Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the Great Political Sci-Fi Story of the 20th Century

How do you update a Cold War classic for the post-Cold War world?

Warner Bros.
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The notion of an extraterrestrial race arriving on Earth has long raised questions about our safety as a species. Would visitors from the stars be friendly? Would we be able to withstand their attacks if they weren’t?

The image of a colonizing force overwhelming the planet is obviously political, and one that’s inspired countless stories. One particular story, and its various remakes, gives us our most perceptive examination of our ever-present fear of the Other. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the stuff of sci-fi legend, and its 1994 reimagining, Body Snatchers, brought the terror of assimilation and domination in the aftermath of political change to the forefront.

Abel Ferrara, best known for controversial, noir-inspired explorations of the New York underground, didn’t seem like the natural choice for a remake of an alien invasion classic. His previous film, Bad Lieutenant, quickly became his most infamous thanks to its brutal portrayal of a violent and tortured cop described by one critic as “a notch nicer than Satan.” Yet his unflinching approach to human cruelty made him the ideal match for this material.

The Body Snatchers started life as a 1954 sci-fi novel by Jack Finney, and its first adaptation, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, became an instant hit and hot-button topic of analysis. The story of plant-like aliens who quietly take over Earth by replicating and replacing humans while they sleep proved to be ripe for political dissection. While director Don Siegel denied the subtext was intentional, almost everyone recognized the movie as a metaphor for McCarthyism and the Red Scare: anyone could be an alien, slowly consumed by an amorphous hivemind that erases free will.

When the first remake arrived over two decades later, Philip Kaufman swapped a fear of communism for a pre-’80s concern with the impending force of yuppies and Reaganism. It was an unnerving hit, proving the story had a certain degree of timelessness. But by 1994, with Bill Clinton in the White House, one could imagine a Body Snatchers story feeling out of step with the times. The Cold War was over, prosperity was rising, and America was a dominant political and cultural force. What would the threat be, if not commies or Reagan? For Ferrara and his screenwriters, the true terror was homegrown.

Rather than a sleepy town or burgeoning city, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers is set on a military base. Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an agent from the Environmental Protection Agency, arrives to test for possible ecological effects caused by the Army’s presence, and it doesn’t take him or his family long to realize something is wrong. The kids are a little too well-behaved. Steve witnesses a bizarre accident, but the base General (R. Lee Emery) is oddly unconcerned. The medical officer, Major Collins (Forest Whitaker), is popping pills to fight off sleep. One morning, Steve’s son walks into his mother Carol’s bedroom to wake her up, and her body crumbles to dust before his eyes. A naked double walks out from the closet. It’s not his mother, but no one believes him until it’s too late.

An army base is an obvious setting for a story about conformity, but still an effective one.

Warner Bros.

The pod people are replacing everyone on base, replicating their bodies while they sleep and then sucking the life from them. They’re identical aside from their lack of emotions, and unnerving in their ability to reason for the unreasonable. When “Carol” (Meg Tilly, never scarier) tries to convince Steve to give in and sleep, she makes ridding the world of anger and violence sound appealing. Besides, she says, there’s nowhere he can run to, because “there’s no one like you left.”

The pod people’s rigid conformity doesn’t seem all that different from what the army desires of its soldiers. We don’t see many recruits change, so the shift into total obedience feels like an extension of the military’s remolding of society. When the pod people chant, “It’s the race that’s important, not the individual,” it feels right at home alongside regular army training. To survive, the humans must be everything the pod people claim they are: angry, violent, indifferent to the suffering of the “enemy.” When the bullets start to fly, humans and pod people alike suffer the same traumatic damage.

Critics liked Ferrara’s version, but found it paled in comparison to its predecessors. In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman noted the notion of “a military base as a symbol of mindless conformity isn’t exactly revelatory,” but it’s not meant to be. Life’s most mundane aspects are those most likely to gradually change until they become unrecognizable. At the core of Body Snatchers is the fear that the things meant to keep you safe might really be out to get you.

Seeing this in a Body Snatchers movie is never a good sign.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. tried to bring the Body Snatchers into the 21st century with 2007’s The Invasion, a frustrating update that had no idea how to make its central concept work for the Bush years. This version dilutes its edge by having the aliens lose while positioning humanity’s victory as a net loss, but it lacks the nihilism to commit to the idea that maybe Earth would be better ruled by its invaders. Ferrara’s version is canny enough to understand that, alien or human, the end result will be violent and soulless.

Perhaps the post-Cold War landscape isn’t a good fit for what made this narrative so potent decades prior, but the time still seems right for a new Body Snatchers story. Constant surveillance is our norm, and while the threat of invasion remains eternal, our technology has advanced enough to remove human involvement almost entirely. If someone does take another crack at it, they could do worse than study the questions Ferrara so keenly explored: during times of inescapable paranoia, who can you trust? Can you even trust yourself?

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