Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Philip Kaufman's 1978 updating of Don Siegel's 1956 sci-fi classic, 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' doesn't stray too far from the original -- trading a Cold War climate for Watergate and post-Vietnam anxiety -- topping it off with darkly comedic jabs at the new Me Decade's navel-gazing and self-help sales pitch: "You will be born again into an untroubled world." The time was ripe and ready for a reimagining, and with the backing of an intelligent cast -- including Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy -- along with well-crafted scares that use aural and visual effects instead of cheap thrills. Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman created an epic and relevant thriller for the times that's every bit as terrifying to this day.
Before you venture further, be warned -- there are major spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' it's available on Netflix Watch Instantly until November 16th. Check it out and come back to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Matthew Bennell (Sutherland) is a San Francisco health inspector whose co-worker Elizabeth (Adams) senses something unusual about her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey. Although he physically appears to be the same person, he's become emotionally vacant and starts vanishing to mysterious meetings late at night. Self-help guru Dr. David Kibner (Nimoy) passes this off as a "social flu," but the Bellicecs discover a terrifying corpse-like figure in their spa and become convinced there's something more nefarious at play. When the friends put two and two together, they realize an unusual plant that has been sprouting up all over the city (its origin hinted at in the dreamy spacescape that opens the movie) is the root of all their troubles, and the placid population is slowly transforming into an empty shell of its former self.
In a typical 'Framed' column, I spend time focusing on a single image from a movie and discuss it at length. This week I've chosen several frames that highlight three compelling points of Kaufman's film -- though there are many more than three. I invite you to share your favorites in the comments section.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' has a great celluloid feel and uses both interior and exterior spaces to dramatic effect. Chapman's unnatural palette of violets and greens colors Kaufman's alien-invaded world, matched by the murky darks that pervade the emotional sensibility of the film. The use of light and shadows is as intricately displayed along the cityscape as it is across Elizabeth's staircase or the Bellicecs' spa. The San Francisco streets feel as claustrophobic and menacing as the film's interior labyrinth -- making great use of the city's precipitous streets, never-ending stairwells, and vast vertical space. Chapman's nauseous lighting and handheld camera perspectives make for an unsettling and surreal experience. These characteristics are a nice play off the psychological/bodily metaphors.
While Kaufman's characters undergo terrifying physical transformations, the real terror is grounded in the fact that the vast majority of the population is too complacent to confront the changes that have been thrust upon their world. In one unsettling moment, school buses full of unsuspecting children line up to drop them off for "nap time" where they will be turned into pods, and while Elizabeth and Bennell can't accept these horrifying events without a fight, most of the city can and does. It's really no shock given the hazy social and political climate. In a time when best-selling authors and pseudo-science have all the easy answers, and mud baths are a salve for the soul, it becomes crystal clear that these creatures were born as much from the passive, selfishness of its characters as they were from the pods that expel them from their womb. No one is immune to the invasion -- the government, medical and psychological community, and the military are all suspect -- further emphasizing questions about scientific/political freedoms and irresponsibility -- the dangers of power and creation.
On the flip side of the horror equation is the grotesque reproduction of human beings -- a fetus-like creature born into a world of flippant scientific invention and commercial consumption. While Nancy Bellicec can't stand to be near the body discovered in her bathhouse, Jack Bellicec can't seem to keep his hands off it (clearly a replica of his own) -- further demonstrating the ugliness of these self-obsessed characters. After we witness the evolution of the replicants later on at Bennell's house, the birth of Bennell's doppelganger is almost immediately followed by a visceral "abortion" of his own doing. Though he's yet to be totally transformed into an emotionless pod -- clearly hesitating before bashing his replicant's head in -- he delivers the violent blows with the same kind of flatness.
Kaufman chose simple FX over complicated technology to deliver some old school chills. Reverse photography, string work, and basic animatronics work in conjunction with psychological light and shadows.
It's always perplexed me that so many people post pictures of the final frame of 'Body Snatchers' for their reviews when it's an egregious spoiler for a brilliant ending. In fact, it's such an amazing ending that this is pretty much what everyone talks about when the film is brought up in conversation. It's the culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy that only a few of Kaufman's characters even bother to battle. The sad fact is, that while these aren't the grossest of human beings, they're an unhappy bunch -- inflated by their own sense of importance, non-committal to any true cause and looking for fulfillment in the most superficial of ways. When Bennell is finally transformed to an alien, there's a deep sense of sadness and release as the film's allegories are brought to a startling and overwhelming conclusion.