Classic conspiracy (and political paranoia) movies for summer viewing, week 6

PICK OF THE WEEK

This week’s recommendation is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the good news is that you have several different versions to choose from. All the versions are based on Jack Finney’s 1950s science-fiction novel about pod-people and a secretive alien invasion.

As might be expected, the various versions of the film reflect their respective times. In the first movie incarnation, this seems especially the case. Although people involved in making the 1956 original denied that it was an allegory about the Red Scare and McCarthyism of a few years earlier, the film’s debut at that point in the Cold War makes those connections apparent, even if they were not intended. Indeed, the plot, which involves space-pod aliens assuming the identities of ordinary Americans, is only mildly conspiratorial in the usual sense, but it is steeped in Cold War paranoia.

The whole premise of the movie is that your neighbors, your friends, or even your family might not be as they appear. There is nothing particularly shocking about that, but this film takes the idea to terrifying extremes. It’s a fantasy not unlike the Domino Theory, the fearful political idea that ran rampant in the early postwar years. The main idea was that if America were not careful, one after another after another nation would fall to communism until finally, America would find itself all alone and surrounded in a sea of Red. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there aren’t any communists but there are sinister aliens, and they plan is just the same: slowly encircle unsuspecting citizens until they are alone, at which point the implication is that they, too, will succumb. (As you may have noticed, this is the general narrative in most zombie stories, as well. They are not so much about zombies as about being surrounded by death, whether literal or metaphorical.)

I tend to prefer the 1956 original, which was stars Kevin McCarthy and ‎Dana Wynter and was directed by veteran Don Siegel, who directed a lot of things including Dirty Harry two decades later.

Many people like the 1978 version, which was directed by Philip Kaufman, even more. It’s definitely a contender, especially with a stellar cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy.

Less well known but worth a look is a 1993 version, simply titled Body Snatchers, directed by Abel Ferrara and featuring Gabrielle Anwar, Billy Wirth, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Christine Elise, R. Lee Ermey and Forest Whitaker. It’s a looser adaptation of the original novel than the previous two film versions, but may still be of interest.

And finally, with an even more abbreviated title, there is 2007’s The Invasion, which stars Nicole Kidman. (Veronica Cartwright, from the 1978 version, is also featured.) It changes the underlying story more than any of the earlier adaptations, but the influence of the original novel is still there.

In a way, Invasion of the Body Snatchers may seem to be a story of its original time–a time that is now long gone. Yet, I think when future observers look back at the whole post-9/11 era, they are likely to see, if not outright paranoia, then at least a level of national anxiety and suspicion that rivals the national mood of the 1950s.

In any case, no matter which version you choose, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an intriguing film that probably says more about our culture overall than you might think.

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TO MARK THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOOK CONSPIRACY THEORY IN FILM, TELEVISION, AND POLITICS, I ‘M SUGGESTING A DIFFERENT CLASSIC FILM WITH A CONSPIRACY OR POLITICAL PARANOIA THEME EVERY WEEK THIS SUMMER. THINK OF IT AS A DO-IT-YOURSELF PARANOID SUMMER FILM FESTIVAL.

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