Karl Marx said history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” Hollywood repeats itself even more often and the subsequent versions grow more tragically farcical as they go along. But why? What is it about filmmaking that defies the tide of progress? Most everything else made today is better than in the past. Cars, planes, toasters or clothes, very few of us would exchange what we have now for the equivalent from 10 years ago, let alone 30 or 50 years ago. So why are attempts to remake old movies with the benefit of technological and storytelling evolution nigh invariably disasters?
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown may have at least a partial answer to that as we compare a film from the Golden Age of cinema science fiction, a descendent that just predates the modern filmmaking era and a third rendition that squanders all the supposed advantages of modernity. It’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) vs. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) vs. “The Invasion” (2007).
And to be up front about it, we’re skipping over what is technically the second remake, “Body Snatchers” (1993), because…frankly, I think only 27 people ever saw that movie and I’m not one of them.
All of these motion pictures are based on an original story by Jack Finney, credited in the first film as a serial in Colliers Magazine and in the remakes as a novel, which itself is an interesting look at how the way people consume entertainment has changed. It’s also curious that none of the remakers ever utilized the environmental themes of “The Body Snatchers,” but maybe it shouldn’t be considering that no one involved in the last three versions probably even read the original material.
The plot in all three films is essentially identical. An alien life form comes to earth and begins replacing humanity with emotionless copies, which our heroes first discover and then run around trying to stop. And when I say “essentially identical,” I mean essentially identical. The latter two films cut to the chase quicker and quicker but when you watch virtually the exact same scene of the main male and female characters hiding in an office and spying on the alien replacements for a third time, you have to wonder where fidelity to the original stops and sheer narrative laziness begins.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) is widely regarded as a classic and perhaps the most compelling bit of anti-communist pop culture ever created. As alien seed pods begin duplicating the residents of the small California town of Santa Mira, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is driven to hysteria by his efforts to keep his love, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), from being snatched and to warn the wider world of the insidious alien threat. A sci-fi flick with more than a touch of film noir, it’s a textbook example of the use of metaphor in storytelling. It completely works as a thriller, cranking the tension and level of threat ever higher until it finally explodes with Bennell raving like a maniac at passing motorists on the highway. You don’t need to know anything about communism to understand the story or how it unfolds.
But it also works even better on a second level as a political parable about the evils and dangers of communism, an alien influence that strips people of their humanity and gets them working to secretly subvert society and remake it in their unholy image. If you ever let your guard down (go to sleep), that’s when the aliens (communists) get you and the scariest thing is that the aliens (communists) aren’t cartoonish villains with evil laughs. They look and talk exactly like everyone else, except they aren’t like everyone else. And the ending with Bennell looking a deranged crank ranting about how “they’re coming to get us” is a brilliant spin on the anti-anti-communist attitude that blossomed after the McCarthyism of the early to mid-1950s. It must be almost inexplicable today, after the end of the Cold War and the near universal acceptance of the death and suffering created by the old Soviet Union, but through the 60s, 70s and 80s there was a good portion of American political thought which held that the perils of excessive anti-communism were as big or bigger a threat than communism itself.
With Kevin McCarthy giving one of those performances that would make him remembered forever, even if he had never done another thing in his life, and a very smart script, aside from a moment that completely violates its own premise toward the end, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) holds up amazingly well so many decades after its debut. Yes, there are some glaring elements of sexism and the rigid order of 1950s America comes through loud and clear, but this is a movie that totally deserves its reputation as a true classic.
22 years later, they decided to try it again and while “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) hasn’t aged nearly as well as the original, it’s still a pretty good little film. It drops the alien pods into San Francisco, with Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) as a city health inspector and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) as a co-worker who uncover the danger and spend basically the last hour of the film running hither and yon to try and escape it. With grotesque special effects that must have freaked out viewers who had yet to experience films like “Alien” (1979) and “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), it made quite an impression by bringing a harder edge and an adult sensibility to science fiction cinema. Created in a day when remakes where fairly rare, it very loving references the original while still endeavoring to make something that can stand on its own. It effectively transplants the plot into the looser and more chaotic social environment of the 70s and concludes with a dystopian kicker before that sort of ending became the worst horror cliché.
The problems with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) are…
- It’s kind of stunning how much more dated it seems than the original. Donald Sutherland’s perm is a hilarious artifact from pre-history and Leonard Nimoy’s character wears what looks like half of an archery glove on one hand. Jeff Goldblum takes off his shirt and reminds us all of what actors used to look like before the advent of personal trainers and steroids. And the concluding action scene is one of the least macho climaxes you’ll ever watch. Sutherland cuts some obviously fake rigging with a fire axe, looking like he’s never held either in his hands before, and then runs away. What a hero! This story could only have been told this way in the decade where Richard Benjamin was be passed off as a legitimate movie star.
- There is no metaphor here. Some have tried to argue that the 1978 version is about the growth of cults in that decade but that’s wishful thinking. There’s a moment where it seems like the movie might be trying to say something about the spread of psychiatry and psychology in American life and how that kind of therapy is merely numbing us to our problems, rather than fixing them. But the simple truth is there is no definable or sustained effort to make an analogy with anything in the real world. It’s all text. No subtext.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) is a cash grab but a defensible one. The filmmakers didn’t have a new point they wanted to make or a new perspective to bring to the story, but they did update it to be more palatable to the mainstream audience of its day and they did bring a new dimension of special effects that made their version a different emotional experience. Above all, though, they made a legitimately decent film. The plot makes sense. The characters are likeable and believable. It’s well shot and effectively balances drama with bits of humor. It’s not a classic but no viewer walks away feeling their intelligence has been insulted.
The same cannot be said for “The Invasion” (2007). The sort of blatant cash grab that gives blatant cash grabs a bad name, it’s most significant legacy is that its box office failure not only hurt Nicole Kidman’s career but allegedly led a studio executive to declare that his company would no longer make any more movies with a female lead.
“The Invasion” is awful in so many ways. It’s badly paced and annoyingly edited. Putting Kidman’s mostly immobile face as the representation of Humanity against an emotionless alien menace is one of the greatest casting disasters in Hollywood history. The push-up bra Kidman is wearing so ridiculously exaggerates her bosom that it almost distracts you from the porcelain mask between her neck and her hair. And when you’re making a flick with a female lead that hopes to attract a female audience, she really shouldn’t show up on screen for the first time in a thong. There is again no metaphor at all in this script, which is compounded by the incompetent way it tries to expand on the concept that the aliens think they are improving Mankind by removing emotion. This time around we get a bunch of news broadcasts in the background about peace breaking out around the world, no doubt due to the alien infection spreading, and that’s supposed to make the viewer question who is really the bad guy. But the alien tranformees here are the most explicitly threatening of all three films. It’s impossible to have any doubt about who is on the side of the angels.
And while Kidman got a lot of grief for this movie’s failure, it’s hard to blame her when she’s playing one of the most ineffectual main characters I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t figure out the alien invasion is happening. She doesn’t figure out how to disguise herself among the aliens. She doesn’t figure out how to stop the invasion and cure the infected. You could literally remove her character from the first hour of the film and it wouldn’t matter.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) wins this Throwdown but the 1978 remake proves that Hollywood can repeat itself as something better than tragedy. It’s not a great movie and it’s certainly not as good as the original but “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) is conclusive proof that a remake can be worthwhile if you have anything new to add to the mix and are committed to making something worthwhile. “The Invasion” (2007) shows that Hollywood no longer knows or cares how to do either of those things. To borrow another famous line, the problem is not in our stars; it’s in ourselves.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Written by Daniel Mainwaring.
Directed by Don Siegel.
Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Wiles, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Kenneth Patterson, Guy Way, Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon.
Invasion of the Body Snatcher (1978)
Written by W. D. Richter.
Directed by Philip Kaufman.
Starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle, Kevin McCarthy, Don Siegel, Garry Goodrow and Robert Duvall.
The Invasion (2007)
Written by David Kajganich.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Malin Ackerman, Jackson Bond, Jeffery Wright, Veronica Cartwright, Josef Sommer, Celia Weston, Roger Rees, Susan Floyd, Alexis Raben, Adam LeFever, Joanna Merlin and Field Blauvelt.