The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the first of several remakes of the 1956 science fiction classic.
Since I saw the original only a week ago it’s going to very hard to avoid making comparisons between the two films. Sometimes I think it’s best not to do this, but rather to try to view different adaptations of the same story as separate entities that stand or fall on their own merits. In this case though I think comparisons are quite instructive as illustrations of the way that seemingly minor changes can have profound consequences.
The first noticeable thing about the remake is that the basic story remains, in its essentials, very much the same. Most of the changes don’t really have much effect, but a couple of them do have a considerable effect.
The 1978 version lets us know right from the start what is going on. We see the planet from which the pods have originated, we see them reach the Earth, we know right from the start that this is going to be an alien invasion movie. And the early scenes immediately alert us to the fact that something strange is going on. That’s a fairly minor change. It does lessen the shock when really strange things start to happen so it’s a weakness compared to the original, but it’s a fairly minor weakness.
The hero, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is an inspector with the Health Department in San Francisco. His friend Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adam) tells him a strange story. She believes that her husband is not her husband any more, that he’s suddenly changed so much that he’s a different person. Matthew thinks she should see a psychiatrist friend of his. Since the audience already knows that her husband really is different this scene has less impact than the similar scenes in the original where we really aren’t sure if these people are suffering from a strange delusion or whether they’re correct in their suspicions.
The psychiatrist, Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), tries to persuade her that she is merely suffering from the kind of alienation everyone suffers from these days as a result of the increasingly temporary nature of personal relationships.
The first real evidence that Matthew unearths that something weird really is going on comes through his friend Jack Bellicic (Jeff Goldblum). Jack and his wife run an odd little business offering therapeutic mud baths. They discover a strange corpse, or what appears to be a corpse although it doesn’t seem to be quite human. It seems more like an unfinished human. It’s covered in a strange gel-like substance so unlike the similar scene in the earlier film it’s obvious straight away that this is not an ordinary corpse.
When Matthew suddenly gets the feeling that Elizabeth is in danger he breaks into her house and now he finds the concrete evidence of the presence of the pod people. Of course he still has the problem of trying to convince people of the truth of what seems like an incredible story.
It soon becomes apparent that the city is full of pod people who look perfectly normal but are strangely emotionless, and more disturbingly they are clearly doing strange things with giant pods which Matthew and Elizabeth are sure have a connection with strange flowers that started appearing in the city a few days before.
Now it’s obvious that they are facing a nightmare scenario and it’s going to be a struggle both to prevent themselves from turning into pod people and to convince the authorities that they are facing a full-scale alien invasion.
Most of the changes to the story are, as I indicted earlier, quite minor. The hero is a health inspector rather than a doctor but the character remains relatively unchanged. He is still a representative of the world of science and reason and the nature of his profession means that he is still a man who is trained to be observant. The other characters are in all essentials fairly close to their counterparts in the original, with the psychiatrist friend playing the same rôle as in the first film.
The big change is the setting. The 1956 movie took place in a small town. The remake takes place in San Francisco. The advantage of the small town setting was that in a small town everybody knows everybody and the sudden appearance of the strangely robotic and emotionless pod people is immediately noticeable and immediately terrifying. But in a city like San Francisco in the late 70s the appearance of the pod people lacks any real impact. In such a setting you expect to encounter strange people. In a city full of hippies and junkies and eccentrics the pod people just don’t seem scary. The horror that was so palpable in the original is totally dissipated in the remake. The horrific idea that people who seem totally normal could actually be alien monsters and that you’d have no way of knowing who is a real person and who is a pod person is still there in the 1978 version but it doesn’t have anything like the punch it has in the 1956 version.
The other big change is in the whole approach to the film. The 1978 version is a science fiction horror movie and that’s the way director Phil Kaufman approaches the movie. In contrast the director of the 1956 version, Don Siegel, had been making action thrillers laced very strongly with what would later come to be described as a film noir sensibility. So when he came to make a science fiction horror movie he made it exactly the way he had been making his film noir action thrillers. As a result the 1956 movie has a feel that differentiates it sharply from other sci-fi movies, and that unusual feel is responsible for making the 1956 movie such a fast-paced exercise in terror and paranoia. The 1978 movie is a reasonably good and very well-made science fiction horror movie but it’s still basically just another alien invasion movie.
Siegel also had neither the budget nor the inclination to worry about the kinds of special effects that are usually considered essential for science fiction. He simply concentrated on the terror and the paranoia. The 1978 movie goes to elaborate lengths to try to give the story proper science fiction credentials and to explain the workings of the pods. This is fine, but let’s face it science fiction technobabble is still science fiction technobabble no matter how plausible you try to make it sound. What matters in this story is that the hero suddenly finds himself in a nightmare world where absolutely anyone could be the enemy. That’s the crux of the story and it’s handled a lot more effectively in the 1956 film.
The 1978 movie is not by any means a bad movie. Donald Sutherland is excellent. Leonard Nimoy makes a very convincing celebrity psychiatrist. Jeff Goldblum’s performance is bizarre but fun. The special effects are done well. Kaufman succeeds in achieving an atmosphere of alienness and menace.
The Region B Blu-Ray looks terrific and includes a host of extras.
On the whole the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good if rather conventional movie of its type. It’s just that the 1956 movie was a great movie. Remaking great movies is always a bad idea. The 1978 movie is worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to be the equal of its predecessor.