Within a window of three years during the late '70s/early '80s, the world would receive two of the greatest sci-fi remakes of all time. The latter would be John Carpenter's grisly and bleak monster opus The Thing, but preceding it would be Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, itself also an update of a 1950s classic. That both films would heavily lean on the idea of those you knew being taken over by an organism from another world, rendering your former society untrustworthy and even deadly, were reactionary from a previous decade of civil, governmental, and international unrest and distrust. While The Thing was much more about the inability to trust on the individual level, 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers was centered on the fear of the bigger picture. The original Invasion, as the best cinema does--especially horror--was a reflection of the times--namely communism. Whether or not the film satirized the idea of communist ideas spreading like a virus, or was in essence a legit warning that such an event were actually taking place, will likely always be up for debate, but make no mistake: communism was at the forefront of Don Siegel's original invasion. It's one of the main reasons that the classic film hasn't dated all that well.
In the America of the 1970s, especially San Francisco, everything was changing. By then, Americans had grown disillusioned and angry over its involvement in the Vietnam War, and by the Kent State shooting which directly resulted from its protests. They had learned, through the Watergate scandal, that their own politicians didn't have the heart of the people in their best interests. Americans began looking to themselves for the social change they so desperately wanted. Feminism was born out of this. Culture exploded into more intense explorations of art, music, and literature. The sexual revolution. All the things the people gave to themselves while they waited around for their government officials to do the right thing.
But all during these awakenings, the people couldn't shake the feeling that the world around them, in which they existed, wasn't capable of the same kind of change. It hovered in the sky above and surrounded them on the ground below. Societal and international unrest was something that could be counteracted with positive social movements, but couldn't be quelled by them. Try as the people did to lose themselves in the art scene, at book readings, or in mudrooms, reminders of an unstable world was a constant crushing weight that, finally, overtook them all. As Kaufman says in his audio commentary, the 1970s saw the birth of pop psychology, during which psychiatrists relied on hugs and positive reassurance that everything was all right. "But everything was not all right."
Critics have been willing to lavish on Kaufman's Invasion redux the kind of praise it deserves, but reticent to label it as superior to its predecessor, even though it absolutely is. Not only does the Kaufman version feel timeless, it had the balls to carry through with its iconically bleak ending, whereas the original had original star Kevin McCarthy (who cameos in this version as a street lunatic bellowing "they're here!") waking up in a hospital bed and being told, basically, "Don't worry, America solved the whole invading alien species thing while you were asleep." Kaufman's take is eerier, more intimate, and somehow grittier. The camera moves around the room like an antsy witness to all that is unfolding, going in close and low on those who, it seems, have already been duplicated and replaced. The ragtag group of individuals embark on the same kind of grassroots movement to fight back against the invading threat that they would have utilized for giving the people back their voice and their freedoms to be who they are.
There's also, somewhat satirically, an emphasis on making our characters as forthright as they are oblivious. There are multiple instances in which characters are mired in their own personal connections to the unexplained phenomena unfolding around them, leaving them lost in thought--even as they walk by people tearing down the streets as if in a panic and being chased by something, or looking out a window for the imminent threat, somehow not noticing trash trucks collecting large dried out husks and crushing them into clouds of dust. Our characters are looking so hard for the explanation for the conflict surrounding them that they are missing what's in front of their faces. It leaves you wondering just what Kaufman was trying to say.
Are we already doomed? By the time we realize what the threat is, will it be too late?
The way this Invasion concludes, perhaps we already known the answer.
When strictly considering staying power, Kaufman's Invasion will likely be considered the ultimate take on Jack Finney's original novel, even though I'm sure there will be more iterations down the road as the people's strained relationship with their government continues assuredly down the wrong road. Forty years later, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still a relevant mortality tale. Much in the same way George A. Romero used the same zombie threat to explore different facets of a failing society, the invading threat of alien organisms duplicating the human race one member at a time will continue to be explored in different ways, but for the same reason.
The 1970s has long been heralded as the greatest decade for film, giving birth to a cinematic movement known as the paranoid thriller, which includes titles like The Conversation, All the President's Men, and The French Connection. Included in this lineup is Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is not just a worthy contribution to the paranoia movement, but also an excellent sci-fi tale of immense fear and suspense, a call for social awareness, and finally, a superior remake of a groundbreaking predecessor. It's the kind of horror story that will live on through the ages, and like Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," will be retold every so often to reflect the current times, though it's likely none of them will ever be as successful as Philip Kaufman's take.