‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or — Mad Men?
I’ve been a big fan of Philip Kaufman’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978) ever since it scared the living hell out of me when I was a kid so I thought it was about time that I finally sat down and watched Don Siegel’s original. After all, I love 50’s Cold War sci-fi films so thought it was time to experience what I had always assumed was the grand daddy of Red Scare/McCarthyism paranoia.
Yet I was shocked to discover that almost none of any of that was there, that the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) I had assumed this film to be all these years was, in fact, a simulacrum. I detected almost no themes either for or against Communism, no fear of ‘reds under the bed’, infiltrators or of persecuting witch-hunts. What I did suspect I detected, however, was the pungent whiff of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism by way of Madison Avenue’s advertising world. Although I could be as wrong about that as someone who thinks all their friends are alien replacements.
So Siegel and Kaufman’s films follow almost exactly the same story beats — pod people take over the place, turning the population into emotionless duplicates in the process. Everyone will be assimilated, all feelings will be eradicated. It’s a plot thrumming with potential interpretations, but at no point did I think “Ooh, Communism!” or “Ooh, McCarthy!” as being one of those interpretations. Instead I found Siegel and Kaufman’s films closely linked thematically, acting as resonating bookends at either side of the individualism of the Sixties, as their concern didn’t seem so much fear of political or ideological threats but what it meant to be human, if that meant anything at all.
You see, back in the 1930’s psychologist B.F. Skinner spent a lot of his time at Harvard annoying some mice in a lab in much the same way Pavlov gaslit his dogs with their dinner. Skinner termed this arsing about with rodents ‘behaviour analysis’, declared learning was, essentially, nothing more than conditioning and reinforcement and then determined free will was an illusion. It was known as Behaviorism and some people took it seriously.
Now Behaviorism absolutely terrified many people in exactly the same way Darwinism had done decades before. Now, not only did a human being no longer have a soul but it seemed we didn’t even have a mind or free-will either. The shock of this, especially in the “land of the free”, was profound as it reduced what it meant to be human to a radically extreme degree. Did it even leave anything left?!
So what did it matter if you were Communist, Capitalist, Left or Right if, ultimately, you didn’t even exist in the first place? And if people’s minds didn’t exist, and could essentially be programmed, then what were the implications of this on propaganda and advertising? This is why, despite Chomsky destroying Skinner’s theories in 1959, the advertising world (and had so for some time before Skinner) had taken an interest in the field for years. After all, if humans were organic machines that could be programmed then they’re ripe for being perfect consumers. Jack Finney, author of the ‘Body Snatchers’ book, got his start working in advertising so I wouldn’t be surprised if these ideas were kicking around his head.
Then there’s the central character of Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) who appears sensible and rational at first but by rejecting conformity, or by clinging onto the “outdated” idea that he actually exists, descends into immaturity. Miles is almost a proto-hippy, wanting to run away from responsible society and live in the woods (as Skinner once said, it’s easier to be shaped by contingency than to follow rules and it seems Miles has taken the easy, adolescent option). He has “dropped out”. He’s also incredibly irresponsible as he’s not only (Shock! Horror!) divorced but, by the end of the movie, is speeding his ass off and having end of the world sex with his girlfriend.
So just as Kaufman’s ‘Body Snatchers’ seems to comment on individualism by seeing the after effects of the obsessive concentration on the “self” that exploded during the Sixties, so Siegel’s seems to pre-empt it. If the self does exist then the pod people are terrifying; if the self doesn’t then everything they say makes sense (it’s no coincidence that the pod people’s voice of reason is a psychiatrist in both films). This helps give the movie its ambiguity as well as providing the perfect set-up for a scary and fun sci-fi flick.
Technically Siegel’s film is a blast. The themes might be open but the plot is emphatic and clear. The acting is strong and energetic, Siegel’s directing is exciting and the black and white cinematography some of the most striking I’ve seen outside of a noir. There’s also a nice and beefy score by the wonderfully named Carmen Dragon.
Also, the way the replacement bodies are “born” is seriously icky, gooey and impressive and must have had a big influence on ‘Alien’ (1979), and there’s a shot near the climax that simply consists of a man turning off a radio but it’s one of the creepiest shots I’ve seen in years as well as allowing for some excellent and imaginative sound design to dominate the movie.
‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is a fantastic film and easily stands up to, and possibly exceeds, Kaufman’s remake. Sure, it’s got a tacked on “happy” ending but I found it forgivable and, besides, we all know where the real ending lurks in the film anyway.
But what wasn’t lurking, to me anyway, was fear of Communism or McCarthy. Instead, I think it’s the fear of reductionism and that fear didn’t emanate from Moscow but was born in the tree-lined universities of the United States where it proceeded to emanate throughout all Americana.
It’s not a case of being turned into a pod person. The really scary thought is that you already are and always have been one.