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How Donald Sutherland Created The Greatest Sci-Fi Twist Ever

You know the meme. Let's remember the man who made it.

Donald Sutherland in the ending of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'
United Artists

Known for countless brilliant film and TV roles — from M*A*S*H to The Hunger Games — celebrated actor Donald Sutherland passed away at the age of eighty-eight on June 20. While there are many, many notable achievements in his impressive career, among science fiction film aficionados and internet users everywhere, there’s one moment that stands apart. We’re talking about that time Donald Sutherland pointed horrifically and incredulously in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

If you want to celebrate the genius of Donald Sutherland, you can do no better than this sci-fi horror classic, if only for this one absolutely iconic moment, which — spoilers alert — happens at the end of the movie.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, with the incredible cast of Leonard Nimoy, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a quasi-remake of the 1956 movie of the same name — both adapted from the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Starring Donald Sutherland, the 1978 version is easily superior to both the novel and the 1956 flick, and is one of the best examples of a paranoid sci-fi horror movie, ever.

While much of the brilliance of Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be attributed to Kaufman’s moody directorial style and W. D. Richter’s sharp, ethereal writing, the film is absolutely carried by Donald Sutherland. As Matthew Bennell, Sutherland slowly becomes the lone human in a world gone mad. Like Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes or Roddy Piper in They Live, we believe in the over-the-top set-up because Sutherland absolutely sells it. He looks like an everyman version of your favorite uncle, mashed up with a real-life Kurt Vonnegut.

What a cast!

United Artists

Briefly, the story of the film concerns the slow invasion of parasitic aliens who come from plants and are gradually creating duplicates of humans to take over the planet. You’ve heard of the concept of “pod people” and it comes from this storyline. Matthew works for the Department of Health, along with a lab scientist who works down the hall, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), he starts to realize the pod people are taking over. Eventually, as the cold, unfeeling duplicates replace everyone they know, Elizabeth and Matthew end up on the run, trying to alert anyone they can to the secret invasion.

After several close calls and a touching romantic storyline, Matthew believes that Elizabeth has become a pod person. In the end, in a shocking twist, a human version of another character, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) finds Matthew. But in the very last moments, he points at her, and emits a horrifying otherworldly screaming, revealing that he too, at last, has become a pod person.

In a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Philip Kaufman said he concealed this twist ending from Sutherland until the day before the scene was shot, worrying the actor may not like his character taking such a dark turn. “Donald embraced it,” Kaufman said. “The next day when we went out to shoot it, I don’t remember that we even told Veronica until Donald turned and did that shriek.”

This chilling ending was augmented by a sound effect created by sound designer Ben Burtt, who had completed work on Star Wars (1977) before working on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Burtt used a pig squeal mixed with other elements for this moment. Crucially, the sound was played live on the set as the scene was filmed. So Donald Sutherland is really channeling that creepy sound at this moment and that Veronica Cartwright is reacting in real time to the horror of it all.

Since 1978, and most noticeably in the 21st century, Sutherland's pointing has become a meme and thus, taken on different meanings. In the film, he seems to be pointing out that Susan is still human, letting other pod people know where she is. Today, we might see this image differently, a goofy guy pointing at something frightening or unbelievable. But in its original context, the person doing the pointing is the monster, emitting a sound so unique you can even hear it just by looking at it. So the idea that we can hear an image from a movie is probably thanks, in part, to the late, great Donald Sutherland.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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