surprising that a psychiatrist is brought in to assess Bennell in the original and that, in the remake, Bennell takes Elizabeth to a psychiatrist when she tells him that Geoffrey has been replaced by a Doppelgänger.
While the psychiatric symptom remains the same in both films, the role of the psychiatrist changes. In the first film, the psychiatrist is an authority figure. He listens to Bennell’s story in order to decide whether or not it is the product of a delusional mind. However, in the 1978 remake, the psychiatrist’s role is a much more ambiguous one. Although Bennell treats Kibner as a trusted authority figure, he turns out to be a traitor who is not to be trusted. This shift, which makes the psychiatrist into the Other, might be saying something about the change in Americans’ view of psychiatrists between the mid-1950s (when psychoanalysis ruled) and the late 1970s (when psychotropic medications were starting to replace psychotherapy as the first-line treatment in psychiatry).
“Body Snatchers” – Some Classic Scenes from the 1978 Remake
The Opening Title Sequence:
The Man-Faced Dog Scene:
The Final Scene:
This durable story was again remade in 2007 as “The Invasion,” starring Nicole Kidman in Sutherland’s role. This time, however, Bennell is the psychiatrist — and (obviously) a woman. What does this say about changing American attitudes in the early 21st Century?
The trailer from the 1978 remake:
The trailer from the original:
The trailer from the 2009 reboot: