‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ in seventies San Francisco on Prime Video

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 classic, updates it from the homespun innocence small town fifties America to the busy urban modernity of San Francisco of the seventies and gives the metaphor a new context.

Donald Sutherland takes the lead as Matthew Bennell, a field agent for the Department of Health, and Brooke Adams is colleague Elizabeth Driscoll, a scientist whose boyfriend (Art Hindle) has a sudden change of personality the very day that she stumbles across a strange, alien plant that has taken root in their neighborhood. She thinks it may be a new genus. She has no idea.

“It’s like there’s some kind of hallucinogenic flu going around,” is how pop culture psychiatrist and self-help author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy, spot-on casting) explains the alarming reports of loved ones no longer behaving like, well, themselves. Then their friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) find a not-quite-human figure growing in their bathhouse…

Directing from W.D. Richter’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers,” Kaufman sets the film not simply with the personalities and eccentricities of the major characters but the busy culture and everyday chaos of urban city life. Then, with alarming swiftness, we watch the individuality disappear as the churn of crowds and traffic and constant noise and bustle gives way to quiet focus, group purpose, and lockstep conformity.

The cold-war conformity of the 1956 original becomes urban alienation by the late 1970s, and the film uses the impersonal interactions with bureaucracy and authority to enhance the paranoia.

As in the original, there’s no spaceship in Kaufman’s film. In fact, it opens on a truly alien vision of life on the starving planet of a dying sun, a life far from anything the screen had imagined before. Amorphous balloons that look like enormous microbes appear to bubble up from dying plants, like intergalactic spores spreading alien pollen, carried by solar winds across the galaxy to a hospitable new home where it can plant it roots and take over to native life forms. It all feels very much alive and the organic quality of the infestation is enhanced by the eerie, otherworldly sound effects by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, an insidiously weird soundscape that, like the invasive flowers, seems to take root and underscore the entire film.

San Francisco provides the perfect backdrop, a big city with the legacy of a counterculture oasis and the embrace of touchy-feely therapy and new age fads. Sutherland’s repressed bureaucrat may be a little removed compared with his neighbors at first but the assault on his identity finally unleashes his emotions. But by then his world has gone just plain… wrong. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Lelia Goldoni and Robert Duvall costar, with small roles featuring Don Siegel (director of the original), San Francisco producer Tom Luddy, and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman, and a memorable cameo by Kevin McCarthy, star of the original film, that lovingly pays tribute to one of the most iconic scenes in science fiction cinema. “They’re coming! You’re next!”

As of this writing, two more remakes have been released: Abel Ferrara’s clever Body Snatchers (1993) and the disappointing The Invasion (2007) with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Rated PG

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) [Blu-ray]
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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