In this current era of comic-book obsessed filmmaking, the archaic trait whereby a villain is bit by/hit by/falls into radioactive elements, we automatically relate it to our current heroes. Of course, these heroes were created in the atomic age, whereby fear was rife regarding the power of nuclear energy. The atomic age not only inspired comic book heroes and villains but also impacted on cinema, providing the path for films including Forbidden Planet, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All of which are either due to be shown, or have been shown, at the BFI in their outstanding Sci-Fi season: Days of Fear and Wonder.
Bookended by a Cabinet-of-Dr-Caligari, mad-man narration, we’re introduced to Dr. Miles Bennett (Kevin McCarthy) in Invasion of the Body Snatcehrs. He is dishevelled and panicked. He is calmed by an investigator and he tells us his story. After he is called back home to the fictional town of Santa Mira, he begins to realise that everything isn’t what it seems. Patients were desperate to meet him, and now they are flippant about the request and claim it “was nothing”. A young boy who runs from his family argues they’ve changed – while a close friend claims the same about her own Aunt and Uncle. Dr. Bennett turns to his young love Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and the two discuss the strange happenings. One night, they find a body that appears to be slowly becoming more human – without finger prints and appearing to be dead, Miles and Becky are confused. But it all comes to light as strange seed-like pods are found in the garden shed and, bursting open, they slowly witness the birth of these body snatchers. Miles and Becky have to escape as it is clear that Santa Mira has been overrun by these alien creatures.
It’s a story that, upon its release in 1956, clearly alluded to the political landscape. There is a palpable fear, not only of the atom, but of the communist persuasions of others. Indeed, the loss of identity and lack of humanity is considered the true evil. The horror-trait of an alien domination of the planet only serves to support the idea of a Cold War plot arguing non-American principles as a threat to society. Ironically, characters biggest fears in the film are about what they lose: “I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty” Becky days. You could argue that in the modern world (in a capitalist, consumerist economy) these traits are eroded away for the sake of financial success.
This is what makes science-fiction so endlessly fascinating. It allegorises issues and threats to the world. Replace a social-threat with an “alien” or “monster” and you can speak honestly and bluntly about the actions and consequences of such an “invasion”. This is why so many people across the world saw 9/11 as “straight from a Hollywood movie”, as it seemed too similar to Sci-Fi films including Independence Day and Armageddon. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at its time, represents the responses to the post-war era in the USA, and continues to be relevant to this day.
Of course, Don Siegel’s film didn’t end in the 1950’s. Its influence continues today. Whether it is in the eggs within Gremlins, or the goo seen bubbling within Cronenberg’s The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to act as an inspiration for low-budget, but incredibly effective, science-fiction. In fact, you can go further – the sleepy, small town with a dark past bleeds into David Lynch’s nightmarish visions of the USA; the slow but terrifying spread of a people-controlling force in Night of the Living Dead shortly over a decade later; the distrust of psychiatry or fear of what it may not be able to explain within Shock Corridor. Invasion of the Body Snatchers pre-dated them all. The plot alone continued to become relevant with remakes in the 1970’s and 1990’s (are we due another this decade?). It is core to the history of cinema, let alone science-fiction, and with so many themes embedded within its simple, but poignant, narrative, it is an endlessly, re-watchable cult-classic.