Saturday 31 December 2011

From the archive: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a rare example of B-movie as historical document, and one of the great, endlessly recyclable premises of sci-fi cinema. Doctor Kevin McCarthy returns home after a weekend conference to witness an outbreak of what his blase colleague describes as "mass hysteria": crystallised in the appointment book full of patients convinced their loved ones have been replaced by clones who, though they look the same outwardly, display no signs of an inner life. After encountering a corpse with no fingerprints, the doctor attempts to work out what's happening while continuing to flirt with his college sweetheart; what's going on, of course, is that a generation of alien pod people, blank-eyed conformists who might represent fascists, Communists or (Joseph) McCarthyites, are being cultivated to replace actual humans as they sleep at night.

The allegorical content is made explicit in a speech the hero has about the way people "harden in their hearts" and lose just exactly what it is to be human, but the film is still there to be enjoyed for the manner in which its form and content mesh perfectly: it makes sense that the hollow, emotionless clones should be portrayed by actors in a 50s B-movie, though the main performers are all rather good, and the script - by Daniel Mainwaring, from the Jack Finney magazine serial - is lucid and economical. That premise has been updated at least three times, each at a particular bleak moment in American history - in 1978, by Philip Kaufman, for the post-Nixon/Vietnam era; in 1993, by Abel Ferrara, for the First Gulf War; and, somewhat fumblingly, in 2007, by Oliver Hirschbiegel for Gulf War II - but this original, tautly handled by Don Siegel in an early directorial assignment and closest to the source of its paranoia and nightmares, remains the most effective caution against social and political complacency, and the dangers of received wisdom. Remember: they get you while you sleep.

(September 2008)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.10am.

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