“We keep returning to this story about pod people because we’re terrified of the continuing erosion of our physicality in the postmodern era.”
Body-snatching is the secret exhumation of bodies from a grave or tomb for the purpose of dissection or anatomical study. Body-snatching is distinct from grave robbery, because body-snatchers leave anything of value behind, aside from the corpse itself. Body-snatchers have also been called “resurrectionists.” Strangely, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, body-snatching was only a misdemeanor, whereas grave robbery was a felony, suggesting that the dead body was, in fact, less valuable than its trimmings (or else this distinction was just a way of condoning what might have been considered a “necessary evil”). The title of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) has been changed in recent editions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, likely to ally it with the 1956 and 1978 films; however, this change obfuscates a reading of the title that draws comparison between the pod people of the story and these 19th-century resurrectionists. Both snatch bodies, leaving everything of value behind; and, while the bodies the pods snatch may not be literally dead, they are figuratively dead, perambulating about like lifeless automatons, the dead things we already are.
There’s a distinction I’d make, between the walking dead and the living dead. The first is a mere linguistic conundrum, a sequence of seemingly incompatible words. Dead things don’t (or aren’t supposed to) walk. The second is a truly deconstructive moment, a pairing of words that appear to be opposites, “living” and “dead,” an upsetting of a distinction we take for granted, a deep questioning of what it is to die, what it is to be living, what it is to be human. Pod people, as seen in the various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are walking dead, as opposed to living dead. There is nothing ecstatic or lively about them. They’re drones, automatons, of the kind we see in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or in the satirical “happy ending” of Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives (1975), where the heroine gets her eyes gouged out only to have them implanted in her shiny-happy android double. In one of the very first shots of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), we see a picturesque landscape, the bustle of a small town in front of a beautiful mountainous backdrop. In voiceover, the main character states ominously, “For me it started last Thursday. In response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I’d been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” At first, we see the gateway to a friendly-looking town, people clustered in conversation, workers shuttling luggage across the platform, a welcoming sign, lush trees in the background, a clear sky, the crisp white glow of the first building our hero encounters upon stepping off the train. We see business as usual. Business as usual, in all its kind, unassuming, mundane, empty, vacuous, dead glory.
The voiceover forces us to re-read the image we are seeing on screen: “Everything looked the same,” but “something evil had taken possession of the town.” Now, the white of the train station is too white, simulacrum white, a harsh glow that overwhelms the rest of the frame. The people clustering form a closed, conspiratorial circle. The work of the porters seems aimless and mechanical. The train stretches into the distance, bisecting the frame almost perfectly in half, separating the sterile world of man (the station) from the lively world of nature (the mountains and trees). The trunks and suitcases, unloaded in assembly-line fashion, look just large enough to contain the seed pods we see later in the film, and the train itself is the perfect conduit (or delivery device) for transmitting the pods across the country. And the interaction Miles has with the porter is polite and customary, though not exactly friendly. The locale of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a “perfect” small town, horrifyingly idyllic. And our demise, the “big bad” in the world of this film, is business as usual.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in all its iterations, is not really an alien invasion story. Rather, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is about us, now. For all their moments of the fantastic, these are, ultimately, rather mundane movies – about ordinary people engaged in otherwise ordinary lives. These are not arctic explorers on an expedition who encounter three-eyed, tentacled monsters, as in John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” and the films based on it, Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1981). There are no shambling mounds of flesh-dissolving goo, as in The Blob (1958) or its remake (1988). And the snatched bodies are not ultimately all that menacing, as are the murderous alien children in Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) and Carpenter’s remake (1995). While the basic plot and the McCarthy era politics remain similar, the body snatchers films are ultimately more complicated in their politics. Like these other films, they acknowledge and reflect a fundamental fear of the Other, of change, of things alien and unknown. However, even more distinctly, the body snatchers films reflect a basic fear of our own capacity to be just ordinary, not monstrous or Other, but exactly ourselves.
This is illustrated quite succinctly in the way that the body snatchers films approach their depictions of metamorphosis. In Carpenter’s The Thing, the transformations are feats of special-effects wizardry, with human flesh dissolving into twisted and grotesque mockeries of human, animal, and plant biology. David Seed remarks in “Alien Invasions by Body Snatchers and Related Creatures,” “Singular Identity becomes questioned by duplication with a resultant paranoid fear that the appearance of familiar benign figures might be masking an inner malignity” (154). The monsters in Carpenter’s film become exponentially less and less human, gradually turning their host body inside out and then stretching it to wildly disfigured proportions. On the other hand, the transformations in the body snatchers films follow an exactly opposite trajectory. The pod people begin as indistinct, sticky, tentacled masses and slowly turn into exact replicas of their human original. For example, Jeffrey, the first double we meet in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), is a well-coifed “monster” in a business suit. “I’m fine. I just have to go to a meeting,” he says. His perfectly veneered outsides don’t mask any “inner malignity,” as with the monsters in The Thing. Rather, the bodies in Kaufman’s film are just that, fine, veneers, empty, masking exactly nothing.
The final shots of Kaufman’s film show the protagonist, Matthew (Donald Sutherland), going about his life as though none of the events of the film have happened.1 As the audience, we are meant to presume that he is performing, going through the motions of his day, in order to avoid discovery by the pod people around him. In the lab where he works, the lab-coated workers pose themselves in a bored, I’m-getting-things-done sort of way. They operate machinery, but again, it appears that the machinery operates them. There is a close-up of Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) slowly rotating her head toward a bubbling vase, reaching for a dial, turning it, and watching as a motor inside the vase spins down. Everything moves in an expected, robotic way, as though the world makes sense again, too much sense. “Life goes on,” Kaufman remarks in the DVD director’s commentary, even after the alien invasion. The workers in the lab don’t look physically like one another, but there is nothing to distinguish them in their expressions or gestures. When they walk out of the building later in the scene, there is a sequence of shots that references the workers returning home to the worker’s city in Lang’s Metropolis, shots about the mechanical people we’ve become, the mechanical people we always already were.
Our social alienation is already in place at the outset of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; the pods merely make it manifest. “There’s something wrong in the city,” Kaufman says in the director’s commentary, “but there is something wrong in the city; there’s something wrong in every city, but we, with our optimism, often tend to overlook it.” Even before the pods appear, we see a sequence of scenes depicting our failed interactions, our inability to connect with one another, at work, in relationships, on the street, etc. So the scenes we see at the end of the film, after the pods have done their work, are not all that dissimilar from scenes we already saw at the start. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) similarly plays with this idea. There are nearly identical scenes repeated at the opening and close of the film, suggesting that nothing has changed, that the zombie invasion is irrelevant. Likewise, Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers suggests that we’ve been “snatched” all along, a fact we’ve overlooked amidst all the scampering.
The film concludes with an iconic image of Matthew standing before the capitol in San Francisco, where the film is set. He is shot askew from the lower left, suggesting that the world itself is askew (and this sort of odd angle recurs as a trope throughout the film). Gnarled and barren trees loom ominously in the frame, echoing embellishments in the architecture of the capitol building behind him. The colors are cold and muted, unlike the hyper-saturated color we see elsewhere in the film. He is approached by Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), looking markedly different from how we see her in earlier scenes, a savvy businesswoman in white with her hair bound in a dozen tight coils. Now she is dressed in a red, bohemian-looking frock with her hair loose, as though she has recently come alive. Red is used intentionally and sparingly throughout the film: the red axe Matthew uses to sabotage the pod factory, the various red outfits Elizabeth wears before running about naked as a pod person, the red VW Bug the pod police pull someone out of at a road block, the red turtleneck David (Leonard Nimoy) wears before becoming a pod person, and the red garbage-trucks that collect the wispy, leftover remains of the copied bodies. For Kaufman, the color represents the vivaciousness lost in the duplication process, the bustle and liveliness that is replaced by blandness and conformity once the pods have their way with us. Nancy’s liveliness is incongruous with the scene around her – incongruous with the patchy grass, the dead trees, the gray pavement – suggesting that anything even resembling life has been almost entirely weeded out of the world.
Peculiarly, she looks both ways before crossing the street, suggesting that she isn’t entirely the nonconformist she appears to be. As she gets closer to Matthew, the unassuming smile on her face morphs into a look of sheer panic. With very little extraneous movement, Matthew raises his arm, points at her, tilts his head back, and widens his mouth into a silent scream, given voice by a non-diegetic symphony of screams heard on the soundtrack. For me, Matthew’s scream is the most disturbing gesture that occurs in the various body snatchers films, a moment of horror the subsequent films have all attempted unsuccessfully to duplicate. Nancy’s expression seems to mimic Matthew’s at first, but her gaping mouth is all tongue, as she thrashes her head back and forth before clutching it tightly in her hands, keeping the sound out even as she tries to keep herself in. The film ends with a freeze-frame on Matthew’s face that zooms in quickly upon his mouth as the cacophony continues. His mouth is an immense, hollow, black maw. He is filled with exactly nothing. The camera zooms entirely inside his mouth, and once there, the credits begin to roll. We, the audience, in a dark theater, are consumed by this blackness, eaten figuratively and literally by this mouth, forced to acknowledge the nothings we already are. The spread of the pod people is so swift and efficient in these films, because it’s not all that hard for the pods to copy big sacs of nothing.
Kaufman remarks in the director’s commentary, “[The film is] a metaphor about humanity being lost, a certain type of person – a certain type of life – that can vanish or fade away or disappear or become transformed in some way. To some degree, I think the film that we’ve made has, while not giving answers, has certainly raised some questions that are really applicable, perhaps more so now than ever.” Kaufman clearly understands that his film functions as an allegory, that it isn’t really about pods and tendrils and alien invasion. The first pod people in his film include a dry-cleaner, a floor polisher, the passengers on a double-decker bus. These are not your average supermarket check-out stand alien visitors, not wide-eyed or green or dripping or sharp-toothed. They are just average. They are the exact people we wouldn’t otherwise notice in our day-to-day lives, “a certain type of person” for Kaufman in 1978. Today, they are everyone, something illustrated in the most recent version of the film, where the pods are eliminated altogether, suggesting that the horror/humdrum rises (more literally now) from directly within us. (Appropriately, one of the first alien-infected drones is a census taker.)
Nicole Kidman plays the protagonist in this version, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion (2007), and it is a peculiar and fascinating casting choice. As the film unfolds, she struggles to maintain her individuality, fighting for her own life and the life of her son. One by one, the people around her are infected and transformed from the inside out into cold, passionless automatons, while she remains the stalwart bastion of the human race. It’s a bizarre development – bizarre that we are put in this position as an audience of identifying with Kidman as the paragon of humanness and emotional depth – given the sort of remarks that have been made about the actress again and again throughout her career, particularly that she is an “ice queen,” a phrase bandied about so much by the press that it has nearly become a moniker. But I think both Kidman and Hirschbiegel are aware of the irony of having her represent the last vestige of our humanity. It draws our attention, all the more, to just how little humanity is left.
Roland Barthes writes in “The Face of Garbo,” “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced” (536). Nicole Kidman belongs to an altogether different moment in cinema, a moment when the human face has become purely representative, a signifier with no signified. Kidman (and I mean the celebrity here, not the person) has no flesh, at least not any we can ascertain. Barthes continues, “As a language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an event” (538). Kidman’s face, on the other hand, is pure simulacrum, empty of any substance at all. And this isn’t to denigrate her abilities as an actor; in fact, she delivers an astounding and nuanced performance in The Invasion, but it is just that, a performance, a character with no real-world referent. And the film seems entirely conscious of this fact, given the way she is lit, dressed, and styled throughout; in almost every scene, her face glows to the point of looking almost ceramic, even when her character has been run ragged. Her face is impervious, a shimmering shell harboring a deadness inside. And when she impersonates the pod people at various points in the film, it’s a terrifyingly self-conscious gesture, a layered meditation on the act of performance itself: the dead passing for the living passing for the dead.
I’ve articulated the villain in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films as business as usual. Many critics argue that the films are about the loss of individuality and personal agency or the decline of interpersonal relationships and community. In the 1978 film, the psychiatrist David attempts to convince the other characters that what they’re facing is the decline of relationships, marriages, and the “family unit.” But I would say that these are already lost from the outset. The supposed alien menace doesn’t really do or change anything, but rather highlights what is already becoming evident. There is no self to be lost at the outset of these films, and the semblance of community is a simulacrum made up of simulated interactions that amount to little more than a grating politeness. So the plot is structured, not around a series of happenings, but around a recognition, a recognition that our interactions are rote and our agency is a facade. The horror is not that our lives might become empty, but that the accomplishment of this emptying is already underway and has gone beneath our notice.
Each film version draws on different moments from Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, and there is enough in the source material for at least a half-dozen more remakes. It isn’t a particularly poetic book, not well written at the level of the sentence, but Finney manages to pack a very pointed cultural critique into an otherwise straightforward science fiction tale. The book is about just what I have been describing in my analyses of the various films, the disintegration of our feeling, sensing selves in post-industrialized, postmodern America. While the novel has been read as an allegory about McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Finney himself has balked at this interpretation.2 And, while I don’t buy Finney’s claim that the novel is “pure entertainment,” I am not satisfied with a mere political reading either. Rather, I would argue The Body Snatchers offers a more complex, philosophical exploration of what it is to be human – what it is to have a body, to be flesh. About halfway through the book, Becky asks, “Miles, when did all this happen?” To which Miles responds, “A little at a time . . We’re just realizing it now; the town’s dying” (123). Later, Miles refers to the “town dying on its feet” (125) and how we are each living “in the same kind of grayness as the filthy stuff that formed [us]” (182), alluding to this idea of the walking dead that I’ve been exploring here. The town is dying, along with the people in it. Our interactions with one another are ceasing to be meaningful. And in response, we keep walking, wading through the gray and feeling nothing.
There is a brief but fascinating shot in The Invasion in which Carol (Nicole Kidman) steps onto an escalator. Just previous, all in a sequence that lasts less than a minute, we see her jump (in high heels and pencil skirt) from a subway car, run frantically down the subway tracks and up a flight of stairs, find a gun, and then shoot an orderly turned pod person in a locker room. (“I have a family,” he says just before she pulls the trigger.) Continuity in the film is disrupted for a few moments just after she fires the gun, jumping back and forth through time in a series of rapid cuts that end with her panicked and breathless at a doorway. Neither we, nor she, has time to make sense of what has just happened; she flings the door open, shakes her head slightly, and her face morphs suddenly and fantastically into an expression of bored stoicism. Now, she walks methodically, her lips pursed, posture stiff. Her breath comes slowly and regularly with an extra breath every few seconds to remind us, the audience, that she‘s still in there. By the time Carol reaches the escalator seconds later, she’s entirely composed. Her skin looks pale and perfectly smooth, almost like plastic. Her eyes are fixed and unblinking, the irises an inhuman shade of blue, a hyperbolic mimicry of the drones the body snatchers have made us into. She rides the escalator, unwavering, as though she’s done this a hundred thousand times.
And we have. The escalator is a strange beast, monotony in motion, with its monstrous teeth threatening to suck us under.3 And people on escalators are even stranger animals, lining up to climb aboard this terrifying contraption, even when there’s a perfectly good (and usually empty) set of stairs nearby. I’ve found myself in these lines, like queues at an amusement park, a hushed anticipation as the crowd fumbles forward, chomping at the bit for a ride that never lives up to the expectations. These are not technological marvels. Escalators are wicked, ugly things. Like the automatons in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, escalators work, circling endlessly, with very little to show for it, gobbling us up and expelling us out on the other end. The stairs are faster and less gobbly. But, even so, the escalator has more disciples. Escalators, elevators, ski-lifts, segways, people movers. The dead walk better with automation.
We keep returning to this story about pod people, remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers again and again, in 1956, in 1978, in 1994, in 2007, because we’re terrified of the continuing erosion of our physicality in the postmodern era. We’ve become virtual bodies wandering about in virtual worlds, while our real bodies stand numbly, bobbing their heads in iPod-induced machine-like flexion. We are losing our individuality more and more as our identities proliferate like screen names in the glow of our computer screens. As humans, we have become the not quite living, not quite dead. This sort of mundane, quotidian existence is nauseating. Nevertheless, there is a compulsion when theorists speak of the mundane to recuperate it – to focus on it as a pathway to the sublime, the wondrous, and the beautiful. I won’t deny that it is possible to make this move, but it might not be prudent, and certainly is not necessary. My work has no interest in recuperating the mundane. I am far more interested in the visceral and the ecstatic. Sometimes people standing vacantly on an escalator are just that, people standing vacantly on an escalator. Sometimes dullness isn’t even remotely sublime. Sometimes it’s just plain dull, like the people the pods make us into, the people many of us already are, lacking in value or substance, vacant, simply, mutely, pervasively.
Barthes, Roland. “The Face of Garbo.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Campbell, John W. Who Goes There? Chicago: Shasta Publishers, 1948.
Seed, David. “Alien Invasions by Body Snatchers and Related Creatures.” Modern Gothic: A Reader. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.
- David Seed takes issue with the Kaufman version, referring to its reliance on “pastiche” and its “formal introversion,” i.e., it knows it’s a film and that’s bad. Following a logic about remakes outlined by Frederic Jameson, Seed critiques the 1978 film on the grounds that it is aware of the earlier version and ultimately too self-referential; the movie, for Seed, devolves into “the familiar game of spot the allusion” (168). I would argue that Kaufman’s film is self-referential because he understands that this story has been told before and will be told again. He knows that the familiarity of the story is exactly what makes it scary. There is humor in the film’s nods to its B-movie origins, a look-at-the-slimy-little-critters sort of glee. We laugh, and, in a good horror film like this, our laughter comes back around to bite us in the ass. Our devolving into pod people is terrifying because we watch it happening with our silly little grins and do absolutely nothing. After all, it’s just a movie. That’s not us on the screens. It couldn’t be. Oh. Um. Ugh. [↩]
- David Seed quotes from an interview with Finney: “It is not true that my book, The Bodysnatchers (sic), was intended as an allegory of any kind. When I wrote this book I was not thinking of McCarthy, or communism, or fascism, or of anything but writing pure entertainment . . I don’t write allegories.” [↩]
- The phrase “monotony in motion” is a reference to a line from Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “There’s a fascination about monotony in motion . . And I stared down at the street for minute after minute, watching the shifting patterns that over and over almost, but never quite, repeated themselves . . It all looked so ordinary” (157). [↩]