Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Film Review

After Don’t Look Now, I was clearly in the mood for more 1970s horror movies with twist endings starring Donald Sutherland. Though this one is more of a straightforward sci-fi, with a lot more alien goo and Leonard Nimoy.

I never read the original The Body Snatchers novel by Jack Finney, but it seems like the kind of enduring story that invites a new retelling tailored for every new generation, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one in the works right now as I type. Meanwhile, I’ve watched this 70s update on the original 1956 adaptation, considered one of the rare good remakes of a classic film.

The movie introduces us to the body snatchers right off the bat: they’re a bunch of translucent creatures from some distant planet, who drift through space and eventually land in San Francisco. There, they spread their tendrils across the parks and gardens, taking on the form of pods with pretty red flowers. But the invaders have more on their minds than blending in with the local flora: they intend to supplant the human population by spawning duplicates. These “pod people” are the perfect copies of the human originals, except that they’re soulless zombies drained of all feelings and emotions.

Soon, people start to notice that something deeply wrong and worrying is going on, including Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a scientist at the San Francisco Health Department, whose boyfriend turns strangely distant and robotic overnight after she brings the red flowers home. Her friend and colleague Matthew (Donald Sutherland) advises Elizabeth to visit his psychiatrist pal (Leonard Nimoy), who suggests that Elizabeth might just be looking for an excuse to get out of the relationship. However, more and more weird things start to pile up, including a gruesome discovery at the mud baths owned by Matthew’s eccentric friends.

I’m probably too old to find this brand of sci-fi horror truly scary, but there’s no doubt that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a well-executed example of the genre, using unusual angles, still-mostly-decent visual effects and an unconventional, atmospheric soundtrack to make the most of a nightmarish scenario and our basic primal fears. Not knowing the story, I was caught unawares by how decidedly dark it is.

My inner sci-fi nerd also got the kick out of the cast, which includes Veronica Cartwright of Alien fame and very young and skinny Jeff Goldblum, who adds his trademark strangeness to the proceedings. Sutherland and Adams meanwhile have an easy, natural chemistry and their lead characters are an engaging pair of oddballs, whose friendship and mutual affection feels genuine. I even forgave the movie for – mild spoiler – not letting a guy and a girl to stay just friends.

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