Tuesday, May 6, 2008

50 Years of Pod People

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Returning from a trip, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) slowly begins to realize that something strange is going on in his small hometown. There appears to be an outbreak of mass hysteria which causes people to become suspicious of their friends and loved ones. After discovering a number of "blank" human bodies and large leafy pods, however, it becomes clear to Dr. Bennell that the problem lies with the "normal" people in town and not those who seem to be losing their minds. This, the first film adaptation of Jack Finney's classic novel The Body Snatchers, touches on a lot of rather cool and somewhat groundbreaking concepts for it's time. I honestly haven't seen a lot of science fiction films from the era during which this one was produed, but from what I have seen it's probably the most successful. As is not uncommon with a lot of older films, however, the stiff acting and weak dialogue manage to ruin a lot of the mood and tension that the story attempts to set up. The plot unravels at a good pace, dropping hints toward the eventual revelation of the mystery at regular intervals, and though I wasn't overly impressed with any part of the film, the only sequence that left a truly sour taste in my mouth was the ending. It felt more like a opening to me than a climax, which made me want to see what happened next rather than leave the characters behind. Regardless, the 1956 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is certainly worth watching, if for no other reason than for comparison to the ways that the more modern interpretations of the story are handled

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The first remake of the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers film is rather similar to it's predecessor in many ways. A solitary man, this time a health inspector named Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), begins to realize that large groups of people around him are changing in bizarre ways. Eventually, as the majority of the population of the city of San Francisco (one significant change from the small town of the original movie) appears to have been affected, Bennell and a small group of friends try to escape the city, but are foiled in their attempts at every turn. Before they know it, Bennell and his small crew begin to slowly fall victim to the plague that is enveloping their community and it seems as though all hope may be lost. The lack of a proper mood that I mentioned in my review of the 1956 version of this movie is long since gone, and in this, the 1978 version, an effective feeling of dread and hopelessness plagues much of the film's running time. Joining Sutherland in the key cast are Jeff Goldblum as a psychiatrist who refuses to acknowledge the supernatural aspects of the strange occurrences taking place around him, Veronica Cartwright as the hysterical proprietor of a small spa, and Brooke Adams as the love interest for Sutherland's Bennell. There are significantly improved special effects in this telling of the story, including stop motion and reverse animated vines which bind and creep into the orifices of the body snatchers' prey and rather disgusting models and puppets resembling the main characters in various stages of being cloned by their enemies. A first for the 1978 Body Snatchers film is that the cloned individuals point and emit inhuman screams when they spot a human, which has proved to be one of the most recognizable and memorable aspects of any of the adaptations of the source material. Everything taken into account, I didn't feel that this version of Invastion of the Body Snatchers was a perfect film, but it's probably the most universally respected, and certainly a must-see for sci-fi, horror, and monster movie fans.

Body Snatchers (1993)
Taking a bit of a different approach to the material than the first two incarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1993 version of the film follows a teenage girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) who is moved into a temporary home on a military base when her father (Terry Kinney), a scientist, is called upon to help identify the strange pods that have been growing in a nearby swamp. Before long, just as in the previous film versions of the story, our hero begins to notice a change in the people around her and makes an attempt to escape. Despite the fact that director Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers feels almost like a low budget made for TV movie, it's probably my favorite version of the story that I've seen thus far. The pace moves a bit quicker than the 1978 version and the fact that the story takes place amidst a strong military presence adds a new level to the goings-on. Instead of a regular community of people being transformed into alien zombies, this time there are heavily armed military personnel not only turning into monsters, but also fighting back against them in some cases. This scenario adds for a bit more action than the previous two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which isn't necessary, but makes for a bit more of a unique experience. Also, making the main character a rebellious teenage girl rather than a respectable older man added something to the experience for me. None of the main characters in these films have ever had an easy time convincing anyone that aliens are invading their world, but things seemed just a little more hopeless and exciting for a young girl trying to save her little brother and escape with a guy from the neighborhood whom she likes. I'm in an odd position concerning the Invasion films in that I recognize that the 1978 version of the story is the best of the lot, but I still manage to get more enjoyment out of this one.

The Invasion (2007)
This time around, though the general plot and progression of events are essentially the same as all three of the previous incarnations of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, the invaders in question don't use leafy pods to clone their victims, but instead infect people with tiny spores which turn the original hosts themselves into alien beings. In this way, The Invasion feels as though it deals with a viral plague rather than an invasion, but infected individuals still become emotionless creatures almost indiscernible from normal humans, so there is a tangible enemy for our heroes to rebel against once again. In The Invasion, Nicole Kidman plays a psychiatrist by the name of Carol Bernell whose son (Jackson Bond) may hold the cure for the epidemic which runs rampant after debris from a space ship lands on Earth with a strange substance on it. After you are infected by the spores contained in the alien substance you will remain human until you fall asleep, at which point the disease transforms you into an emotionless creature. This film isn't perfect, but it actually took a lot of (what I consider to be) positive steps away from the stereotypical trappings of the Invasion series. More than ever, the fear of falling asleep took precedence as the main source of suspense, which I quite liked. Simply waking up with slime on your face is admittedly less interesting to the sci-fi-lover in me than creepy plants crawling up your nose, but I did like the outcome of the switch inasmuch as sleep became the enemy rather than a giant pea pod. The ending of The Invasion was less than perfect, but I have to give the filmmakers credit for going with something significantly different from the outcomes of the previous three incarnations of this film. In the end, The Invasion didn't satisfy my urge for a truly great version of the Body Snatchers story like I hoped it would, but if things continue the way they've been going for the past 50 years or so, it shouldn't be too long before another adaptation of the tale comes along to try for the gold.

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