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Comparing Body Snatchers

Not long ago, I finally saw the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, thus completing the trilogy of films adapted from Finney's classic novel.

...what do you mean there were four of them?

Really?  I didn't even know about that one.  Hang on a sec.

Okay, I'm back.

Now that I've seen all four of the Body Snatchers adaptations, I thought I'd spend a bit of time discussing my observations.  But first, a bit of a meta-commentary twist on the whole thing.  You see, I first wrote a piece comparing Body Snatchers movies in 2008 for my last website, "Philosophical Appliances."  I've since disowned that site (and allowed it to be deleted from its host servers) since I felt like I was approaching it with a bad attitude.  So you know what that means?

That's right.  I'm remaking a six year-old post about remakes of a movie.

I did it.  Finally.  I won at the Internet.

Mini-Reviews of Each Movie

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956):  Like almost every American movie made between 1930 and 1960, it's a little too corny and a little too cleancut, but the original Body Snatchers adaptation is a true horror and science-fiction classic that demands to be seen.  It creates an epic plot out of a loose handful of tiny locations and a small cast.  There's not much I can say about this one that hasn't already been said - it's just an all around terrific movie and I feel like an asshole that I hadn't seen it until recently.

My Rating:  4 / 5

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): This. This is the best one.

Snatchers '78 has everything you want.  It's got excellent performances, iconic moments, great special effects, and a pervasive sense of creepiness.  It's a perfectly-plotted and executed piece of horror.  The dynamic between Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams is sweet and charming, which lends a gripping and crushing sense of tragedy to the terrors that await them.

Not only is Snatchers '78 the best of the Snatchers films and not only is it one of the best horror movies ever made - it is one of the best movies ever made in general.

My Rating: 5 / 5

Body Snatchers (1993): This is a dumb movie.

I don't want to be overly negative.  It's not an atrocious film - there are some good moments of tension and the special effects involving the pods themselves are pretty creepy and well-executed.

But the characters are all so goddamn stupid.  Especially the main character. Everybody does the horror movie thing where they make the worst possible choice at every turn.  The performances are lackluster - the obvious joke here is that you can't tell when somebody has become a pod person because they're all already completely deadpan and boring.  The editing and pacing is all completely wrong, so it never feels like there's real tension mounting - just a series of incidents that eventually end with an explosion.

It also features the single worst blue-screen effect I've ever seen in my life, when a child is hilariously thrown out of a helicopter and the film cuts to a forced-perspective shot of the kid pointing at the camera and screaming while hovering incongruously above the ground behind him.  You think that shot in Die Hard 2 where McClane ejects from the helicopter is bad?  You ain't seen nothing.  I'm appalled that anybody could have given this shot a thumbs up - 1993 or not, it was bad.  So bad, in fact, that it's pretty much the only memorable thing from the entire movie.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Invasion (2007): Originally I rated this one a lot lower, but over time I've come to accept that it's not a terrible movie - just not a particularly interesting one.

Invasion '07 features some decent acting from its leads, but it plays out too much like a run-of-the-mill science fiction thriller.  The horror aspect is completely cut out, and with it go any moments of violence or weight.  There's very little tension because there's very little sense that something permanently terrible can happen - especially since the humans (spoiler) are able to invent a "cure" for the invasion halfway through.

I'm hesitant to shit all over this movie, though.  To its credit, the film does try a few new things and puts its own unique spin on the story, and it is technically well made.  (That is, there aren't any embarrassing blue screen effects that I could've made in my basement for twelve bucks and then shamelessly stuck into a forty million dollar movie.)

The problem is one of comparison; if Snatchers '78 didn't exist, then Invasion '07 could stand on its own as a kind of bland but otherwise well-made science fiction movie.  Instead, it just looks like a boring imitation of a much better film.  (Insert your own pod people pull quote joke here.)

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Part Where I Discuss Obvious Metaphors and Projected Meaning

So, look, you've got this plot about human beings being subversively taken over from the inside-out by an inescapable force of malice.  It's going to be really hard to put that into a movie and not wind up with the metaphor of your preference.  So I'm not going to complain about whether or not each movie is too obvious about its subtext - that's just stupid.  They're about literal Body Snatchers.  I don't think subtlety is possible.

What's really interesting about the films is that the more the movies try to instill a message, the shittier they get.  As it turns out, being a blank slate metaphor is kind of its own reward.  (Ironically, the pod people are also blank slate metaphors that get an individual identity imprinted on them after their creation....)

Consider the two better entries from 1956 and 1978.

The original film is most commonly seen as an allegory for McCarthyism - and why not?  It was released at the height of anti-Communist hysteria in the United States and the parallels are too clear to ignore.  Surprisingly, though, this reading is entirely manufactured by audiences.  It was never the intent of the filmmakers.  Don Siegel famously (and vainly) tried to downplay the political aspect, saying that the movie was meant to capture a general sense of unease, and that McCarthyism was only one possible variation on a threat of all-consuming conformity that the movie was trying to criticize.

The 1978 film was far enough removed from McCarthyism that it can more easily be viewed strictly as a horror and science-fiction piece.  This may be a large part of the reason why I find it to be the most superior; there was nothing specifically happening in 1978 that would require you to interpret it as an allegory for any particular social or political movement.  I've heard some people reading into it as a critique of new age psychology theories or health fads, but that's a bit of a stretch to me.  It is arguably the most "pure" metaphor: free of baggage so that you can feel the raw terror of being a loner standing up against an unavoidable force.

The weaker Snatchers movies, however, insist on filling in the metaphor with very specific readings.  Somehow, they both end up feeling less well-thought than their predecessors.

Snatchers '93 is about the brainwashing effects of the military.  Soldiers are being taken over by a force that commands them to commit mindless, violence acts against humans.  We're supposed to be shocked and terrified because it's totally happening for real right now... oh no!

...except that the very same brainwashing / training regiment is the exact same thing that saves humanity in the end, because the aliens are fought off by the military... so military brainwashing is... okay?  As long as it's done by humans?  And then out of nowhere the narrator is going to directly tell the camera that it was a bad thing that the military fought back?  What the fuck are you trying to say, '93?  Get your head out of your ass before you try to teach a lesson.

Invasion '07 isn't quite as bad in terms of logic, but it's infinitely more condescending and irritating.  The '07 movie relentlessly harps on the idea that human beings are an awful species that spreads destruction and pain throughout the world.  This is presented to us directly at times - in fact, there's at least one moment where a character specifically looks at the camera and says something to the effect of, "You know how you can be sure there aren't any pod people?  Look at the paper.  Wars, murders, rapes... that's how you know we're human."

Now, come on, '07.  Did you not sleep well last night?  Do you want a hug?  What's with the bleak, dude?  Snatchers '78 was made at a time when America was experiencing a massive economic downturn, widespread corruption, racial tensions, and an energy crisis, and even in that context it still liked humanity.  So why are you being so pissy?  You were made at a time when the economy hadn't actually completely fallen to shit and crime was decreasing.  You have no reason to be so goddamn grumpy.

Invasion '07's condemnation of humanity is unearned and immature.  It takes the metaphor of the Body Snatchers and tries to reverse it altogether by making the case that an inescapable and involuntary transformation is probably not all that bad if social indicators improve.  I can appreciate that they wanted to try something new and different, but the metaphor is too clumsy; if life was really better as a Pod Person, then you wouldn't have to invade.  People would voluntarily change.

I guess what I'm getting at after all of this rambling is that the next Body Snatchers adaptation would do well to be sincere and focus on ordinary people, free of the baggage of politics or criticisms.  But if you really want to try to be clever and put a new spin on it, might I make a suggestion?

The Part Where I Suggest the Plot for the Next Remake

I'd love to see a Body Snatchers movie about a cult.  Call it the Church of Dave.

When the movie opens, the Church of Dave is getting a lot of new converts and one of them, Dave 34, was recently arrested for assault.  Dr. Bennell, a psychiatrist, is called in to analyze Dave 34 and determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial.  In his investigations, Dr. Bennell uncovers evidence of what he believes to be a possible alien invasion of the world... except that he can't prove it.

The rest of the movie features Dr. Bennell's frequently-stalled attempts to investigate the Church of Dave as people all around him convert.  But they never try to kill him or anything like that.  Why would they?  The Church of Dave is all about marketability.  They convince people to join them by describing how amazing life is at the Dave Compound.  If they killed Dr. Bennell, then it would be bad PR.

Whether it turns out that Dr. Bennell is right about the Daves being aliens or not kind of doesn't matter.  The point is that you can build up some excellent tension, particularly when Dr. Bennell tries (and fails) to explain to people why it's a bad idea to join the Church.  Ultimately, the problem with the Church isn't whether or not they're human - it's the fact that you're simply losing your individual essence when you join.

That's the very core of the terror in the Snatchers films, and you don't need to dress that up with too terribly much to keep it interesting.

A Special Bonus Section on The Faculty (1998)

A Mini-Review:  The Faculty is too damn sarcastic for its own good.  It's a movie about snotty teenagers who scoff at the "ridiculous" notion that the world is under attack from alien invaders, and yet by the same turn it asks us to accept without question the bizarre notion that one of the protagonists is gifted enough to have a drug lab where he can dissect a creature and perform a variety of chemical and biological experiments.  Not coincidentally, the best parts of the movie are those that just run with the crazy schemes and let you get caught up in the emotional highs and lows of the plot.  When it lets down its shield of teen angst and derisiveness, it can actually be a fun movie.  Too bad the script has to be so fucking "hip."

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

Ironically, the most visible of all the Body Snatcher adaptations might well be the one with the least connectivity to the source material: the 1998 Robert Rodriguez film, The Faculty.

Measuring things like "visibility" or "popularity" is an incredibly subjective thing as I well know from trying to justify my choices for the Hipster Holy Grail as "obscure."  But one objective thing I can point to is the number of user ratings on IMDb.  It's not a perfect system for measurement, but it at least is a mathematical data set you can work with.

So, for comparison's sake, this is where the movies fall on the scale of user ratings:

Certainly this can be partially attributed to the fact that movies released from the late '90s and onward typically get a boost from the average IMDb user, who would have come of age during those times and is more likely to gravitate to more recent releases.  Still, the discrepancy is enormous, and it's not like The Faculty was either a relatively higher commercial or critical hit.  So why is it that it seems to be the most "popular?"

I think it may have to do with its setting. Any Body Snatchers movie can be viewed as a metaphor, intended or not, but the one that is most immediately familiar and sympathetic would be the growing pains of puberty and high school.

Consider the '93 film, which tries hard to relate the mind-numbing conformity of the military.  Although most of us have some connection to the military - either through friends, family, or our own experience - I doubt that too many of us have lived through the brainwashing effect of military indoctrination.  On the other hand, all of us have been teenagers.

The feeling of being a voice of sanity lost in the noise of "the other" is a deep-seated fear that begins at adolescence, so it's only natural that a movie that turns that concept into a literal threat would be engaging.  Too bad it doesn't carry the social or dramatic weight of the '78 film.  Man... that would be a good movie, wouldn't it?

A Final Word for People Planning a Movie Marathon

I know it would be tempting to host a marathon with all of the Snatchers movies in sequence, but I think that'll end in disaster.  So if you want to use the premise as a theme for Halloween this year, I suggest the following line-up for best results:

7:00 PM: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

9:00 PM: Slither (2006)

11:00 PM: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

1:00 AM: The Thing (1982)

3:00 AM (if anybody's still awake, but you're also drinking heavily): Body Snatchers (1993), with the rule that you have to finish your drink when the kid goes flying out of the helicopter.