(SPOILERS) One can go to town on interpretations of Body Snatchers, and indeed, various of these can be found on its Wiki page. But really, the movie’s thematic subtext-lite, assuming you know the drill by now, after two previous versions and numerous facsimiles of “They’re taking us over” paranoia on film and TV. Despite this, Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers is a lean, efficient alien invasion thriller, and for the most part deserves a much higher rep than it has.
There is an attempt here to overlay contemporary relevancy, but it’s of a niche, contained nature, thus contriving limitation where the earlier versions – and particularly the 1978 one – could plunder the entire urban landscape (expanding from town to city). When Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) and chopper pilot Tim (Billy Wirth) play “Never Have I Ever” he puts a finger down in response to “I’ve never had to shoot anyone”. He clarifies this occurred in the Gulf. As such, Body Snatchers has a head start on the Gulf War movie subgenre (and benefits from being oblique about it, frankly, as most of those pictures engage in extensive handwringing or polemic at the expense of broader insight). The X-Files would later pick up the baton for the same in a science fiction context (3.7: The Walk, 8.9: Salvage, and referencing in several of the mythology arc plots).
Mainly, though, like it or not, the chosen setting was the express ingredient that won this version the greenlight. On the plus side, since it favours the pace and tone, the military base locale cuts right to the chase, as there’s no nuance to the army. That’s its entire point. One might also argue the premise is very shrewd on the part of the aliens – and if one sees this as a loose continuity, “The Invasion Continues” per the poster, it means they’re learning – as whatever you’ve got planned, if you’re a human or alien and you don’t simply want to blow shit up, it would be incumbent to have the military in your pocket first.
On the negative side, as pointed out to Stuart Gordon – one of the credited screenwriters, and originally attached as director – “everything seems so soulless and mechanical already. There’s no contrast”. Gordon replied “We did that deliberately, because we felt people would be a little more paranoid… It would be a little harder to tell on an army base”.
The original story idea – well, obviously, that was Finney’s – came from Larry Cohen: “The only thing I contributed was the idea of the pod people on a military base, where you can’t tell the pod people from the regular people because everybody is a pod person. That idea is what convinced Warner Brothers to go ahead with the project”. Co-credited screenwriter Dennis Paoli added, in support of the thematic underpinnings, “We wrote our script during the time of advent of the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the military so it addresses that identity issue…” Gordon didn’t so much get the boot as director as have to contend with three colliding projects (one of which was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids): “I ended up doing Fortress and left Body Snatchers, and Abel Ferrara came in and directed it. I thought he did an exceptional job. I was very pleased with his work on the film”.
Paoli too was positive on Ferrara’s contribution but was mixed on what happened to the screenplay: “He brought his favoured writer, Nick St John, onto the project, and he changed the main male character and his relationship to the female lead, which I thought was a shame (much of the humour and sense of adventure was lost), but he solved several plot problems we admittedly finessed with sharp, effective scenes that heightened the menace”.
Ferrara, meanwhile, seems to be continually caught by interviewers telling him how much they enjoyed the movie, such that his own criticisms become a little redundant. Of the military camp: “You couldn’t come up with a worse place or a worse starting point for that film. We did the best we could; without telling the guys at Warner Bros, I was holding onto the original story, minus the narration” (the narration is indeed feeble).
He didn’t stop there – this is Ferrara, remember – and said he’d have returned to the original Finney setting, had it been up to him: “If you’ve got a great reason for changing it, then yeah. But if you’ve got an arbitrary reason? You’re gonna make a $40m film on some arbitrary, dopey-ass fuckin’ chase some idiot screenwriter made – that was fired anyway?” He appears to be exaggerating for effect, since the movie is cited elsewhere as having cost $13-20m (a large budget for Ferrara, whose only comparable picture in that regard was the subsequent folly of Madge-starrer Dangerous Game). He suggests the actual shoot went fine, as they were “out in the middle of nowhere”, but “it was in the editing that it went south”. He suggests, of struggles with the studio, who had final cut, “we were able to play a game well enough…” On being told the interviewer really liked it, he admitted “I like it too. But could it have been better?”
For his part, Cohen put Body Snatchers’ financial failure squarely at Ferrara’s door, however accomplished the finished picture: “… they lost all confidence in the project, because the studio was so incensed with the director who went way over budget and had a drug problem. They gave up on the movie, but when it was released it got some wonderful reviews. By then it was too late to give it a wide release and get some decent advertising for it. The picture kind of limped along”.
Habit or no, Body Snatchers appears to have brought out the best in Ferrara as director (I’m not generally a big fan). It’s moody, sinister and assured, and only occasionally slips up in the telling and execution. It’s heartening to know he didn’t like the narration, as it casts an overtly sub-Terminator 2 pall on the proceedings, entirely suffering by comparison with Cameron’s “gift” for the portentous. Marti begins the movie telling us “If we’d known what was waiting for us, we would have run” and signs off announcing the bombing of the base and pods: “Our reaction was only human”.
That too is something of a “nuke the site from orbit” gesture (and one could argue Cohen’s military-base idea was influenced by the refit militarisation of the xenomorph in Aliens). As such, the note of the unease struck by pod stepmom Carol’s (Meg Tilly) repeated earlier refrain – “So where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere. Cos there’s no one like you left” – iconic as it is, isn’t enough to redress the run-around quality that takes hold after dad Steve (Terry Kinney) is revealed as a pod person. Indeed, for all that Marti is the heroine, it’s Tim who is called upon to go full Ripley and journey back into the heart of the aliens’ lair to rescue her; in an act of ruthlessness rather undone by the (atypically) lousy effects work, the moppet who needing saving (Reilly Murphy as Marti’s brother Andy) turns out, unlike Newt, to have been turned already and has to be thrown from a helicopter, pointing and screaming has falls.
And frankly, it seems to me a far more Ferrara-esque choice would have been for Marti, having shot her father, then to discover he was human after all. True, The Thing went there, but not with a family member. It’s a first-rate sequence all the same, particularly since Steve has given the tip off “Just don’t show any emotion. They can be fooled”. Which is something that always rather bothered me, not just of Body Snatchers but the “franchise” in general.
R Lee Ermy’s General Platt tells Forest Whittaker’s resident doctor (Major Collins) “When all things are conformed, there’ll be no more disputes. No conflicts. No problems in the world… It’s the race that’s important. Not the individual” (try disputing that, as Collins does, in the era of deranged wokesters and the coof). On repeated occasions, most notably with Tim, a human is able to fool the pod people by maintaining an impassive pose. Now, for reasons of plot expediency, allowing this expediency is entirely understandable; there needs to be some means of evading them. But in terms of coherence, it makes much more sense that the pod people operate with a hive mind, or at very least have mutual recognition. Even if they don’t, you’d have thought, if all else failed, requesting Tim point and scream – not as unnerving here as when Donald Sutherland does it, but absolutely the right thing to appropriate from the Kaufman movie – in order to prove his mettle ought to have been an elementary decision.
Body Snatchers’ accelerated build up is accompanied by zero sense of base-line normalcy. As has been pointed out, Marti’s is a dysfunctional family, with unwelcome stepmom (young, sexually attractive and active) and dad ill-equipped to take charge; as well as having a weak grasp on domestic dynamics, he has plunged them into a rootless, nomadic lifestyle. On the one hand, his role with the Environmental Protection Agency pits him against the military (“hippies saving the planet”). On the other, he is preaching a different mode of conformity (in such terms, dad should be all for the aliens, since they’re at very least green).
As noted, the picture announces the failings of the military mindset upfront – “They actually volunteered for this crap. Can you believe it?” – so its examples of kicking against the system are only very moderate. Tim is no one’s idea of a maverick. Marti, as rebellious teens go, is pretty well-behaved. Christine Elise’s Jenn is more the rebel, but even then, these are rebels according to established types. Not dissimilarly to her mother’s (Kathleen Doyle) alcoholism, summarily ditched for bridge as a tell-tale sign something is very wrong.
The main source of discontent on the base is via the scientific mind of Collins – Whittaker is just great, upping the nervy, jangled ante – but his contribution aside, there’s a disappointing lack of texture and demarcation to the characters. Ermey is cast to form as the base’s commander, but he lacks the moderation to be low-key sinister once he’s been podded. Kinney and particularly Tilly are very good, however, the latter offering a primal scene variant when she emerges from the closet naked, startling Andy (Tilly opined that the makers used a body double nothing like her). You want more of alien stepmom, really, be it her taunting warning that made a thousand samples or waiting nonchalantly for rubbish truck to discard her human self’s remains.
Andy: They all had the same picture. They tried to make me go to sleep.
The Andy subplot finds Body Snatchers at its most effective; perhaps the focus should have been education by brainwashing rather than military induction: MKUltra at its most refined. We’d previously seen strains of this in the Invaders from Mars remake, and it would be front and centre of Kevin Williamson’s body snatchers riff The Faculty a few years later. The scene in which Andy’s classmates have produced identical finger paintings may be the standout of the entire movie (Paoli concurs: “I’m proudest of the scene in which the children hold up their finger-paintings. That’s the scariest scene in the film for me. Artists, beware!”) And the teacher’s blithe “Good. Very good” in response to each producing the exact same formula-fed (dictated) results makes for a cogent critique of the educational system.
It isn’t Andy’s day (or night), since he rightly concludes “No, she’s not my mommy. No, that isn’t my mommy!” after seeing replacement Carol. Which makes the jet-black humour of dad’s presented options the following morning perfect: “Andy, do you want to go back to day care to today, honey, or do you want to stay with your mommy?”
Dad, of course, is entirely superficial, seeing only what attracted him to Carol on a surface level: her voluptuousness. Such that, even when she has turned, he finds it a struggle to pull himself away (this idea of outward allure being the (adult) male’s primary conditioning is repeated when Marti’s clone reveals herself to Tim in the infirmary).
Andy: It happens when you sleep?
Marti: What does?
Andy: You die.
There’s an irony to the warning at the heart of Body Snatchers, one that links it to then just concluded Elm Street series; any straying from the material plane, the concrete and tangible, is to be distrusted (so encouraging, by negation, a different brand of conformity). This is underlined by the bathtub scene, echoing as it does the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, where Marti is menaced by tendrils rather than a metal glove. Later, Andy essential recites the credo of Elm Street denizens when asked what happens when you sleep. Is being wide awake being literal, fixed in consciousness?
I passingly wondered if Collins’ line “We’ll give ’em hell, Malone! We’ll show them what the human race is made of” inspired the title of the later Russell Mulcahy movie (Give ’Em Hell Malone). A little obscure, perhaps, but I understand its star Thomas Jane is a genre fan.
Body Snatchers is not, of course, the last word on versions of the Finney story, as there was another iteration released in 2007 (The Invasion); it was bowdlerised by the studio and promptly flopped (was the original better? By all accounts, it was less punchy, which wasn’t what Warner Bros wanted, hence the Wachowskis-supervised reshoots). That one had “further” developments in alien tactics, whereby they’ve decided that, since the military was a bust, direct infiltration of government would surely be a grand plan. Ferrara wasn’t impressed: regarding the prospect of a remake based on the original story, he asked rhetorically “Do I think I could do a better one than these clowns did with [Invasion]?” Most likely, though, Warner Bros will dust the property off as an HBO Max series. The problem being, its themes would only play effectively today for a studio willing to critique/satirise current (progressive) trends. Which is never going to happen.