One of the by-products of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s was a societal shift in attitude toward government. Consequently, a sense of paranoia and conspiracy influenced the arts, including film. Examples of such films are The Parallax View, Chinatown, The China Syndrome, All the President’s Men, and this film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This film is a remake of the 1956 original, which too reflected society’s paranoia and conspiracy resulting from McCarthyism.

The film stars Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, and a young Jeff Goldblum. Everyone delivers solid performances, but the most notable ones belong to Sutherland and Nimoy. Sutherland plays a health inspector working for the city of San Francisco. He’s an optimist even when the odds appear grim and there appears to be no hope. In this regard, despite not fitting the typical physical profile of a hero, Sutherland embodies the perfect hero in this story. By the end of the film, he becomes the only character you put your hopes into, which makes the ending that much more effective and horrifying. Leonard Nimoy plays the doubting psychiatrist who attempts to explain away everyone’s experience as an irrational hallucination or paranoia. Watching Nimoy play a normal person rather than what he’s better known for, an alien, makes you realize what a great actor he really is and it made me wish he made more non-Star Trek films.

The story is set in San Francisco (it was also shot there), which is the perfect city to set a film about paranoia and conspiracy in. Its unfortunate that more films are not made in San Francisco given its unique beauty. We don’t really get much of a backstory on the aliens except for a short explanation toward the end of the movie. The alien plan is revealed gradually as the story progresses and we see it unfold through the main characters’ eyes. From the beginning, Kaufman effectively creates an atmosphere of paranoia through the reactions of people to our characters’ claims, the use of a forboding and avant-garde film score by jazz musician and psychiatrist, Denny Zeitlin, and the film noirish shooting style by DP Michael Chapman. Like a good science-fiction story, this film’s science-fiction/alien aspect is not meant so much to give us specifics on who the aliens are and what they plan to do. Rather, it is meant to make a statement on the state of our society. As I mentioned before, this film was made shortly after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. There existed a pervading sense of disillusionment and distrust of our government. There is a scene in this film that illustrates this where Sutherland’s character is getting the run-around through various government agencies as he attempts to warn the city of the alien menace. The government officials he speaks with are faceless voices who express doubt on his claims. At the same time, we know that these government people Sutherland speaks with are all in on and involved with the alien conspiracy.

The film has a few problems, but this may be more attributable to conventions used in the film that are no longer used today than to any weakness in the film. One scene that struck me as being strange was how Nimoy’s character was called in by Sutherland to investigate the discovery of an alien body. I would think one would normally call the cops rather than a psychiatrist to investigate. As I haven’t seen the original 1956 version of the film, I figured that maybe a scientist or psychiatrist, a popular character type in 1950s science-fiction films, was sent in to investigate the body in the original. The film also suffered from our characters doing a lot of running around to escape the aliens. Again, this may have been a novel or popular narrative device in the 70s, but when you see it now, it looks too tired and it reminded me a little too much of The X-Files.

If you enjoy science-fiction films, you may enjoy Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It has surprisingly aged well over the decades. It also has a GREAT ending, which I won’t hint anything about. Although The X-Files has set the current benchmark for alien conspiracy stories, this film holds its own and it may be worth your time to see it.Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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