With the possible exception of director Gordon Douglas' Them!, that was the best sci-fi picture of the 50s. The marvelous 1978 remake, directed by Philip Kaufman, was the best sci-fi film of its decade, too (Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind notwithstanding), and virtually heralded the reactionary decade that was to begin two years later. Now self-styled gonzo auteur Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) has brought us a third remake, titled simply Body Snatchers. If it isn't quite up to either of its predecessors, it's still an effectively gruesome shocker--stark, intelligently written and joltingly single-minded.
Jack Finney's heartfelt little yarn The Body Snatchers began life in 1954 as a Collier's magazine serial, and was expanded into a novel the following year (Finney later updated the book to the 70s, unconvincingly, as a tie-in with Kaufman's film). It has attained the status of modern American myth, not because it's great literature (it's not), but because its premise brilliantly combines two of our culture's perennial themes--paranoia and the social pressure to conform.
Finney's most ingenious device was that his alien invaders--parasitical seedpods from which spring exact duplicates of the host human, sans emotions--attack when the host is asleep. One's individuality must be guarded, it's implied, not only from external societal threat, but also from the part of ourselves that just wants to cave in, to go to sleep at the switch of one's soul and wake up ready to go with the flow.
Siegel's 1950s Body Snatchers, depicting a decade in which conformity was an avowed social ideal, has been seen by some as red-scare propaganda, by others as anti-McCarthy propaganda; it can be interpreted about equally well as either (probably it was intended as neither). In any case, what's fascinating about the film now is that the Pod People don't seem very different from the people they've replaced. Seeing the Pods turn the population of San Francisco in the 70s into lock-step automatons, as they did in Kaufman's film, seemed far more tragic and scary.
For the new version, Ferrara, working from a script by a cabal that included such schlockmeisters as Stuart Gordon and Larry Cohen, takes the story at least part of the way back to the 50s--he's set it on an Army base in Louisiana. The main character this time is a teenager (Gabrielle Anwar), the daughter of an EPA official (Terry Kinney) who's been sent there to supervise a toxic cleanup. When Anwar and her family encounter stiff, robotlike behavior in this setting, they have no reason to think that anything's amiss.
The film moves a little slowly at first, but about a half-hour in, Ferrara delivers a roundhouse punch, the kind of subtly terrifying scene that's hard to shake off. Anwar's kindergarten-age stepbrother (Reilly Murphy) notices that the finger paintings of every kid in his day-care class are identical to the last detail--except his. The teacher notices that his are different, too.
Shortly after that, Anwar and her family flee in terror from the clone of one of their number, and the picture is off and running, never to slow down. It very loosely follows Finney's plot, borrowing only a few bits of dialogue from the 50s film and the most hair-raising shtick from the 70s version, the Pod People's finger-pointing, accusatory shriek of alarm when they spot an untransformed human.
One could wish for livelier acting, overall--some of the time, we aren't sure if a line has been delivered woodenly because the character is an alien or because the speaker is a nonactor. But there are bright spots in the cast. The lovely child-woman Anwar (Al Pacino's tango partner in Scent of a Woman) is touching, but never merely pitiful, and Ferrara uses Meg Tilly, as her stepmother, effectively--Tilly's unreal beauty is immediately suspect. The always remarkable Forest Whitaker contributes an intense bit, and R. Lee Ermey, of Full Metal Jacket, has a juicy turn as the base commander, who's overjoyed at what a boon to military efficiency the invasion has turned out to be.
This film, while no masterpiece by a long shot, shows what Ferrara is capable of when he's not winging it. When he's not blathering on piously about the redemption that comes from living on the edge and all of that nonsense, as he did in his recent disaster Dangerous Game, his harsh, inelegant, noir atmosphere can be strikingly powerful. His visual scheme in Body Snatchers--cheerless dark, broken occasionally by the pitiless glare of searchlights--truly creates the feel of a nightmare.
Some time ago, I heard Ferrara say in an interview that this was a Body Snatchers for the AIDS era. Probably this was just the silly (and, in this case, insensitive) puffery that directors sometimes resort to in interviews; at any rate, this subtext is indiscernible in the film. At a glance, the analogy almost seems apt--the AIDS virus does snatch bodies away from their owners. But Finney's Pods don't work as a literal contagion, only as a spiritual one, and the victims of HIV are easily identifiable in the ranks of fugitive and outnumbered humanity. For the Pod People to frighten us, they can never be underdogs.