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Body Snatchers (1993)

Addressing the universal personal and political fear that individuals or society can easily lose the essentials of humanity and become soulless 'pods', the body snatchers concept is one of the great pop myths of the post-war world. Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, filmed by Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), is a property that can usefully be redone every fifteen years. This third remake, developed at various times by Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon, sticks less to Finney's plot than the earlier films but still elaborates on his basic theme.

Body Snatchers is set on an army base which already imposes an uncomfortable degree of conformity on characters, as regimentation finally becomes a nightmarish of chanting platoons and sweeping searchlights. This bold stroke increases political resonance and allows for gung ho action with helicopters and missiles, including a marvelously ambiguous and hollow triumph at the finale. Rather than a medical-scientific investigator hero, the protagonist is Anwar, teenage daughter of an Environment Protection Agency boffin (Terry Kinney) who is investigating the storage of toxic materials in an army installation.

At the outset, the heroine's family is screamingly dysfunctional, emphasising the calming, soothing influence of the pod people, who replace alcoholics with t-totallers and threaten to turn Gabrielle Anwar from a sulky, intolerant teen into an ideal daughter. In an amazingly creepy scene, Anwar's little brother (Reilly Murphy) is revealed as the only real human in his infants' class when all the other children produce identical finger-paintings.

On the fair assumption that the audience already knows the premise, Body Snatchers does not explain the alien invasion but simply shows it with gloopily effective effects as the pods sprout tendrils which swarm disgustingly around sleeping victims' faces as the replacement person is formed. Post-production studio tampering is suggested by the sudden segue at the mid-way point from oblique hints to non-stop action but Abel Ferrara, in a rare medium budget excursion, shows he can make a smooth-looking, perfectly-paced film as well as he can handle spiky, zero-expense items like Bad Lieutenant (1992). His acute ear for character tensions deftly captures the untidy human emotions that the pods live without, as Anwar loses her messy family and friends, paying off with a helicopter defenestration (a dodgy process shot, sadly) that violates the deepest taboos of the American cinema as she is forced to jettison Murphy.

The writing and acting are remarkable for mid-budget science fiction: a 'truth' game between Anwar and soldier Billy Wirth, apparently an irrelevant aside, sets up resonances that pay off throughout the film, as Wirth's tendency to hide his feelings enables him to pass among the pods and Anwar is forced to learn how to shoot 'people'. Meg Tilly, remarkable as an alternately calm and screeching pod queen, delivers a keynote speech for the unease of the 1990s: 'Where are you going to go, where are you going to run, where are you going to hide? Nowhere, because there's no one like you left.'
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction


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