Director: Philip Kaufman (USA). Year of Release: 1988
San Francisco. We can tell it’s San Francisco because of all the bridges and trams and hills and stuff. Matthew (Donald Sutherland) works for the Public Health Department. We first see him calling out a French restaurant for having a rat turd in their sauce. When he returns to the car park, a couple of waiters have hurled a bottle of wine at his car, smashing the windscreen.
Although it’s late, he rings Elizabeth to ask her to come in the next day at 7.30 to run a test for him. At first she absolutely refuses, but there’s something flirty in his conversation that makes her finally concede. When she does turn up late, because her himbo dentist husband is behaving strangely, Matthew has already found someone else to do the job that he’d insisted only she could do. Matthew may be many things, but he’s a shit boss.
Elizabeth’s husband looks the same as he always did, but there’s something vacant about him, something unthinking, something just a bit weird (then again, following the early scenes of him mindlessly watching sport on the telly, how could she tell?) Other people – a woman at the police office, a man at the Chinese laundry – start reporting that their friends and relatives are exhibiting similar symptoms.
Look, we do all know that this is a Cold War allegory, right? That this thing which takes away all your sense of joy and makes you obey without thinking is Communism? As increasing numbers of people lose their self-control, we need one good man, one US-American, to stand up for what they need, even if they don’t realise it.
This version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in 1978, but it contains all the right wing paranoia of the original. Although watching it now, you also see some more modern conservative tropes. When Leonard Nimoy, in full emotionless scientist mode, takes our a syringe and assures Matthew that he has nothing to fear, you sense that the anti-Vaxxers have the film they deserve.
Does this mean that the writers of a 1950s film and its 1970s remake eerily predicted modern climate and Covid denial? Well, not exactly. But the fact remains that these were two films which were addressing Conspiracy Theories decades ago (albeit way too uncritically). This shows us that many of today’s “groundbreaking“ claims are firmly based in old fears.
This is a right wing film, but not one which celebrates the status quo. It is positively Trumpian and more or less explicitly articulates the Great Replacement Theory. Even police and the medical profession are not to be trusted. and at one point, someone says that even the FBI and the CIA are in on the conspiracy. And if you fall asleep you could become one of Them. The politics of this film are the same ones which blame working class Britons for government racism and working class US-Americans for Trump.
There is a small case to be made that the mass thoughtless that is being challenged here is that of consumerist capitalism (or maybe McCarthyism) and that this is a left-liberal film. It even stars left-liberal icons Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum. And yet the message is clearly one of rampant individualism, not least in it’s absolute fear that the pod people are trying to export their revolution.
Besides which, the original film used all sorts of Hollywood shorthand and unsubtle metaphors which were usually used to equate the Soviet Union, and anything vaguely leftist, with mindless repression. If the film really were a warning about McCarthyism, it would not have used the same vocabulary as contemporary anti-Communist films.
But let’s put the question a different way. Does the fact that most of the script feel like it could have been written by Ayn Rand make this a bad film? I don’t think so, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is very well scripted and acted. You are fully encouraged to buy into the characters’ paranoia. Secondly, it had a great ending (similar to that planned for the original which was dropped before release).
But above all, this is a film which accurately gives us a sense of the mood, on the one hand of the Cold War of the 1950s and 1970s, but also of current day conservatism. And in offering us this triple time period, it allows us to draw our own conclusions. What a film is trying to say and what it is actually telling us are not always the same thing. And this film embodies its roots strongly and proudly enough to allow us to make our own judgement.
Plus, there are some great chase sequences.