In Celebration of the Body Snatchers

Philip Kaufman’s sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers celebrates pre-tech San Francisco’s soul.

Jeff Goldblum, left, and Leonard Nimoy "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"(1978).
Jeff Goldblum, left, and Leonard Nimoy "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"(1978).

At its debut 40 years ago (Dec. 22, 1978), San Francisco director Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was the Joker that snuck into the pack of conventional big-studio Christmas cards. While “Superman” was peddling nostalgia about “truth, justice, and the American way,” Kaufman’s thrilling sci-fi fable about outer space “pods” replicating earthlings and taking over the city was cracking wise about authority. The movie has gotten even funnier and scarier.

We first see the icky-gorgeous pods as diaphanous spores drifting through space, landing on Earth, and attaching themselves to leaves as hybrid plants with pickle-green bulbs and dazzling red blooms. They develop into four-foot seed pods with tendrils that suck the life out of sleeping men and women. In a burlesque of childbirth, they eject gauzy homunculi that grow into emotionless facsimiles of the originals. It’s a sublimely creepy spectacle.

The best special effects, though, are Kaufman’s wit, intelligence and empathy. Have you ever looked around on a city bus or subway and thought for one terrifying second that drained fellow travelers were robots or zombies? Kaufman sustains that visceral alienation for an entire movie. Unlike Jack Finney’s 1955 novel or Don Siegel’s 1956 film, set in Mill Valley and the fictional Santa Mira, respectively, Kaufman plants paranoia in a polyglot metropolis. Eerie colors and a roving camera keep us off-kilter as we struggle to perceive which citizens might be pod people. He slyly attacks psychobabble and conformity — and salutes the curiosity and friendship epitomized by four memorable lead characters. We really don’t want these people to lose their souls.

Movie poster from the 1978 release of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Movie poster from the 1978 release of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Contemporary fans who know Jeff Goldblum mostly as a Bill Murray-like cult hero will savor his jazzy delivery as Jack Bellicec, a poet who “takes six months to write each line” because, as he puts it, “I pick each word individually.” Jack also runs a mud bath with his robustly quirky wife, Nancy (the luminous Veronica Cartwright); their elegant friends, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), work for the health department. Sutherland is at his springiest here, as if his curly perm perks him up. The impossibly pretty Adams, as the workmate who adores him, embodies a daft charm, especially when she rolls each of her eyes in opposite directions.

These four pals function like four chambers of San Francisco’s heart. They epitomize life before the techie takeover, a time when a funky cafe society and counterculture thrived in the shadows of the Transamerica Pyramid (then just six years old), and cultureculture was affordable. To preserve their hometown — and humanity — our heroes seek advice from celebrity psychiatrist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a friend of Matthew’s. His high-priced glibness comes off as a verbal form of poddiness. A master of pseudo-rationality, Nimoy utters Kibner’s killer line with chilling solemnity: “Don’t get trapped in old concepts.”

The pod people aim to create an urban center that prizes sameness and security, far different from Kaufman’s city “of bohemians, beatniks, artists, hippies, outcasts and searchers.” Today, the pods are winning. Can they be overcome? This movie about the passions that make us human is more inspirational and revitalizing than ever.

Michael Sragow, the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, wrote, researched, and coproduced the feature documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of  America’s Pioneer Cinematographers.
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