Remakes are rarely a good idea. Remakes of classics are even less likely to be a good idea. They rarely improve on the original and more often, to be blunt, they suck. But up with it I’m willing to put if it means that, from time to time, we get a remake like this one, which takes everything that was good about the original and turns it around so it is relevant to the present.
Don Siegel’s 1956 classic took Jack Finney’s original story and fashioned a highly effective tale of Cold War paranoia. The alien pod people, dutifully conformist and seeking to supplant the individualistic Americans, were perfect analogues for communist infiltration, at least to 1950s audiences. Transplanted to the late seventies, we get not a story about infiltration, but of the loss of identity amongst the anonymity of urban life.
Philip Kaufman’s remake begins literally at the beginning, as diaphanous alien tendrils leave their dying planet and make their way to Earth, landing in the middle of a damp San Francisco day. Matthew (Donald Sutherland) is a rather zealous inspector for the city’s health department. Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) is a scientist who works for him. She lives with her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who seems only interested in watching sports and having sex (and pretty much in that order).
One morning, Elizabeth awakes to find out that Geoffrey has developed an interest in housecleaning and seemingly lost all interest in her. She begins to think she notices changes in other people, even total strangers. Thinking her just stressed out, Matthew suggests she speak to a friend of his, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a psychologist and author of wildly successful self-help books. But even Matthew begins to notice that other people are saying the same thing as Elizabeth, namely that people they know aren’t who they appear to be any more.
Proof that something is amiss comes with a seemingly dead body turns up at the Turkish bath run by Matthew’s friends, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), a bitter failed poet, and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). The body, covered in what looks like spiderweb, appears to be cross between a newborn baby and a full grown adult.
Screenwriter W.D. Richter, cinematographer Michael Chapman and director Kaufman are extremely effective at conjuring up a persistent sense of dread and paranoia almost for the first frame. The San Francisco of this movie feels like a half-million eyes are all watching you at the same time. Star Wars sound genius Ben Burtt contributes innovative sound effects that really work to ratchet up the tension. By the way, the modulated heartbeat sound that you hear when the pod people are growing is from a sonogram of Burtt’s then unborn son. That’s really getting an early start in the business.
The actors help with mostly understated, natural performances, taking the material serious. Leonard Nimoy probably gives his best post-Spock performance in this film. Veronica Cartwright, who has made a career of appearing on the edge of hysteria, really delivers the goods here. Brooke Adams also gives her all. How else can you describe a woman willing to walk buck-ass naked through a burning warehouse? Now that’s putting your faith in the effects department.
Invasion taps into a multitude of cultural fears. We have all had that niggling feeling that everyone but us was in on some kind of secret, that even people we know intimately aren’t who we think they are. For most of us, these feelings are fleeting, transitory. This movie takes those suspicions from the dark corners of our minds and plays with them for almost two hours. You’ll probably not even look at flowers quite the same for a couple days after seeing this movie.
It’s instructive that, after three decades, this movie retains its ability to creep people out while the modern horror films that traffic in graphic sadism have reached the point where they are just numbing. The fact that the new Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig remake is only rated PG-13 tells me that perhaps they took this lesson to heart.