“You’re scared, aren’t you? Good! They’re out there, they’re everywhere!”
After watching Color Out of Space earlier this week (you can read my review here) I found myself wanting to watch more disintegrating family dynamics in which you can’t be sure the person next to you isn’t compromised in some way. Sounds good, right? Or maybe it was just the pinkish/purplish color on the cover of the DVD that made the connection for me.
I remember watching Body Snatchers when it was released (on VHS) and thinking, “huh, that didn’t suck.” Literally, that was my thought. Since then I’ve often thought of revisiting it, but there’s rarely been that confluence of availability and interest. The last time I watched it was years ago when my wife and I finished the final season of Burn Notice. I was perusing the IMDB listing for the cast, looking to see what they were up after the show and saw that Gabrielle Anwar was actually IN Body Snatchers, which surprised me – I couldn’t think of what character she might have played. I was astonished to learn it was the lead. My mental picture of her is so firmly attached to the Fiona character from Burn Notice that I couldn’t immediately reconcile that she was also the curly-haired, round-faced character of Marty from Body Snatchers.
I have the 2005 DVD release from Warner and it’s bare-bones but serviceable. There’s also a 2016 Blu-ray from Warner Archives. For streaming options, you can rent or purchase at the usual places, and it’s free for Starz subscribers.
Body Snatchers is a very loose adaptation of the Jack Finney novel. There seems to have been some time spent in development hell as there are three screenwriters credited (Including Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon) and two credits for Story, including Larry Cohen (of It’s Alive, Q and The Stuff). Despite this, the story holds together fairly well and it doesn’t feel quite as slapped together as a film with that many cooks usually does. That’s probably down to director Abel Ferrara, who is probably better known for gritty films like Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant.
The movie follows Marti Malone (Anwar), a teenage girl and her family, which includes her dad Steve (Terry Kinney), her step-mom Carol (Meg Tilly), and her younger half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy). Steve works for the EPA and is traveling to a military base to review their chemical and biological storage – looking for leaks and contamination. Whoo, boy is there contamination. Within the first few minutes, Marty is accosted in a gas station bathroom by a young soldier who warns her “they get you when you sleep.”
It’s an adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so we know what’s going to go down in the broad strokes – people will start acting differently, no one will listen to their loved ones, and eventually our heroes will go on the run from an alien menace that looks just like the people next door – or even the person next to you in bed. Body Snatchers doesn’t disappoint in the general outlines.
The devil is in the details, however, but the film generally pleasantly surprises here. There are some genius points of change. The primary action is set on a military base, for one, instead of a small town where people mostly know each other. The vast majority of people are dressed the same and encouraged to act the same as their neighbor, making it easier for the pod people to hide in plain sight. Having the primary character be a teenage girl in a mixed family is also open to some great possibilities and subtext. A teenager often feels alienated from their family, and a step-mother is already a replacement – especially in a child’s view.
Some of this is followed up on – though the military angle doesn’t get followed up on as much as I’d like. Meg Tilly plays the step-mom, Carol, and has some really great moments – particularly after she’s changed. “Where are you gonna go?” she says, once she’s outed, “Where are you gonna run? Where are you gonna hide? Nowhere – because there’s no one like you left.” That is some harsh and creepy stuff!
In addition to the Malone family, there is a small supporting cast, including a sweaty, nervous Forest Whitaker and a typically bombastic R. Lee Ermey as well as Billy Worth as love interest Tim. None of them really get the screen time that the family does, and you end up less invested in their fate as a result.
There are lots of good bits in this film, but much of it is simply workmanlike. You’ll have a couple of scenes with great lines and delicious sub-text – there’s an exchange between Marty and her father where she says she can’t wait until she turns 18 and her father responds with, “what, do you think you won’t be my daughter anymore?” It’s a good enough line on its own, but in context, it becomes a fantastic one. But then it’ll be followed by a bland scene with trite dialogue. Beautiful cinematography (the sun seems to be perpetually about to set – on the human race perhaps?) followed by flat, 90’s TV lighting. Some of the best bits – people standing outside the houses with garbage bags containing the remains of those who have been replaced, the open-mouthed screaming/pointing – have all been lifted wholesale from the excellent 1978 Phillip Kaufman version of the story.
Once things go bad they go bad FAST and the movie loses most of its creepy moments. The setting becomes a liability in these scenes because the vast majority of changed people we see have had too little time given to flesh them out. They’re still ‘other,’ so the change means less to us. There’s some good stuff with the main characters still – and the action is pretty thrilling – but it’s not quite as good as the earlier bits.
The Bottom Line
My final thoughts on watching Body Snatchers this time around were “that was pretty good,” so a bit of an improvement from the first time anyway. In the end, it felt a little bit like a setup for a TV series – one I would gladly have watched. Is it in the same league as the previous two versions? No, not really. Still, there are lots of good moments, and it’s well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.