The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 movie poster

 

For a pulpy 1950s horror flick relating the strange tale of an invasion of giant brussels sprouts, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a startlingly gory, paranoid nightmare positively loaded with political subtext. Its themes of identity, mistrust, and subversion have remained relevant and influential for decades, inspiring three official remakes and even left-field homages like Robert Rodríguez’ high school melodrama The Faculty. Not only has “pod people” entered the lexicon, its screenplay is highly quotable (“They’re here already! You’re next!”) and sometimes even rather poetic: “There’ll be no more tears.”

The movie can be a bit frustrating to modern science fiction aficionados used to high pseudo-scientific detail. The aliens’ life cycle seems illogical and not fully thought-through, to the extent that it harms the plot. It seems a victim simply must be in proximity to an alien pod for it to begin to grow into your shape. We also learn that a pod absorbs its host’s memories when it sleeps, but we see Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) duplicated after falling asleep alone in a cave devoid of any visible pods. What happens to the original bodies? How do the pod-born duplicates wind up wearing the host’s clothes? Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake is more clear on the process, with the added benefit of allowing for more explicit gore and female nudity to tart things up a bit. The 2007 remake Invasion solves these problems by sidestepping the issue entirely, featuring a breed of aliens that literally invade your body – a mild condition which is, it turns out, curable. Ask your doctor, or better yet, date one!

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersEat your brussels sprouts! Or you’re next!

As Matthew Dessem points out in his analysis of The Blob for the Criterion Contraption, certain 1950s horror and sci-fi movies beg to be interpreted as metaphors for key atomic age issues: Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Blob among them. But these monsters look just like us. So let’s give it a shot. Interpretation one: the movie manifests a generalized fear of a homogenized American culture. A pod person is discovered in an intermediary state, totally devoid of individual characteristics like a mannequin. Perhaps America’s fabled melting pot, brought to an absurd conclusion, could result in a dead-end monoculture of of uniform religion, politics, and behavior. Interpretation two: the story is a thinly veiled metaphor for McCarthyism, the contemporary Red Scare that envisaged insidious Communist sleeper cells already among us, threatening to undo American churches, families, private wealth, and government. In either interpretation, the invaders are convinced their systems of belief are correct, and honestly believe they are helping us by absorbing us into their ranks.

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersPod person in the corner pocket.

The premise may be deliciously cynical, but the movie does end on a possible note of hope. Our hero Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) manages to reach some uninfected human authority figures, and corroborating evidence helps him convince them to mobilize against the threat. But does this call to action come too late? From the perspective of 2009, America looks increasingly polarized and partisan. If the pod people are already here, which side are they on? As Sarah Palin might say, the Real America? I’m sure they only want to help.


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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 movie poster

 

Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few essential science fiction movies that has lasted, overcoming dated special effects, acting styles, and the end of the Cold War (provider of subtext for many a horror story). In the company of Forbidden Planet (Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Space), The Blob (an invasive species consumes the population), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (smalltown America succumbs to the ultimate conformity), it continues to resonate decades later, even being reimagined in 2008 as an ecoparable.

Immediately striking is the dissonant score by Bernard Herrmann, of Psycho fame. The evocative piece over the opening credits sounds just like an outtake from Brian Eno‘s ambient album On Land, thirty years early.

Michael Rennie as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Stillevidently they have Brylcreem in space

Wise shows us humanity’s first alien contact through the quaint filter of period radio and television; rest assured, “scientists and military men” are on the case. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a suave caucasian humanoid male alien, and his pet robot Gort (Lock Martin) park their UFO on a baseball field on The Mall in Washington D.C. His polite request for an audience with the United Nations goes rebuffed, for during the height of the Cold War, not even a flying saucer, an alien in a silver jumpsuit, and a giant robot is enough to convince the nations of the world to sit down and talk. Klaatu’s flying saucer is surrounded by hilariously lax security, and he is briefly taken into custody before handily escaping into the D.C. suburbs.

Klaatu has learned mid-Atlantic accented English from radio and television broadcasts, and outwardly appears perfectly humanoid right down to his slicked-back hair (they evidently have Brylcreem in space), so all he needs to blend in with the masses is to simply steal someone’s dry cleaning. He checks into a spare room, with some shots directly quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic The Lodger. He befriends young Bobby (Billy Gray) without a hint of suspicion, dating the film more than anything else.

Klaatu tries to get his message through to a pacifist scientist, but he’s discovered, shot, and dies. Gort, programmed to activate in such an event, threatens to exact an unspecified violence upon humanity. But Klaatu has already taught his interspecies ladyfriend Helen (Patricia Neal) the robot-mollifying fail-safe codephrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort ceases his hostilities, and instead revives Klaatu using machinery on their ship. Klaatu claims his new lease on life is only for a limited time, for true resurrection is only the domain of “the Almighty Spirit”. The remarkable fact that he believes in a God goes unremarked upon; both he and the humans to whom he’s speaking simply take it for granted they’re talking about the same deity. This line stands out for a reason; the dialogue was reportedly inserted at the request of the MPAA, who objected to Klaatu’s godlike powers of resurrection. Failing to reach the world’s leaders, he settles for the next-best thing: an assembled group of scientists (all, of course, white males). Message delivered, he leaves Earth in a huff.

Lock Martin as Gort in the Day the Earth Stood StillKlaatu barada nikto! Don’t tase me, bro!

So, let’s recap: an otherworldly visitor with a message of peace-or-else is executed, rises again, and ascends into the heavens. Do I have to spell it out?

But if Klaatu is analogous to Jesus, let’s take a closer look at his message. He claims Earthlings’ warlike behavior is of no interest to the spacefaring species of the universe, as long as it’s contained to one planet. But the interstellar community is beginning to fear that Earthlings are about to discover interstellar travel, and they will not permit humanity to bring their atomic weapons with them. Klaatu is the representative of other societies that have already passed through this phase, whom, unable to curb their violent impulses on their own, came up with a solution to police themselves: a fleet of lethal robots programmed to eradicate anyone that violates the truce. So they use weapons to deter the use of other weapons? What kind of message is that to a Cold War audience living under the nightmare of Mutually Ensured Destruction? To the 21st Century viewer, the immediate worry is whether or not we could ever trust an artificial intelligence with impartially keeping the peace. Indeed, whole science fiction franchises have been built upon that very theme, including 2001, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica.

But perhaps I’m being too literal. It’s a simple movie, but is it a simple analogy? Is the army of Gorts a symbol for Earth’s nuclear arsenal? No, because that’s exactly what Klaatu wants humans to put away. According to The New York Times, producer Julian Blaustein “told the press [the film] was an argument in favor of a ‘strong United Nations.'” But the U.N. is denigrated as petty and ineffective in the movie; they won’t deign to gather to merely listen to Klaatu’s speech. The overall message is very cynical: even more advanced aliens aren’t able to curb their violent impulses on their own. Klaatu is here to threaten, not save us. If we embark out into space bearing weapons, we’re toast.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is based on 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Walter Trevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (filmed in 1976 by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie) shares some plot elements (the alien Thomas Newton too bears diamonds as seed money), but veers off into another direction altogether. Newton has no interest in steering humanity’s course. He’s here on a secret mission to save his own people, but falls prey to his own all-too-human weaknesses.


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