by Sumiko Higashi
Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 3-4
Remakes testify to the fact that film production does not occur in a vacuum but is a specific historical context. Philip Kaufman's version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, for example, released with much fanfare during the Christmas season in 1978, differs significantly from the Don Siegal cult film of 1956. Particularly in its emphasis upon and treatment of heterosexual relations, the remake is a commentary about present-day society. But the contrasts between it and the original can best be highlighted by concentrating first upon similarities attributed to them by Kaufman himself and by film reviewers.
During an interview, Philip Kaufman stated,
Despite current nostalgia for the fifties as adolescent phenomenon based on cruising and rock and roll, the darker side of the decade can be evoked by its domestic and foreign politics. Events of the fifties also include HUAC and the Alger Hiss case, the dramatic rise to power of Joseph McCarthy and his equally dramatic demise, the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Korean War in the aftermath of Communist victory in China, and the Soviet explosion of the atom bomb. The notion picture industry itself experienced witch hunts resulting in the Hollywood black list. Post-Watergate film critics asserted that the mood of the fifties as captured by Siegel's combination of science fiction and horror and recapitulated by Kaufman was still relevant. Alienation, dehumanization, and paranoia also blighted the seventies. Some critics even dwelled on the rendering of these themes as a film noir convention in both versions.(2)
Fifties politics aside, the struggle against conformity imposed upon individuals caught in a standardized existence in urban landscapes dates back at least to the Industrial Revolution. In nineteenth-century United States the aggressive development of a capitalist economy contrasted with a privatized domestic life, deliberately secluded from the process of rationalization. Woman's appointed role was to sanctify and preserve this refuge. Thus "the weaker sex" came to embody a force opposed to the relentlessness of the machine age. Since the uses of technology generated ambivalence, progress required that woman stand still. An astute historian, Henry Adams used the symbols of the madonna versus the dynamo. Despite its Catholic origin, the madonna was am apt image since middle-class woman were increasingly defined in terms of their nurturance role at the same time that their sexual nature was being denied.
Its view regarding technology in relation to woman characterizes the BODY SNATCHERS remake as a comment about the changing and uncertain nature of contemporary sex roles. The film projects a devastatingly bleak and sterile version of the future when women eschew traditional definitions of their nature. Woman's role has been to counterbalance and countenance male non-normative behavior, not to deviate from the norm herself. With the resurgence of feminism in the sixties and seventies, woman functioned less well in their prior symbolic capacities, including that of "the eternal feminine" versus the encroachments of technology. Feminist theorists like Shulamith Firestone in fact began to seize upon technology as a mode of liberating woman. At the same time, a significant number of men were beginning to reject the value of technology (antimilitarism, agrarian communal experiments, the counterculture, ecology movements, etc.). Moreover, men claimed for themselves attributes of nurturance usually associated with women. The BODY SNATCHERS remake has to be understood within this context.
Wasting no time, the film begins with an obvious rendering of sexual symbols. Unlike the original, which was set in a small California town named Santa Mira (Saint See), the remake takes place in San Francisco. The choice is interesting since the bay city is known both for its sixties, flower child, Haight Ashbury-style counterculture, and its large homosexual population. In the West where men were presumably men, traditional male virility is in retreat. Significantly, the first shot of San Francisco in the film after pods hurl and drift through space and descend towards earth is not the famed Golden Gate Bridge but the pyramidal Transamerica Building. (Since United Artists, the film's producer and distributor, is a subsidiary of the Transamerica conglomerate, this visual prominence was an insider's joke which drew comment in Variety and other trade journals.) The pyramid is visible from Matthew's (Donald Sutherland's) apartment and there is also a poster of it on his wall. Matthew is frequently shot with the building in the background, sometimes in an arty style with the tower's distorted reflection in bus windows as he hurries to a Chinese laundry. Also associated with the building is Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), the second male protagonist in the film, when he is framed with the poster is a night shot.
Corresponding to the Transamerica Building, as an embarrassingly obvious symbol, is the pod itself, manifested during the credit sequence in the form of a flower. At the end of the credits, there is a continuous, downward movement of the camera as pods enshroud the city. Close ups of rain drenched plants give way to three successive and repetitive shots of a coral colored pod that blooms to reveal a circular red interior. Significantly, the two female protagonists in the film, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), are both women who nurture plants and are first to speculate about the dangerous nature of strange flowers enveloping the city. During a dramatic night sequence halfway through the film, the pods' horrifying reproductive process, apparently a form of parthenogenesis which results in females and males, is revealed. Petals crack and unfurl as human-like heads begin to emerge to a soundtrack of pulsating music, groans, and inarticulate cries. Far from the blissful moment childbirth often represents during clichéd moments on screen, the birth of alien pods is a menacing event.
The symbolism of the BODY SNATCHERS remake is unmistakably sexual and stresses the film's essential concern with relationships between men and women. By contrast, the basic network of the fifties classic is the family, and there is apprehension about threats to its survival. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) have both experienced a recent divorce when they meet. During their flight from the pods, they begin to fall in love, and Becky cries out to Miles (with saccharin music on the soundtrack),
The nightmare of having loved ones replaced by pod creatures who appear human but are devoid of emotion occurs within the family unit. Consequently a little boy's mother, or a woman's Uncle Ira, or Becky's father are first perceived as alien and strange. Miles' secretary willingly converts her daughter into a pod so there will be no more tears. At the end of the Siegal film, Miles runs frantically on a highway outside Santa Mira and shouts,
In the remake, this well-remembered scene is recapitulated by Kevin McCarthy himself in an homage (even Don Siegal makes a cameo appearance). But his cry no longer has reference to the family and has become less specific.
Witnesses to his pursuit and death, as they drive through San Francisco, are Matthew and his co-worker, Elizabeth. (Characters in the remake, both major and minor, are significantly part of a couple.) Until she becomes romantically involved with Matthew, Elizabeth shares a house with a dentist named Geoffrey. The decor in the house stresses heterosexual coupling. Busts of a man and woman appear on the shelf; a pair of Oriental dolls, male and female, stand on the mantle; and a painting on the wall is a simple representation of a boy and girl. Since one of the members of a couple will eventually be transformed into a pod and threaten the other with extinction, the locus of betrayal occurs between man and woman. Not since forties film noir have heterosexual relations proven so deadly.
As the narrative of the BODY SNATCHERS unfolds, the success of the pod takeover corresponds with deterioration or rupture in the relationship of a couple. At first Elizabeth brings home an unusual flower which assumes an eerie significance as it floats in a glass of water at night. When she awakens, Geoffrey has been replaced by a pod and is sweeping up the remains of his human forbearer to be carried out to one of the omnipresent dump trucks in the film. Later, Geoffrey will be unsuccessful in an attempt to supplant Elizabeth with a pod. Next, Matthew takes his clothes to a Chinese laundry where the proprietor complains that his wife is "wrong." At a book autographing party, a woman named Katherine experiences acute anxiety because she believes that her husband has changed. Jack and Nancy Bellicec, who run a mud bath establishment in laid-back San Francisco, escape from the pods until Jack is captured and becomes an enemy.
At the end of the film, Elizabeth herself shrivels and disappears in the arms of a horrified Matthew (to Amazing Grace on the soundtrack) and is reborn a pod. The desolation of her death and duplication is emphasized by the stark, defoliated branches in the thicket where she has succumbed to sleep, that deathlike trance which augurs life for a waiting pod. Resurrected as part of the alien conspiracy, Elizabeth's voice is bereft of its humor, sounds strangely harsh, and erupts is a piercing pod cry as she vengefully points to Matthew's presence. Curiously, Elizabeth is the only pod to emerge fully naked in her human form. Woman's creation as the result of am alien system of parthenogenesis is here stereotyped as a centerfold. The image of woman as betrayer cannot be separated out from her sexuality even though pods are asexual. The robot-like Elizabeth at the end of the film is more consistent with the film's logic about pod existence.
The only major character in the BODY SNATCHERS remake who is not part of a couple is Matthew's friend, pop psychiatrist David Kibner. Since Kibner is portrayed by actor Leonard Nimoy, familiar to audiences as the Vulcan immune to human emotion in TV's STAR TREK, there is scarcely surprise in the revelation that he is the pod conspiracy leader. At the book-autographing party, photographs of him are duplicated all over the room, and a blowup intrudes itself between Matthew and Elizabeth. When Kibner later accompanies Matthew to Geoffrey's house in search of a pod resembling Elizabeth, we see him momentarily framed with one, not both, of the pair of busts decorating a shelf. As a psychiatrist, Kibner is especially adroit in manipulating women and sending them to their doom. First he convinces Katherine that she is behaving unreasonably and reconciles her with her (pod) husband. Then he reassures Elizabeth with clichéd talk about the instability of relationships and advises Matthew to restore her to Geoffrey.
Throughout most of the film, the growing romantic attachment between Matthew and Elizabeth contrasts with and parallels the proliferation of unfeeling pods. Their relationship is constantly disrupted and eventually destroyed by the aliens, for whom love has neither value nor meaning. Avowals of love occur during moments when there is threat of transformation. On the verge of being overpowered by pods, Elizabeth admits that she loves Matthew but the couple is able to elude their captors and resume flight. Near the end, Elizabeth injures her ankle, despairs, and is unable to continue. Matthew fervently and repeatedly whispers to her, "I love you," but minutes later she becomes a pod and condemns him to the same lobotomized existence. Although there has been considerable warmth in their relationship, their frantic escape occupies about half of the film's footage. At one point they wander through San Francisco's famed sex district, a landscape of neon lights in which a peddler claims an all-naked show is "guaranteed to make you feel like a new man." But there is no time for the lovers to experience any sexual love as opposed to commercialized and mechanical sex or the unfeeling state of pods.
Unlike the earlier film which ended with Miles' frantic warning to highway drivers (Siegel's version) or a call to an FBI combating communism in the fifties (the studio's version), the conclusion of the remake is a much more pessimistic and nihilistic statement. The sole survivor is not a man but a woman, Nancy Bellicec, and she in turn is betrayed by Matthew. Pointing his finger at her and shrieking like a pod, Matthew sounds the alarm. The camera moves in for a close up of his mouth as a gaping black hole that obliterates everything. The final clinch is thus one between camera and protagonist turned pod.
Ultimately, betrayal between men and women and their conversion into pods is a flight from heterosexual relations into technology, a flight motivated by fear and hatred of women and their sexuality. As opposed to films of male bonding in which men retreat from women into a camaraderie betokening a pre-domesticated, rough and ready era, the BODY SNATCHERS escapes into an antiseptic if sterile future.
At the same time, the film denigrates technology as a leveler of traditional differences between men and women. Sprouting pod philosophy, Kibner explains that pods, as an advanced form of life, will inhabit a new world without love or hate, an untroubled state free of anxiety. In other words, men and women as automatons will have achieved parity in a world without emotion, human sexuality, or procreation — all heretofore associated with woman. As a result, neither sex is necessary or, put another way, sex as a category becomes meaningless. Almost. Kibner is obviously male, as are his most forceful followers, and one wonders about the pecking order in the pod power structure. The world of pods as a reflection of the world of film is still an environment controlled by men.
In viewing technology as a possible escape mechanism from women at the same time that it is condemned for eradicating sex differences, the BODY SNATCHERS remake appears confused. It is also unreservedly male in point of view. But the complex issue of women in relation to technology lends itself to a feminist interpretation as well. With the acuity of an avowed antifeminist, Norman Mailer observed in The Prisoner of Sex that
Shulamith Firestone advocates the elimination of woman's procreative function altogether.(4) She argues that so long as women are conceptualized in terms of childbearing and childrearing, their liberation is impossible. As opposed to the bleak vision of the BODY SNATCHERS, Firestone sees a world of artificial reproduction as heralding promise. For women, then, technology need not usher in a fearful 1984 but holds the key to the future.
1. Charles Freund, "Pods over San Francisco," Film Comment, January-February 1979, p. 23.
2. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1956 and 1978, clipping files, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles.
3. P. 94. (New York: New American Library, 1971).
4. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1971). See especially Chap. 10, "Feminism and Ecology," and the conclusion. For an early but still relevant discussion on technology as a means of liberating women, see Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (New York: Harper and Row, 1966, originally published in 1898). See Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977) for a psychoanalytic explanation of men's use of technology to conquer nature.