The 1955 short story Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, supports a general reading of society but not an iron-clad exegesis. It plays out in broad strokes, not particularities or specificities. This isn’t a problem; the endless adaptability of the original text’s vagueness is part and parcel with its malleability. Always retaining blank spaces in the fable-like texture in order to cull any version a director or writer wants or any meaning a time period beckons, that vagueness demands to be filled with contemporary detail that stimulates an understanding of that adaptations’ place in the world. The text by Jack Finney is a placeholder, an easel to be massaged into a filmmaker’s, and a time period’s, own fresco.
With a color palette of luxuriant chiaroscuro in the famous 1956 adaptation by Don Siegel, the text was laced with philosophical fodder for the iron pull of the Communist machine, but it could also be conscripted as a referendum on McCarthyite gee-shucks Americana, if you wanted. Or as a thought experiment about whatever you had for lunch. The point is that the ostensible vacancy elides specific readings for a more generalized sense of suspicion and paranoia that remains unmooring for how unplaceable its cause is. Foraging for specific meaning misses the forest for the trees; focusing on the “cause” of the paranoia often negates an understanding of the effect of paranoia, the throb of paranoia, the gut-level feeling that too often lacks any specific origin point when viewed from the ground-up.
While this 1978 adaptation could be a post-Watergate study in the ever-watching eyes of a force that seems more nebulous and unknowable with each pacing year, Phillip Kaufman’s conversion from book to film brings its own scintillating elusiveness that suggests specific symbols of the ‘70s without ever exposing a “primary root” for the paranoia, all while pursuing a general aura of psychosis and dread. The caterwaul of Watergate, the whirr of modern appliance culture? Take you pick, but the real gem of this invasion is the apotheosis of late ‘70s culture: paranoia from nowhere in particular, and thus paranoia that cannot be pigeonholed, pacified, oriented, or explained away.
Instead, we’re left hanging for quite a while in a leisurely slice-of-life piece with Health Department employee Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and his possible partner Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) in writer WD Richter’s most incisive gesture: to texture the film as a multivariate conversation between drama, comedy, and terror that allows the screenplay to emphasize the character minutiae, the everyday drama, while director Philip Kaufmann is on his best behavior quivering the frame with glimmers of mostly subsumed uncanniness around the extremities. As the Pod People supposedly overtake the human species (slowly replacing people you know with facsimiles, if you don’t already know the story), leftover human corpses are intimated in the backgrounds and the periphery, with garbage trucks cleaning up the messy aftertaste of the Pod People’s actions. Minute, surreptitious details, like the too-static gait of the human we think we see in the background, become loci of not only exhausted domesticity but harassed perceptions: the film enjoins us to break from our regularly scheduled programming to participate in the existential act of questioning the screen around us, parsing out the contours of the neighborhood for miscreants and suggestive happenstances. Is this horror in the background, or just another day at the office in the foreground?
In other words, the film’s expressive swamp of paranoia is staged as a rather literal disruption of the quotidian, a disruption that is the quintessence of the horror form. That the terror is often peripheral is no mere intellectual jest or pretentious jab to showcase the filmmakers’ subtlety for the sake of subtlety. Rather, the film invites us, for at least a surfeit of the film, to reframe it through the lens of mellow drama, insinuating theoretical but not graspable terror only for those who navigate the visual frame properly and parse out the background detail. Which is the point, right? The immanence of the crisis is knowledge only to those who bother to emerge from their preexisting physical, social, ideological pods, their mental cocoons, and rescind the individualistic, unthinking, insular, pod-like nature of consumerist thought that seems to have infected even the protagonists before the film begins. They have to open up to the world, investigate the nature they’ve forlorn for technology and commodification and other ‘70s bric-a-brac, and Kaufmann arranges the conspiracy material as formal detective work on our part as audience members. Can we escape our individualistic mental cocoons, which coerce us to emphasize the foreground individuals, the dialogue, the narrative, at all else? Can we see what’s lurking in the frame, just off-center, just in the background? Or are we just Pod Filmgoers after all?
While the obvious morality is anti-hive-mind, the film wrinkles and introduces dodges and feints in other directions while pointing to other concerns. It approaches the material less with the punchy noir stylings of the original and more with a kind of tonal libertinism and promiscuity that swivels by the minute into mordant comedy or cheeky, everyday drama. These tweaks, twinges, pivots, swings, and swivels speak to Kaufman not rehabilitating Don Siegel’s acidic sculpture in the classical noir style but instead perverting it and prismatically casting it adrift in multiple directions, much like the America of the late ‘70s no longer tied into the gee-shucks bun of conformity circa 1956. Which is to say: while the 1978 Invasion tracks the topography of the post-hippie fallout by exploring the rise of modern corporate culture, Kaufman’s film also suggests that “conformity” in 1978 is a more liquid, variegated beast than in the past. Little, seemingly personal signifiers – jazz, hippie clothing – are all watered-down, middle-class, middlebrow, corporate husks of what were once genuinely counter-hegemonic. Now, they merely provide passive individualism, acquiescent forms of difference masking imperceptible corporate similitude.
Thus, we have conformity through individualism, personal touches smoothed into the corporate machine that now fulfills peoples’ desire to assert their individuality in conformist, non-threatening ways. We get light jazz rather than the hard-charging kind. And early visuals cunningly perch post-hippie oddballs as part of the ephemera of San Fransisco life, pod people whether or not they’ve been coopted by this alien movement. The film cross-examines them, introducing the pinprick of an idea that their “New Age individualism” or “eccentricity” is but a pop conformist fad, a fazed-out, hazy aftershock of hippie-dom that by 1978 felt desperately like a half-hearted attempt to “individualize” one’s appearance by introducing a slight fissure to the starch-suit status quo, but one that wasn’t actually threatening.
The genuinely revolutionary possibility of the hippie movement in the ‘60s is a figment here, a shell of its former self. The most conformist bent of all is not obvious, dogmatic collectivity but America’s endorsement of neutered individualism in a time when freedom of expression and the beauty of sectarian diversity had curdled into every-person-for-themselves. All the New Age types dress differently, like fire-donning, defiant individuals, but they wander around like insular, corporate zombies with no dream, no inward desire to rebel to match their outward flamboyance. Even Matthew’s friend who wants to write, to express himself, is forced to open a mud-bath, a New Age signifier that pointedly works more on people’s external appearances, their image-obsessions, than their internal souls. Everyone in the film seems to conform not in dictatorial homogeneity but in neo-liberal channels through which they pursue personal interests at the expense of everyone else.
Kaufman’s piece suggests medicine in communication with others and the world, but even the vague relationship between the two principal figures is in tatters, never clarified, arguably the progeny of two people without a will to truly discuss their intimacy and connection. Similarly, the film interrogates its audience’s ability to venture outward form their own insular private matches with screen characters, instead enjoining viewers to agitate the character-dialogue-locus of most Hollywood films by poring over, parsing out, the film’s more subdued, shrewd side details as the protagonists must do in order to become discriminating social monitors and survive. The film, essentially, asks us to differentiate our eyes and connect with the screen rather than simply to remain trapped in one character or two. It asks us to model behavior for the main characters, for whom actually glancing at the world in hopes of connecting with it seems foreign.
Even then, the finale is a coup, an insinuation that merely modeling differentiation isn’t enough for the film. The final image not only chills the bones but finagles the apocalyptic endpoint of the narrative as a dialectic between the good it causes (the loss of hyper-individuality, everyone now in harmony with one another) and the loss it institutes (the implication that hyper-synergy doesn’t innately confirm collectivism of freedom, since all the pod people seem to wander around alone, antiseptically). The infamous final screech, drawing blood from the vein of audio-visual counterposition, doesn’t fully fissure or elide the placid beauty of the undeniably undisturbed domesticity of the final images, images that refrain to earlier moments of the film and their limpid easiness. It’s as if hive-mind similarity hasn’t disrupted anything, but only re-entrenched a new world, the same old world, where everyone thinks they understand one another, but no one actually communicates.
So why worry? Domesticity is established, mutated, and then re-entrenched just as quickly without missing a beat, almost like we’re knee-deep in a slice-of-life romantic dramedy that the main characters impede with their inveterate paranoia and refrains to pod people and otherworldly takeover. The most unmooring shift occurs when Matthew and Elizabeth become the stalkers in what, for all intents and purposes, is a reshaped movie, a less fragmented world with no personal problems to conceive of, a peaceful, harmonized world that our protagonists keep invading with their nagging assumptions that this new world is the progeny of some hostile takeover. Why can’t they just let it be? You’re supposed to keep quiet during the movie. After all, it’s what everyone else wants, and this new world looks suspiciously like the old one they never would have complained about. Kaufman, armed with a disarming ambivalence, mounts an ending that is neither plea for difference nor respite from it, but an implicit agreement that the lonely, faux-personalities of the characters pre-invasion aren’t so different from hive-mind collectivity after all. The work of the pod people has already been done before the film begins.