The best justification for the existence of a remake is when it respects the spirit of its inspiration while taking it in a new direction that ties in with the zeitgeist of its time. For a pitch-perfect example, one need look no further than Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It fulfills all the aforementioned requirements for a quality remake — and the results aren’t just good, they’re revelatory in how they find new dimensions in classic material.
The 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers moves the action from a small town to San Francisco. A strange rain brings a strain of new flowers, noticed by Elizabeth (Brooke Adams). She shows them to her co-worker, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) but is soon distracted by sudden changes in personality and behavior in her husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle).
More people start to show similar changes — and they soon learn that the flowers are the host to spores that contain an alien race. Those aliens conquer a planet by creating replicas of the planet’s inhabitants to take them over — and soon Matthew and Elizabeth are on the run with edgy poet Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and his quirky wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) as they find themselves at the heart of an ever-growing conquest of the city.
That plot synopsis might sound familiar to those who know the original Invasion but it doesn’t account for the clever ways in which Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter update the material. The characterizations have a wit and eccentricity that fits the late ‘70s milieu and the plot cleverly takes on the structure of the kind of political paranoia thrillers that became so popular in the ‘70s. In doing so, it gives the story a thematic overhaul that makes it a powerful elegy for the death of invidivualism in society, with the aliens representing the kind of creeping conformity that people give in to all too easily in dehumanizing times.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers also has a unique feel, deftly blending tension with bits of sarcastic humor and genuine emotion. Kaufman brings a controlled intensity to his direction, harnessing the skills of his collaborators to create an atmosphere of free-floating anxiety. The key weapon in his arsenal is fantastic cinematography from Michael Chapman, who mixes film noir lighting and dramatic angles with deft handheld photography to create an ever-evolving visual style that grabs the viewer from the earliest shots. Also worthy of note is punchy editing by Douglas Stewart, skin-crawling sound design by Star Wars vet Ben Burtt and an amazing score by jazz musician Denny Zeitlin that weds avant-garde orchestration to burbling synths.
As a result, this version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a stylistic powerhouse that sweeps you up and carries you along via a string of amazing setpieces: highlights include an amazing dialogue-free opening scene that depicts the spores traveling to earth, jittery fast-cut montages of Sutherland and Adams rushing through the streets as paranoia takes over and tense showdowns in a laboratory and a warehouse. Even simple scenes like Matthew trying to convince disbelieving cops that Geoffrey is up to no good gain a new power from bold filmmaking choices (in this case: prowling, jaggedly-cut handheld shots that chart the shifting energy of the conversation).
However, the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has more to it than just paranoia and style. Its heart is a fantastic ensemble of performances that make it easy to mourn the attack on individualism the story presents. Sutherland makes a likeably atypical hero, showing a low-key charm and his underrated sense of humor, and Adam matches his efforts with a warm persona and a convincing knack for conveying fear. They’re a couple you’ll root for and their tragic romance adds an added layer of gravity to the proceedings.
It’s also worth noting that Goldblum and Cartwright are some of most likeable weirdoes you’ll see in a sci-fi flick, gently skewering post-hippie era ‘70s weirdness but making their characters resourceful and charming. Elsewhere, Hindle is chillingly numb as the first of the film’s “pod people” and Leonard Nimoy has one of his best non–Star Trek roles as a smarmy pop psychologist who uses his therapy-jargon to explain away the heroes’ suspicions about the people around them. There’s even memorable cameos from two people in the original Body Snatchers, star Kevin McCarthy and director Don Siegel.
Simply put, the 1978 redux of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is one of the great movie remakes. It’s stylish, smart, inspired in its thematic reinterpretation of its text and filled with the kind of energy and creativity that any good movie should have.