In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at Least Donald Sutherland Tried to Save the World

When word dropped on Thursday that Donald Sutherland had passed away, I’m sure many sci-fi fans of a certain age immediately thought of the actor’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake from 1978 – and more specifically, the iconic closing shot from the film which freaked out so many of us, so badly, for so long.

Sutherland had a long and incredible career, but that final shot of him pod-person-screeching and pointing directly into the camera was just the amazingly disturbing capper to what remains one of the great sci-fi/horror films of all time. A remake, of course, of the 1956 Cold War metaphor of the same name, director Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Body Snatchers takes the original’s “the Commies are here already!” analogy and flips it, putting a decidedly New Age spin on the idea of everyone around you turning into someone, or something, else. This time though it’s not that the Reds are coming for us. No, instead it’s simply that we gave up on ourselves.

The actor had acquired something of an anti-establishment persona in the years prior to this film, not only through his real-life anti-war activities during Vietnam (at one point he made a sort of bizzaro-USO tour documentary with Jane Fonda, the queen of counter-culture Hollywood), but also because some of his best-known roles fell into that niche, from playing one of the Dirty Dozen in the film of the same name, to the original Hawkeye in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, and as Sergeant Oddball, who joins with a group of soldiers to go AWOL and pull off a heist in Kelly’s Heroes.

So it’s funny that by the time 1978 came around, his two most notable roles of that year were as pretty straight arrows. In Animal House, he’s the professor who smokes pot (and sleeps with) his students, sure, but he also comes across as a figure who is likely a shadow of his former, counter-culture self. The ’60s ended, man, and he had to start paying the rent. (“I’m not joking,” the professor pleads as his class empties out at the sound of the bell, ignoring his homework assignment. “This is my job!”)

And then there’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where he plays Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector who by day is looking for ways to shut down restaurants that are in code violation, and by night pines after his co-worker, Brooke Adams’ Elizabeth Driscoll. As far as counter-culture heroes go, picking through a restaurant’s food supply to look for rat turds isn’t where it’s at. And it’s usually not where genre movie heroes start off either.

But Matthew, who one senses used to aspire for something more, just like Sutherland’s Animal House professor, turns out be both a counter-culture hero and a movie hero once the pod people invasion starts in earnest. Sure, the culture he’s countering is a bunch of samey zombies who are anti-individuality, anti-creative thought, and, well, probably even anti-Jane Fonda. What do you expect an ex-hippie to do?

That’s the talent of Sutherland, though, to take this corduroy sports jacket-wearing desk jockey and convey that he’s smart enough to almost, just almost, beat back an alien invasion once that spark of purpose returns to him. Of course, Kaufman is also key to selling the Body Snatchers concept, layering his film with hints and clues of the weirdness that is going on behind the main action. Multiple viewings are rewarding as you notice, say, all the garbage trucks that keep showing up in the background throughout the film. (When you know, you know.) Even something as simple as a distorted mirror or a silhouette in an office building window take on entirely new meaning in the context of pod people being born everywhere, just out of sight.

Just some Ordinary People dealing with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Just some Ordinary People dealing with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“It takes six months to write one line sometimes!” complains Jack Bellicec (played by a hilarious, intense, and very young Jeff Goldblum) about Leonard Nimoy’s Dr. David Kibner, a mutual acquaintance of his and Matthew’s. Kibner is a pop-psychiatrist and successful author who has cashed in, at least as far as Bellicec is concerned, churning out a new hit self-help book every six months (the time, as noted, that it takes Bellicec to write a single line!) – and using his position of influence to diagnose society’s problems with nonsense like “The whole family unit is shot to hell!”

This is 1978, after all, and Bellicec and his wife Nancy (played by Veronica Cartwright in her first of two consecutive, with the following year’s Alien, unforgettable sci-fi turns) are holding onto the last vestiges of 1960s counter-culture while Kibner is well on his way to the Greed is Good lifestyle of the 1980s. But Kibner’s self-help brand can also be read as being responsible for its own type of pod people; at a party for his latest book, the devotees hanging on his every last word are shot by Kaufman to feel like they’ve already been possessed by the aliens. Or just by Kibner’s proto-Dr. Phil malarkey, perhaps…

Kibner is a far, refreshing cry from Spock for Nimoy, and along with Goldblum and Cartwright, the three make for a humorous, constantly arguing supporting cast amid the rather dire circumstances all the characters are about to face. Because once the invasion of the title really kicks in, the sense of dread and inescapable doom weighs heavily on this group and the viewer.

By the time Matthew and his friends have realized that something seriously wrong is going on, it’s already too late.

By the time Matthew and his friends have realized that something seriously wrong is going on around them, it’s already too late. Between the gaslighting they receive from the authorities and the intractable fact that the pods get you when you sleep, and are hence essentially unbeatable, the fight for freedom is doomed from the get-go. In an incredibly tense sequence, the group attempt to wait out the night in Matthew’s home, unaware that they’ve just spent their last day of normalcy. As Matthew falls asleep on his back patio, Kaufman and his team manage to put the viewer into a kind of slumber as well through creepy sound design, even creepier practical visual effects, and clever camera work.

O.K., so this is the part of this column where I would usually bring it all around to how Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still relevant in 2024. What can I say? A world where people forsake their feelings, their beliefs, their thoughts, to join with a collective community where they don’t have to truly feel, or believe, or think about anything, but just blindly follow the herd? It’s too easy.

And that takes us back to that final shot of Donald Sutherland betraying Cartwright’s character. He tried so hard to stick to his guns, to do the right thing, to be the man that he used to be 10 years earlier. But in the end, the world around him changed, and he inevitably changed with it.

Pretty scary, huh?

Talk to Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!

This post was originally published on IGN

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