A mysterious gelatinous organism floats through space and lands on Earth generating seed pods with pretty little flowers that belie a sinister intent. Within days of arriving, the people of a major American city begin to act strangely in small, nearly unnoticeable ways. When a research scientist’s live-in lover begins to exhibit odd behavior, she turns to her best friend for help, and together they discover a secret that threatens mankind. The city is San Francisco, the research scientist is played by Brooke Adams, the friend is played by Donald Sutherland, and the movie is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) featured this month on MGM HD.
Writer-Director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 science-fiction novel is a hidden gem of a movie. Before the first word of dialog is even spoken, Kaufman sets a tone of creeping unease and paranoia with a series of discomforting scenes of seemingly banal urban life. People go to work and about their daily lives, but something is off: people turn and eye each other with suspicion or stare directly to camera to turn their accusing gaze on us, the viewers. In the early sequences, look for one of the most unnerving uncredited appearances of any move: Robert Duval as a Catholic priest, on a playground swing set, watching us watching him. Our unsuspecting and self-involved main characters move through the world oblivious to the alien invasion, even as it happens right over their shoulders. As the movie progresses, Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman ratchet up the claustrophobia as they close in and heighten the shadows around our heroes until they are caught in a trap out of which there may be no escape.
A fine science-fiction thriller, Kaufman’s movie is also a social commentary on contemporary life in the nineteen-seventies, touching on self-help books, open-ended romantic relationships, political conspiracies, and notions individuality versus conformity in modern society. The cast is a murder’s row of modern sci-fi staples: Leonard Nimoy plays an initially disbelieving psychiatrist whom Adams and Sutherland enlist to help them understand what is happening around them. A very young Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright play owners of a bathhouse where the true and ominous purpose of the space pods is revealed. Kaufman paid his respects to the original 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with a cameo from that movie’s director, the great Don Siegel, as a cab driver. Keep an eye out for an ingenious appearance from Kevin McCarthy, star of the earlier film, playing essentially the same character still on the run twenty-two years later. There are flashes of wit, including one of the movie’s most enduring images of a dog with a human head. And of course, there’s that ending…
So, pop some popcorn, hide all of your plants in the other room so that they don’t get any ideas, and settle in for a creepy good time with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” airing on November on MGM HD.