I have to tell you, I hate remakes as much as the next guy. I understand completely the need to reintroduce pop culture to a new generation. The key word is “Culture”. There’s not a lot of that going on in today’s films. And a lot of the remakes from the past, as well as today, could care less about how an audience might feel about a remake of their favorite film; whether it’s Ghostbusters with a feminine bent, or a reimagining of Joe vs the volcano starring a CGI version of a hillbilly caveman and Amy Schumer. Movie companies don’t care; that greenback is what really matters. Once in a blue moon, they get the bright idea of hiring a genius; artsy-fartsy director and they strike gold.
That’s what United Artist did when they paired Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Phillip Kaufman (Based on the book by Jack Finney).
The movie begins in outer space. Shouldn’t all films start that way? Slowly, it transitions to Earth, specifically San Francisco, after a rainstorm some odd flowers begin to bloom on already living plants. Elizabeth (Brooke Adams---Ms. 45, Days of Heaven) picks one of those flowers, as does some school children. The camera pans and we see Robert Duval in the rare cameo, dressed as a priest enjoying the swings, looking very malevolent toward those school children.
She comes home to find lazy boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle---Easy Rider, Black Christmas) listening and watching the basketball game with headphones. She tells him about the flower she just found, thinking it’s a new plant. Apparently the flower she picked is Grex; two species cross-pollinate to produce a third unique species. Elizabeth goes on to educate dim Geoffrey further by telling him: “Epilobic, from the Greek Epi, upon, and lobus: a pod. Many are dangerous weed and should be avoided. Characteristics are rabid and parasitic and observed found in many war-torn cities of Europe. Some of these plants may thrive on devastated grounds.” Of course, dim Geoffrey is not at all interested in plants or education for that matter. They make a weekend date and there is no more education talks to follow.
Next we see Health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland---Animal house, Mash, Ordinary People, Kelley’s Heroes, etc.) entering a French restaurant looking for health code violations. Matthew inspects their chicken stock and discovers a rat turd. The owner of the restaurant disagrees and says it is a caper. Matthew makes his point when he offers up his discovery to the man to eat it. The owner declines.
Turns out Matthew and Elizabeth are coworkers. She works in the lab and he does the field work. The next morning Elizabeth sees a change in Geoffrey. He’s neat, cleaning up after himself, but….he’s devoid of any emotions. He walks stiff, his facial muscles are rigid. She knows it’s her Geoffrey. She takes her problems to Matthew, who cooks her dinner. She tells Matthew that Geoffrey, who usually is obsessed over the Goldenstate Warriors, is not going to the game. Instead, Geoffrey is meeting some people.
Matthew thinks Elizabeth should see a Physiatrist friend of his. He’s very famous, even has his face on T-shirts. Elizabeth says she keeps seeing strangers recognizing each other. She thinks it’s a conspiracy. She tried to see Geoffrey at his office; he was outside meeting up with all walks of life, bums talking to businessmen, passing packages off to each other. Matthew insists she see his friend Kibbner (Leonard Nimoy---Star Trek, director of Three men and a baby, etc.)
Driving through the streets, a man jumps in front of Matthew’s car, screaming: “They’re coming, they’re coming!” The man (Kevin McCarthy---original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Twilight Zone, VHF) is apparently being chased. The man runs away, followed by a crowd. Matthew and Elizabeth hear a car screech and the man is run over. They drive by and the crowd is standing over top of the man. No one is helping, not even the police.
Matthew and Elizabeth go to a book signing for Kibner. They meet up with Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum—the Fly, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) who is a struggling writer and part owner of a bathhouse with his wife. Bellicec is upset that Kibner makes millions off of the psychology goop he passes off in his books. Meanwhile Matthew makes a call to the police. They have no record of a hit and run earlier that evening. The wheels start to turn in Matthew’s head that maybe Elizabeth is right. It could be a conspiracy.
Elizabeth witnesses a hysterical woman telling Kibner her husband is not the same man she married years ago. He has a scar at the top of his neck. That he is different, devoid of any human emotion. Kibner convinces the woman that it is just a delusion. He displays that he is a very persuasive man that can convince people of different ways of thinking.
Bellicec is upset with the way Kibner treated him on the street and return’s to the bathhouse he and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright—The Birds, Alien) own. Bellicec refuses to help an obese customer out of a mud bath. Nancy helps the large man out and gives him his daily massage, passing another customer Mr. Gianni (cameo by director Phillip Kaufman) who seems to be boiling in his mud bath. Minutes later, Nancy finds Mr. Gianni creepily staring at her. They get into a book discussion, without much emotion on Mr. Gianni’s part Nancy ushers him out. Minutes later, Nancy discovers a ravaged body sitting lying where Mr. Gianni had been, covered in goop. They Call Matthew and he begins in earnest his investigation. The body has no uniformed characteristics, and no fingerprints. Matthew decides to call Elizabeth. She is lying in bed, weak from whatever strain or disease caused by that flower she picked has entered her body. The process of Elizabeth becoming one of the pod people has begun.
In Alex Cox’s introduction to this film for his program Moviedrome, he points out that Transatlantic Corporation owned United Artist at the time the film was made. Throughout the film, Phillip Kaufman strategically pointed his camera in odd, claustrophobic positions to include the Transatlantic building (the building itself is a design a tribute to the Freemasons) to show ominous corporate takeover and government totalitarianism as the new monster. I believe it’s something we as citizens of this world has never gotten over that P.O.V. It still lurks around the corners at us, shows up in all of our entertainment, and in everyday news outlets shows us, still a growing concern.
Phillip Kaufman delivered a powerful film showing the dangers of becoming a sheep, or a follower; and the terrible consequence when corporations turn the brains of the masses into pudding. Kaufman is not known for making taut, frightening conspiracy thrillers. Two of his best known films are The Right Stuff (about early days of U.S. Astronauts) and The Unbearable lightness of being (about the Russian takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1968), and his lesser films are just as strong, such as The Wanderers (Gang life in early 1960’s New York city) and the western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. He also made the first film to ever receive the newly MPAA rating NC-17, Henry and June (about Henry Miller and Anais Nin). Kaufman has had a rich career, pretty much making whatever film he wanted to make. You can’t say that for 99% of people working in any field. Another credit is he Co-wrote Raiders of the lost Ark and had a hand in the script for Outlaw Josie Wales.
A great script from weird and whacky mind of W.D. Richter, who wrote Big Trouble in Little China and directed The adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
It features great camerawork by Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Lost Boys) and sound mixed by Mark Berger at American Zoetrope in the four-channel Dolby Stereo process, which was not yet standard exhibition equipment in most theaters.
The film was a box office hit and a critics darling, a very hard achievement, and even harder, to endure to this day. The Chicago Film Critics voted it 59th scariest film ever made.
Mark Slade, HMS
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