Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

directed by Don Siegel

Plot Summary
Dr. Miles Bennell, thought to be insane, is being held in a local hospital and tells another doctor an incredible story. In the perfectly normal town of Santa Mira, California, residents seem to be suffering from a mass hysteria: certain people feel that their relatives are not actually their relatives, even though by all objective counts they are. Things become more suspicious when Miles' friend Jack Belicec finds an unformed, unmoving body in his house that later disappears. Jack and his wife decide to stay at Miles' house, along with Miles' former girlfriend Becky who is showing a renewed interest in him. At night in Miles' greenhouse, the four find giant pod seeds that begin to sprout duplicates of all of them. Jack and his wife leave to find help, but they return transformed into emotionless replicas of their former selves. Most of the town has already been converted, and Miles and Becky are chased by a mob of pod people. They elude them temporarily, but Miles leaves Becky for a moment and returns to find her transformed. He escapes to a highway and tries to warn passers-by who think he is crazy or drunk. The flashback ends, and the doctor seems not to believe Miles' outlandish story. A hospital worker reports pulling an accident victim from under huge pod seeds, and the doctor realizes Miles has been telling the truth.

Commentary


In the 1950s American cinema produced a string of science-fiction films of varying quality that often present fantastic events resulting from either alien influence or nuclear radiation. Beneath the various plot machinations and special effects, these films often reflected important political, social, and cultural concerns in an allegorical manner. Giant insects spawned from the effects of radiation would terrorize cities, reflecting a growing fear of recent powerful technological advances being used for destructive ends. Or a man begins physically shrinking until he is almost non-existent in the superb film The Incredible Shrinking Man, suggesting an individual's powerlessness and unimportance in the complex modern world. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another thought-provoking example in this genre, where the main thematic concerns involve conformity, paranoia, and the loss of humanity within people. Of course, it is also a suspenseful thriller about one man's struggle against alien pods that replicate Santa Mira residents' bodies and threaten to take over the world. Although it works well on this surface level, the film's lasting importance is derived from its comments on basic political and social issues that remain pertinent.

On an even more general level than the movie's widely-discussed political implications, the idea of humankind losing the qualities that distinguish it from stolid, emotionless objects permeates the film. Early on, Mrs. Grimaldi states that the family vegetable stand is closed because it was simply "too much work". Although later it is revealed they are now harvesting seed pods instead, this comment suggests that as emotions and feelings disappear, so does ambition and the drive for accomplishment that helps humanity progress. When one strives for conformity only, there is no motivation to work for something different and better that might lie outside of the norm. What makes this draining of emotion so dangerous is the fact that only the closest relatives are able to distinguish the transformation. The differences in Uncle Ira that Wilma notices cannot be objectively measured, and to all others he appears to be the same person. She notes that there is now only the pretense of emotion rather than genuine feeling, and this concept can perhaps relate to a growing callousness and cynicism in society. Ira's actions suggest a certain dehumanization as he is shown to be repetitively and mechanically mowing the lawn while Wilma and Miles' discussion occurs. Love and passion are also victims of the loss of humanity, and when Miles kisses Becky to jokingly confirm her identity, it clearly foreshadows the later scene where he discovers she has been lost. Before the two enter the nearly empty restaurant, Becky glances at a billboard and ironically comments, "Hey, Santa Mira's looking up", while inside the band has been replaced by a jukebox--another detail illustrating the replacement of humanity with mechanization. The blank fingerprints of the unformed pod found in Jack's den reflects a fear of the loss of individuality as conformity becomes the new goal and thinking and working for the group become the ideals.

An interesting comment is made by the psychiatrist Dr. Kaufman, who is by this time probably already a pod, when he mentions that people can figure out everything from the atom to the universe except for the human mind. This statement implies that advancements in technology are moving faster than progression toward understanding man's inner workings, a fearful idea in the age of atomic weapons. If up to this point the viewer wasn't sure of the film's allegorical tendency, Miles gives a didactic speech to Becky about how he has seen people "allow their humanity to drain away, only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind." Not only do they not mind, the pods seem to prefer this way of life as Dr. Kaufman explains how there is no pain and how without "love, desire, ambition, faith...life is so simple, believe me." The film illustrates that although these things require sacrifice and can sometimes be painful, they are also what makes life worth living and provide meaning and purpose to one's existence.

The film speaks to the fear of conspiracy that saturated the nation during the 1950s and that was encouraged by figures such as Senator Joseph McCarthy who sought to expose Communist infiltration in the US. The threat of a covert conspiracy is supported by certain shots in the film where the town appears to be functioning normally as it always has, when in actuality the pods have taken over most of the town's inhabitants. The concept of covering up what seems out of the ordinary or strange is also evidenced in the film. At first even Miles works toward this when he tells the disturbed Wilma that her Uncle is the same and that "the trouble is inside you." This calming logic is later turned on Miles and Jack when Dr. Kaufman explains away their mystery of the missing unidentifiable body and tries to make the unusual and mysterious into the simple and banal. But he counters their incredulity a little too easily and when the cop shows up to corroborate his explanation perfectly, things begin to look a little suspicious. These scenes tend to support a belief in conspiracy by showing how the authority figures attempt to convince the questioning individuals that everything is normal and as it should be. Using the police and the psychiatrist, who is supposed to understand the human mind and its desires, as the main propagators of the pods' logic adds a degree of insidiousness to their conspiracy and seems to suggest that authority, physical and intellectual, cannot be trusted. Furthermore, the traditionally beautiful music Miles hears turns out also to be in control of the pod growers, and it lures him away from Becky and leads to her transformation.

With no where to turn, Miles hopes that the pods are confined to Santa Mira and decides that his only chance is to make it to the highway, an American symbol of escape. The pod people stop chasing him, correctly realizing that no one will believe him. Even worse, a passing truck with "Los Angeles-San Francisco-Portland" on its side passes by and is filled with pod seeds, conveying that the dehumanizing conspiracy will continue on to bigger cities from here. Although the framed narrative ends very bleakly with all elements of society against Miles and nothing to stop the spread of the pods, he does manage to convince someone in the film's present day, and there is hope that the conspiracy can be stopped.

The film creates a convincing atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, yet it is unclear whether the filmmakers intended it to speak out more against McCarthyism or Communism; or perhaps they were aiming for a more general message. Clearly, its presentation of the dangers of conformity goes against the Communist 'witch hunts' that devalued the notion of free speech and intended to sway everyone to the same political ideology. Also, as mentioned earlier, by having respected figures such as the police working for the pods, the film subverts the controlling authority and its desire to regulate. Smaller details can also be seen in this light such as the idea that people are more quickly controlled when they are at home; Jack, his wife, and Becky are able to temporarily avoid conversion by staying at Miles'. The home can be seen as a place of comfort and normality, yet this acceptance of normality and the unwillingness to venture out leads to subsumption into the pod group. This concept seems to illustrate that acceptance of only what political leaders like McCarthy considered normal would equate someone with the close-minded, inhuman pods.

Yet much of the film seems to support the paranoia associated with this period, given the fact that the pod people are actually taking over and some of their rhetoric can be associated with a negative view of communism: "no need for...ambition, faith". The meeting the pod people are conducting at Sally's house can represent some kind of subversive political gathering. Miles is shot to look like a crazy paranoid on the highway, yelling in extreme close-up in strange lighting, "They're here already! You're next, you're next..." But, taking the film's presentation as objective, the irony is that he is right, and there is a danger threatening the entire nation. This seems to vindicate McCarthy and his followers' rampant paranoia about the nation's political state of being, suggesting there may actually be a dangerous threat to national security. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the filmmakers intended the film's message to be interpreted in that specific context and more likely they were aiming for a picture reflecting a general sense of "worry about what's going on in the world", as Dr. Kaufman puts it.

Overall, the film's style effectively conveys a mood of suspense, mystery, and danger. The first shots of the town are peaceful suburban tableaux with tranquil music to reiterate its generic quality: this could happen anywhere. The music works in some places, but seems overblown in others like when the body in Jack's den is first investigated. Interestingly, this works to form certain shot expectations that aren't met, such as when Miles pulls back the sheet from the body's face and a close-up of what he sees is assumed to follow. However, the direction teases us and doesn't let the viewer get too close at this point, effectively sustaining the mysterious tone before unleashing the suspenseful chase with more rapid editing in the second half. As things get more strange, the conventional framing gives way to tilted shots and odd extreme close-ups such as when Miles realizes Becky has been transformed and her cold, sterile eyes fill the frame. With much of the film occurring at night, the filmmakers are allowed to play with light and shadow, such as when Miles is in Becky's basement using matches to investigate the area. The bookends that surround the main narrative of the story, imposed by the studio and objected to by the director Don Siegel, do little for the film and perhaps lessen some of its power by not having the picture end with the terrifying scene of Miles yelling on the highway, ignored by the passing vehicles. Nevertheless, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proves to be a frightening, suspenseful work which provides insight to the troubled national consciousness of the 1950s, and with more and more standardization present in society, it remains an important warning against wholehearted conformity.

6 of 10


Please send me any comments you have about this review by clicking here.
© 1999

Back to the index of films.