Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
In essence, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the simplest alien invasion movies ever made. The aliens, firstly, replicate the human form; the premise doesn’t warrant ghastly figures of elaborate design. Foremost, as stated in many reviews of the film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is less concerned with alien presence than it is with alienation.
The plot is a man’s growing paranoia as the corruptive efforts of a conspiring alien race overwhelm him. Released in 1956 amidst other interpreted polemics of McCarthian politics and Communism, Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ success is its theme. In statement, it is a metaphor — an allegory yielding numerous thematic interpretations.
It must be stated, however, that this is not the only metaphoric, paranoid “invasion” film. Invaders From Mars preceded it in 1953. In it a boy is the film’s central paranoiac, as he witnesses the landing of a flying saucer and futilely attempts to convince adults of his incredible find. I Married a Monster From Outer Space followed in 1958. Despite its ridiculously campy title, the film concerns a woman’s horror as she realizes her new husband is an alien plotting to propagate his dying race. In each film the aliens are discerned for their lack of emotion — their lack of humanity (impressive that previous incarnations of aliens in film were politically motivated instead of just intermittently hostile). Invasion of the Body Snatchers exceeds the other two mentioned, as it transcends the generic trappings of Fifties Sci-Fi.
In Santa Mira (derived from Sierra Madre, where the film was shot) is Miles Bennell, a doctor. The film opens with his acknowledgment, on an “ordinary” day, of a rather noticeable coincidence: many of his patients called desperately and impatiently for appointments — and later, without reason, calmly announced their renewed health. After six such episodes on the same day, Miles becomes briefly suspicious.
Later, Miles sees a local friend who demandingly claims that her uncle, simply, is not her uncle. A boy, brought to Miles’ practice, makes a similar claim: that his mother is not his mother. In each case the “missing” person is discerned by intuition; they lack some indefinable human quality that, as we will learn, is what makes them human.
Finally, in an especially disturbing scene, Miles is called to a neighbor’s house. Inside is a body is on a billiards table. It is not a corpse, per se; the body displays no evidence of past life. Further curious, this person just appeared on this table, for no reason, and is not recognized by anyone in the city’s diminutive population. To further mystify the occurrence, the body has all the human features and no identifying details, no hair, and, more mysterious, no fingerprints.
In a previous discussion with the town psychologist, Miles voices his curiosity for the coincidental behavior in his patients. The psychologist rationalizes the behavior as “an epidemic mass hysteria.” Although he is justifiably correct in his assessment, there is an underscoring detail he omits (and judging from his lack of emotion, he does so purposefully): that aliens are responsible for the odd behaviors, and harvest pods that produce perfect and emotionless human clones. Miles realizes this after finding the first body — it is a forming clone.
The previous exchange between Miles and the psychologist offers a unique dialectic to the film. Foremost, a doctor, Miles is learned in the natural makeup of the human body, its inner workings and natural behaviors. He is also a socialite, with fiancée, and knows all in the town. The psychologist, conversely, deals with ideas: his studies are largely theoretical and are not based on proven exercise. His opinions are contained within his rationale, prohibiting him, at first, to acknowledge the possibility of an unearthly force responsible for the epidemic. The psychologist is the rationalist to Miles’ believer, the conformist to rebel and the alien to human.
The subtext of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, ambiguous as it may be seen, is a transcendent element, and is what has secured the film’s timeless relevance. It is indeed a benchmark of science fiction — more revealing, however, is its veiled subscription to politics: a man faces the inhumane threat of conformity (or political identification). Literally, aliens (deemed “pod people” in the 1976 remake) are the conspiring force, though the film can be seen, rather obviously, as political allegory. Further securing this claim is the studio imposed opening and epilogue, involving Miles fleeing to a hospital emergency room and attempting to convince skeptics of his radical knowledge (this sequence bookends the film, which is in result rendered as a flashback). This sequence employs an illogical and contextually unrealistic happy ending, and dumbs the intensifying thematic trajectory of the film. However, the fact that a studio — the controlling force over a film — made this change to optimize what is a decidedly pessimistic film is in effect an act that acknowledges the film’s subverted elements.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is superficially about the conventional, trademark conspiracy of hostile aliens in Fifties science fiction, when it can actually be about another conflict altogether. Its defining trump is that it is transparent; it possesses a strong political undercurrent, visible beneath its surface.