The Film: 5/5
In the city of San Francisco people are beginning to act distant and emotionless. Department of Health employee Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) notices her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) behaving very closed-off one morning. She confides this to her colleague and friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland). Their friends Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), an aspiring poet, and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) are horrified to discover a partially-formed clone of Jack in the mud bath they own. Matthew sees this and starts to suspect that an unusual epidemic is sweeping through the city, eventually enlisting the help of his good friend Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a renowned author and psychiatrist who is reluctant to believe what is going on. But this is more than a viral outbreak. Alien life forms have come to Earth from the deepest and darkest recesses of space and taken the form of seemingly harmless plant life. Their goal is to take over the entire human life by growing clones of every single person alive through large seed pods that feed off their hosts as they sleep. Matthew, Elizabeth, and the Bellicecs are ultimately left to stand alone as the pods conquer the city by the bay and set their sights on the rest of humanity. They're here, and you're next.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the second of four movies made (so far) from Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, and in my opinion it will always be the absolute best of the lot. More than that, Philip Kaufman - the future director of such modern classics as The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being as well as the co-writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark - made one of the definitive science-fiction films in the history of cinema as both a form of entertainment and an artistic medium. In crafting his contemporary take on Finney's novel with screenwriter W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China), Kaufman removed the story from the sleepy California town of Santa Mira (which would later serve as the central location of Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and dropped it smack dab in the center of the bustling progressive metropolis of San Francisco. The finished feature was released to theaters in December 1978 - nearly a month after the shooting death of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay public official, and Milk's murderer Dan White was given a virtual slap on the wrist since homophobia was deeply ingrained in national politics and the justice system, and that hasn't changed much since those days. The emotionless and logical pod people of Invasion who have embedded themselves into every level of society, government, and corporation and seek to conquer humanity by subjugating that which makes us human are not at all different from the enemies of progress who slaughtered Milk along with other great leaders of history from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Benazir Bhutto for daring to challenge the rigid and murderous status quo.
Kaufman's Invasion was made at the tail end of one of the greatest decades ever for science-fiction cinema, which began with thematically darker entries like George Lucas' THX-1138 and visual effects grandmaster Douglas Trumbull's directorial debut Silent Running and concluded with the shiny optimism of Lucas' radically different Star Wars. The Invasion remake would definitely be at home in the former category where every frame is drenched in paranoia and uncertainty and the outcome is always in doubt, and we would have it no other way. In moving the story's setting to San Francisco Kaufman and Richter expand its scope and reshape Finney's creation into a caustic parable of human disconnect in the era that followed the final years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that brought Richard Nixon's administration and legacy to its knees. When Don Siegel first adapted Body Snatchers into a feature film the year after the Finney novel was originally published America was still trying to shake off its McCarthy-idolizing, Communist-lynching hangover that would only serve to be further exacerbated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War that continued until the late 1980's. Basically, we Yanks have been a superstitious, easily spooked lot since the end of World War II, and it seems like every decade we get a new boogeyman to fear without understanding or rationality. Nowadays it's easier than ever for the pods to invade the planet since we seem to never out of something or someone to be perpetually frightened of.
By leaps and bounds Invasion '78 is far more than your typical dark genre offering. Each of the five main characters - Bennell, Driscoll, the Bellicecs, and Kibner - transcend the standard archetypes of a sci-fi thriller with witty, multi-dimensional scripting and terrific performances from the cast. These people are achingly human in ways that you rarely see in a movie of this kind anymore. I was reminded a lot of this version of Invasion recently while watching Edgar Wright’s latest film The World’s End - itself a quirky, character-driven adventure that also functioned brilliantly as a work of socially-conscious science fiction. Kaufman’s earlier films were imbued with a nimble wit that bubbled forth from the wellspring of his characters’ personalities and souls. The heroes of Invasion are not cool-headed soldiers with awesome weapons and cheesy one-liners; they’re everyday men and women who worry about their jobs, family, and what ethnic food they’re having for dinner that evening. They can only fight the oppressive forces of the pods with whatever resources they can muster, and most of it involves using their brains. Solutions to problems are hardly as simple as “nuking the site from orbit” and often emotions come into play. But you love these people from the first moment you meet them because for all of their flaws they are the kind of people whose loss would be the greatest detriment to the survival of the human race.
With a brilliant eye for casting Kaufman found the perfect actors to play the human heroes who struggle to retain their individuality and their extraterrestrial oppressors in flesh-and-blood incarnation. The only true stars in the cast would be Donald Sutherland and to an extent Leonard Nimoy. Sutherland had been acting in film and television since the early 1960's and by the time Invasion came along he had amassed feature acting credits in The Dirty Dozen, Klute, Don't Look Now, and the classic wartime comedy M*A*S*H to become one of the 70's most unconventional yet reliable male stars. Nimoy was a respected actor with a list of film, stage, and TV credits to his name, but it was his iconic performance as Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek that made him a household name. Both actors were ideal to portray the opposing ends of the human spectrum in Kaufman's remake - Sutherland the eccentric public official struggling to make sense of the creepy happenings that has overtaken the city of San Francisco, and Nimoy the calm and charismatic New Age psychotherapist who approaches every situation, regardless of how bizarre it may seem, with a pleasing placidity not unlike the Vulcan Starfleet science officer that made his career (but with a mischievous, beatific smile that at least indicates he hasn’t given himself over entirely to logical reasoning). The same year she played Invasion’s winsome heroine Elizabeth Driscoll Brooke Adams had appeared as the female lead in another beloved cinematic masterwork, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Jeff Goldblum had played a variety of freaks, losers, and scumbags with little to no dialogue in movies like Death Wish, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and the disco comedy Thank God It’s Friday before earning the biggest speaking role of his career in Invasion, while his onscreen wife Veronica Cartwright was in the process of undergoing a career reinvention from child actress of the 60’s to weightier supporting roles in films like Ridley Scott’s Alien and The Right Stuff, which reunited Cartwright with her Invasion director Kaufman. The last major role in the supporting cast, Elizabeth’s aloof lover Geoffrey, was taken by Canadian actor Art Hindle during his brief sojourn in Hollywood attempting to build a film career outside of the Great White North. Don Siegel, director of Invasion ‘56, cameos as a suspicious cab driver, while his original leading man Kevin McCarthy briefly appears as a terrified man suggesting that his character Miles Bennell was still trying to warn the world more than twenty years after the fact. Also, look out for Robert Duvall in a seemingly throwaway role as a silent priest playing ominously on a playground swing set in the opening moments of the film.
It’s moments like the unsettling Duvall cameo that establishes Invasion ‘78’s mood of relentless, unseen terror and suspense right from the start. Shots of small groups of San Franciscans chasing others down city streets can often be spotted in the background or over the shoulder of a principal character while another scene is in progress. Usually in an alien invasion movie we are given some introduction to our protagonists before the real story kicks in, but Kaufman starts his Invasion off with the shit already hitting the fan in methodical fashion. The noose is tightening before we can even settle into our seat with bowl of popcorn in hand. The overcast daytime skies and foggy evening vistas are photographed with menacing clarity by the great Michael Chapman, whose credits as one of the New Hollywood’s unsung cinematography heroes include Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, and the wacky Steve Martin comedies Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains. Prior to becoming an in-demand director of photography Chapman cut his teeth as a camera operator on The Godfather and Jaws, and in the early 1980’s he would turn to directing on the features All the Right Moves and The Clan of the Cave Bear. Invasion’s 115-minute running time flies like a bat out of hell thanks to the crafty editing of Douglas Stewart, who later won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing for his work on Kaufman’s epic The Right Stuff. One of Invasion ‘78’s crowning glories in the technical department is the unique music score composed by Denny Zeitlin, a jazz pianist and professor of clinical psychology at the University of California who never worked on another film after this. Zeitlin’s contribution to Invasion is by turns deeply moving and magical but never afraid to indulge in some disturbingly offbeat soundscapes. The score is supplemented by a climactic usage of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards’ powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace” that begins as stirring but becomes almost cruel once its true purpose unfolds.
Thomas Burman, who worked on films as wonderfully varied as the megabudget epic western Heaven’s Gate and the classic Canuck slasher My Bloody Valentine in the years immediately following Invasion, provided the masterful, disgusting make-up effects, while the slimy pod creation visuals were accomplished by Russel Hessey (Thief, The Ice Pirates) and Dell Rheaume (The Amityville Horror). The pod sounds and the horrific screeching of the fully formed clones can be credited to the great Ben Burtt, whose groundbreaking sound effects work on Star Wars made him the perfect person for the task.
I wouldn't be surprised if Arrow's 1080p high-definition transfer of Invasion was sourced from MGM's 1.85: anamorphic presentation from their Region 1 releases. There isn't much significant difference between the two transfers, though I would say that Arrow's efforts represent a slight improvement in the removal of grain from the print. There is still grain present but it has been reduced to an acceptable minimum. The bustling city scenes and ominous night photography are rich with bolstered colors and the finer details have been sharpened. Arrow has supplied this Blu-ray with both an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and the original, uncompressed 2.0 LPCM stereo track - both held over from the Region 1 discs. The 5.1 provides more space to the immersive sound design but both tracks perform superbly in presenting the overlapping dialogue and Zeitlin's haunting score with fantastic clear resolution without a single trace of damage or distortion. English subtitles have also been included.
Arrow Video has ported over all of the bonus features that first appeared on MGM's 2007 Region 1 Collector's Edition DVD and 2010 Blu-ray releases while adding in some newly-produced extras of their own. The older material mostly focuses on the making of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Arrow's contributions are more critical and analytical in nature.
From the earlier releases we begin with a feature-length audio commentary from director Kaufman. The track is a little slow at the start and Kaufman isn't the most passionate of speakers, but as the movie wears on he loosens up and gives us some fascinating insight into the creative process that birthed this remake and an occasional interesting story from the production.
"Re-Visitors from Outer Space" (17 minutes) is the first of four retrospective featurettes produced for the U.S. Collector's Edition discs and is a general overview of the origins, production, and reception of the Invasion remake with comments from Kaufman, screenwriter Richter, and stars Sutherland and Cartwright. "The Man Behind the Scream" (13 minutes) is an interview with Ben Burtt that covers how he came to be part of the '78 Invasion and how he created the film's inventive and disorienting sound design, including the various sounds made by the pods. "The Invasion Will Be Televised" (5 minutes) devotes its time to exploring the moody, film noir-influenced cinematography by Michael Chapman, while "Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod" (5 minutes) looks at the creation of the film's opening sequence where the aliens journey through space.
"Discussing the Pod" (52 minutes) is the first of the new supplements produced exclusively for this release. Author and film critic Kim Newman presides over a panel discussion of the Invasion remake with filmmakers Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid) and Ben Wheatley (Sightseers). Topics range from the participants' memories of first seeing Invasion and their initial opinions of the film to a analysis of its story and themes. "Dissecting the Pod" (17 minutes) sits down with Annette Insdorf, the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University and the author of a book about the films of Philip Kaufman, shares her own high opinions of the director's treatment of Invasion. "Writing the Pod" (11 minutes) gives us some background into the original novel The Body Snatchers and its writer Jack Finney through an interview with Jack Seabrook, author of Stealing Through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney. Last but not least is the film's original theatrical trailer.
Arrow's Blu-ray also comes with reversible cover artwork featuring a newly-commissioned image by Nathanael Marsh as well as a collector's booklet with a new essay on the film written by critic David Cairns and reprints of classic articles containing contemporary interviews with Kaufman and Richter and original archival stills and posters. A steelbook edition with the classic original poster art by Bill Gold is also available.
Both one of the best remakes and finest science-fiction films ever made, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is unquestionably a masterwork of the genre. There is nothing more I can say about this movie except that if you have not seen it before you should rectify that grievous mistake immediately. Arrow Video's outstanding new Blu-ray is a very good place to start. Not just highly recommended, but an essential purchase and one of the home video highlights of 2013.