The Giant Pea Pods are Coming
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
For a time the United States was gripped in fear of invasion. It's weird to think considering we were (and are) the most powerful country coming out of World War II, one of the few true super-powers in the world, but that fear that them darn Ruskies would come to invade us, or bomb us, or ruin our good thing was there. There was a lot of media out that spoke to the fears Americans had about where the Cold War would go and what it would mean for the country. And one of the most famous of the time was Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I will admit that when I first saw this 1956 version of the film, back a couple of decades ago, I didn't pick up on the themes and tone of the film. I wouldn't say it's easy to miss -- the film does kind of slap you in the face with its them of "the communists are coming" -- but removed from the era by a good forty-plus years, it's easy to miss it. Still, when I watched the movie this time around I could see it. The fear of the other, the worry about how an invader could come in and pollute the minds of the populace. "Join us. Be part of the whole. Don't worry about anything." You can see how the film is saying, "the communists are coming." It's right there.
That was likely the power the film had back when it came out. People were worried and this was media that play on those fears. It was sci-fi horror, well made for its era certainly. But take out of its own context, the film doesn't really work as well anymore. It's slow, it's politics feel off even for its heroes, and the palpable fears of the era don't play anymore -- we have out own things to worry about now, different concerns beyond the collective economy of Communism -- leaving this film feeling staid, saggy, and very dated. As far as sci-fi horror of the era is concerned, this own doesn't hold up now that the era is done.
In the film we're introduced to Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), the local doctor for Santa Mira, CA. Having just arrived back home from a conference, Miles immediately heads to the office to check in on patients. There he sees a couple complaining about how someone in their life -- a mother, an uncle, a neighbor -- just isn't acting like themselves. Oh, they have all the same behaviors, all the same memories, and even look the same, but something is off and it obvious to them (and no one else). The doctor shrugs it off, right up until, while on a date with Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), he gets called to a friend's house on an emergency.
The emergency: a body has shown up, with now distinct features but a perfectly formed body. With some investigation Miles and his friend, Jack (King Donovan), decide that the body was meant to copy Jack. But when they try to report it to the authorities the body disappears. The cops don't believe them, and even chastise them for not reporting the body sooner. Quickly Miles, Jack, Becky, and Jack's wife Teddy, realize they might just be the only people left in the town that haven't been replaced, and they have to find a way to escape, whatever it takes.
Up front, I couldn't help but notice all the ways that this film became unintentionally dated over the years. For starters, Miles is picked up from an airfield by, I think, his ex-wife, but even though she drove there, and presumably they were in her car, he had to drive. They even stop at one point to check on a child, and she drives the car along to keep up with Miles, only to then move aside once more for him to drive. That was silly and dumb, and it speaks to the larger issues of sex and gender in this film. The man is the hero, the women on his arm are dead weight and all but useless.
This was a major set of circumstances but there was also so many minor little weird things that don't play well in the current era. Every time the doctor needed to make a call he'd stop, light a cigarette, and then dial. People would come into his house to check meters, and while that scared Miles and Becky when they didn't know who it was, it also illustrates the fact that now, when everyone locks their doors and meters are kept on the outside of houses, that fear that anyone could come in, at any moment, just isn't there. And, of course, everyone in the town (despite it being a fairly large town) knows everyone else. Sure, you might still get that in really tiny towns but, for the most part, being able to see people and say, "yeah, everyone around me is a pod person," that just doesn't seem likely anymore.
As far as the story is concerned, you have to be able to get into the mindset of the heroes for the horror to still play. It's a credit to McCarthy and Wynter that their performances work, and with the right motivation you can get sucked along with them. There is something palpable about the idea that everyone around you might suddenly be your enemy and you don't know, and the actors are able to play to that. I think it's an idea that works in any context and any era, which is why there have been so many remakes of this story over the years. But for this version, it's hard to get out of the mindset of the writers because, well, the horror does feel dated.
The fears of communism are there, and they don't play as well now even as the film slaps you in the face with it. "Give in. Let go. Be part of the collective. No fear, no worry, let us control everything. Just be part of the whole and do your part to support it. Let the collective guide you." Hell, there's a speech from the replacement people late in the film that underlines it (and then underlines it again) making it clear what the fear was of the era. Communism by name is never mentioned, but there's no way to ignore it if you know anything about the era. That was what people were worried about and that's the fear that's played upon here.
Curiously, never mentioned at all is any fear of the atomic bomb or nuclear fall out. The invaders come in seeds from space and duplicate the townsfolk. It's their ideas that have to be fought against, not the damage they could do physically. I guess if ideas are what you were worried about, the fear of the other, that worked, but now it seems like the bomb might have been a bigger concern in the moment. Although with the political situation the country (and the world) finds itself in right now, maybe fear of the "other" is swinging back around and a new version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would play to that fear well. Or it would just be racist.
Credit to the film in that regard at least, it never tries to explicitly say who to fear or why. Sure, everyone in the film is white, and they all live middle class lives without any cares at all. So the fear that is played to is more about what would be taken away, what could be lost by the "other". Not illegal aliens or people of other colors. It's giving up your cushy lifestyle to be part of some other collective. American ideals versus Communism, through and through. I have to say to worked for the era, it is considered a classic, but it just didn't work for me.
In the end, this film feels horribly dated. I can understand how it was a success, I can even see how it played on the fears people were feeling. But now, in this era, it's slow and a little silly. Like so many 1950s sci-fi films, it just doesn't work that well when removed from the 1950s. It is of its era without transcending it.