Cinema: Twice-Told Tale

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INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS Directed by Philip Kaufman Screenplay by W.D. Richter

It is pointless and impossible simply to remake a happily remembered old movie. There is an irresistible urge to improve it, expand it, stamp it with the personalities of the remakers. So it is with the new, all-new version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was just fine, thank you, as a cheap, neat, slightly loony sci-fi horror picture in 1956.

It's the one about these seeds that drift through outer space, take root on earth and grow into large pods, each of which contains a simulacrum of a human being. When fully ripened, the pod is capable of replacing, with no one the wiser, the individual it perfectly replicates physically. The trouble is that the pod people are the living dead, incapable of emotion or strong belief. In the old movie, a smalltown doctor and his lady bravely, exhaustingly and with no assistance tried to resist the takeover. In its day, Invasion made a moving, and exciting film. Among other things, it was a metaphorical assault on the times when, under the impress of McCarthyism and two barbecues in every backyard, the entire Lonely Crowd seemed to be turning into pod people. The remakers have missed that point, failing to update the metaphor so that it effectively attacks the noisier, more self-absorbed conformity of the '70s.

Doubtless they felt that by resetting the story in San Francisco, that great breeding ground of contemporary aberration, they might be able to do some salutary social criticism. Indeed, Leonard Nimoy is quite good as a piously trendy shrink who turns out to be the pods' secret leader. But, on the whole, the San Francisco setting is a mistake. It is barely believable that the alien invaders could take root in a small, isolated town, as they did in the original. It is ridiculous to think that they could take over a huge metropolitan area without arousing opposition from more than a handful of people or the interest of the press, which might be counted on to observe with interest phe nomena like masses of citizens, lined up to collect their pods. The fact is that this film wants to have it both ways: to have a more urbane, more "important" scope than the original, and yet retain some of its inexpensive intimacy as well.

That is not the end of the problems. W.D. Richter's script, especially in he early, expository going, is often laughably literal, and therefore incapable of establishing an air of mystery as people start becoming strangely abstract and distant. Director Philip Kaufman unwisely gets too close to the pods, trying to show just how the transformation works. He would have been wise to let our imaginations run riot on this matter rather than permitting his special effects people to do so, since all they come up with is some grimly gunky stuff, not nearly as suggestive as the sudsy goo that the 1956 pod people emerged from. He would also have been wise to quick-march past a lot of the story's inherent illogicalities.

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