Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (18th November 2010).
The Film

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when remakes were treated with a little more respect than they are today. When a director wanted to put his own spin on a classic, there was a great deal more thought and effort put behind into the creative process. Studios weren’t simply churning out one after the other in an effort to capitalize on some hot marquee title rather than making a quality film that could stand on its own. Remakes came sporadically, and they often featured a wholly different take on the source material in order to allow the picture to stand on its own merit. Now, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) doesn’t stray entirely too far from the original 1956 classic, but it’s one of the few examples where a remake can stand toe-to-toe with the inaugural film that preceded it. The original version, directed by Don Siegel, is an outright staple of the science fiction genre. Based on the outstanding novel written by Jack Finney, it is regularly cited as being among the best films the genre has produced. It’s interesting to note that “The Body Snatchers” (the title of Finney’s novel) is second only to H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in theatrical adaptations of the source material. There have been four theatrical films based on it thus far, the most recent (and least successful) arriving in 2007 as “The Invasion”. Cult director Abel Ferrara took a shot at the material in his version, “Body Snatchers” (1993), which was scripted by longtime genre vets Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon. It wasn’t very well-received and it did exceptionally poorly in theaters. I remember it being a favorite of mine as a kid, though I haven’t seen it in a number of years. But, the two versions that stand above the others are the original from 1956, and this version from 1978.

Matthew Benell (Donald Sutherland) is a health inspector living in San Francisco who begins to slowly uncover the truth behind bizarre personal experiences and stories he’s heard of people not being who they seem. It turns out that humans are being replaced with identical duplicates grown from pods hidden throughout the city. Matthew, along with his co-worker, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), hook up with a trusted group of friends who are slowly starting to realize that these “pod people” are taking over the city, and if they aren’t able to find a way to stop them the world will soon follow.

There’s so much that Philip Kaufman got right here that I don’t know where to begin. This was the first film that Kaufman directed by did not write, as that distinction went to W.D. Richter. Genre fans will know him as the man behind the insanely bizarre cult classic “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension” (1984), as well as pulling some scripting duties on John Carpenter’s equally-cult “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986). He perfectly updates Finney’s classic tale for the 70's era, doing well to represent the disillusionment that had captured society during those years. In keeping with the original film and source material, Richter never underwrites any of the lead roles, no one character is more important than the other. The story starts of benign enough, with some minor rumblings around town and on the news, but it begins a gradual build to crescendo in a wave of terror and paranoia as suddenly no one is sure of whom to trust, who’s really human. Many critics have surmised that Finney’s tale, and Siegel’s original film, in particular, were thinly-veiled critiques of McCarthyism and post-communist life in America. But, the fact is that neither Finney nor Seigel had ever intended for viewers to read into any political groundwork in either case. The fact remains, however, that both are perfectly suited to those claims, just as this 70's version is tailored to the zeitgeist of the times. There are no overreaching political themes that one could draw from the film (though I’m sure they’re there if you wanted to look hard enough). Richter simply crafted a superior horror film, one which relies heavily on psychological terrors over the de rigueur blood & gore which is frequently the norm for the genre.

Your film is only as strong as your cast. Luckily, Kaufman put together a strong ensemble with some serious chops. Leading the pack is Donald Sutherland as the health inspector who uncovers the mystery, and he’s got enough respect from his peers that they believe him. His co-worker, and eventual love interest, Brooke Adams, is just as smartly written as he is – the only difference is that she doesn’t have the physical capabilities Matthew possesses, so she has to reply on him a great deal. Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. David Kibner, a self-help guru. I know it’s nearly impossible to see Nimoy on-screen and NOT think of him as Spock, but his turn here as a calm, cool and collected psychiatrist shows that he has range beyond that of an emotionless Vulcan. The inimitable Jeff Goldblum plays Matthew’s good friend, a writer and owner of a spa where the pods begin to take hold. His wife is played by Veronica Cartwright, best known for her role the following year in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). All four of these characters provide a different outlook on the epidemic which is overtaking the city, whether it be through dismissive, questionable conversation or outright fear & terror. They all come across as real people who viewers can relate to on a personal level - something Kaufman considers a key component of the film.

Keen-eyed viewers should also be on the lookout for many of the numerous cameo appearances throughout the film. Kevin McCarthy appears as a deranged pedestrian trying to spread the word that “they’re here”, just as he was last seen doing at the end of the original film. Original helmer Don Siegel shows up as a cab driver, cinematographer Michael Chapman makes two appearances during the film, and even director Philip Kaufman appears as a man impatiently waiting for Sutherland to finish up on a pay phone call. They aren’t much, and most people are likely to miss most of them (except for McCarthy’s, whom everyone should instantly recognize), but it’s a nice touch to incorporate the old with the new.

Not only can I not believe this is the first score written by composer Denny Zeitlin, but I was amazed to learn that, despite the critical praise it received, he hasn’t done another since. A quick glance at his biography shows that he’s an accomplished jazz composer with over 30 albums to his credit, and he currently resides as a professor of psychiatry UCSF, so I can see why he might be a little too busy for film work. In fact, a brief piece I read stated that he didn’t like dealing with the “20-hour work days” that come with working on a feature film. That’s too bad because his shrill, brass-heavy orchestral themes that run throughout the film are incredibly suspenseful and foreboding. I can recall numerous scenes where our protagonists are trapped, looking for an exit to escape from the denizens of Pod People attempting to capture them, and Zeitlin’s score is ever-present, rising, rising until it hits a peak and the fear reaches a fever pitch.

Kaufman pulled off a rare feat: he remade a superb film and made it every bit as good as the original, perhaps in some ways better. In doing so, he places his film on a very short list alongside other masterful remakes as David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986) and, the pinnacle of how this sort of thing (no pun intended) should be done, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982). Filmmakers these days seem more concerned with cashing in on the hype surrounding a title rather than taking the necessary time to craft something that respects what came before it while making something that can stand on its own. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is smart, cerebral, thrilling, creepy, psychological, tense and utterly fantastic. And it’s got one hell of an ending.

Video

You can’t always expect crystal clarity from restored catalogue titles, especially ones from the 70's, but the 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is authentic to a fault. As explained in the commentary and bonus features, director Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman intended to make a color version of a classic film noir, so shadows and chiaroscuro type lighting play a large role in the look of the film. There are often shots which appear soft or out of focus, but these are scarce enough that it never becomes an issue. I’ve purchased every DVD edition of this film, so I can easily spot the benefits of this high-definition encode. Daylight scenes feature a striking amount of improved detail, even if it isn’t as sharp as Blu-ray is capable of. The image can appear flat at times, though much of that can be attributed to stylistic choices in contrast and lighting. A great deal of the film takes place under the cover of shadow and darkness, so black levels need to hold up if the film is to remain watchable. They do, mostly. Sometimes things can get so dark that detail is lost in the shroud, but overall the image remains stable and discernible, even in the darkest of shots. I appreciated the little details of the image, like the stitching on Matthew’s heavy coat, or Leonard Nimoy’s impressive set of sideburns. I didn’t see any instances where DNR was applied to smooth out the image, so it retains a warm, theatrical appearance throughout.

Audio

As Ben Burtt had explained in his featurette, this was one of the first films to utilize Dolby Digital sound design and, being a pioneer in his field and all, Burtt made sure that this was a fantastic track (as most all of his are). The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit features a great range of effects coming at listeners from every angle. Burtt was going for a very organic design here, so all of the effects you’re listening to were created using real world elements. It’s unsettling to listen to the elastic tendrils of a still-forming Pod Person creeping up along faces and squirming around on the floor. Even the opening scenes in space feature some creepy cues as the alien lifeforms work their way to Earth. The slow-building waves of audible terror created by Denny Zeitlin’s score gradually rise to culminate in some terrifying musical cues to go along with the constant shrieks of the “infected” pointing out those who are still human. Dialogue is easy to make out, and there were no pops, hisses or other forms of distortion present.
There is also an English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track included. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and French.

Extras

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” assimilates itself onto Blu-ray as a 2-disc “Blu-ray + DVD” pack with all of the bonus features that were included on the previews Special Edition DVD, but with one MAJOR snafu that keeps it from being an ideal package. We get the same featurettes and theatrical trailer that we did before, and we do retain the audio commentary, but MGM saw fit the leave that as the only feature not ported over from the DVD. Even worse, the DVD commentary is featured on is the old-school flipper disc that came out eons ago. Why you would leave off an audio commentary from a new Blu-ray, yet include all of the standard-definition featurettes and a single theatrical trailer, is incomprehensible. I would rather they included none of the bonus features - then I could at least assume they wanted to half-ass it and release a quick cash grab. But to include everything BUT that shows me that you’re either trying to screw with your target buying demographic, or you’re REALLY lazy. Either way, that was an asinine decision.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

“Re-Visitors from Outer Space, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 16 minutes and 14 seconds. This retrospective look back at the film features interviews with several key cast & crew members. Director Philip Kaufman gets in the most face time here, and he talks about his decision to remake the project, the decision to shoot in San Francisco (his “favorite city in the world”) and the casting that was required for the characters in the film. A few of the cast members are interviewed; they discuss how they landed their respective roles and what they felt about the film.

“Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 4 minutes and 38 seconds. Special effects technician Howard Preston and director Kaufman talk about how they worked with a very limited budget to create the spores first seen in outer space at the beginning of the film. They were going for an organic look, and a mixture of some drugstore “goop” and water yielded the results we see on film.

“The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 12 minutes and 47 seconds. Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt sits down to talk about his job as the man who has to come up with the sound effects for everything you see (and hear) in the film. This was the year after he did “Star Wars” (1977), and he had learned a lot on that picture that helped him with finding the right effects he needed on this one.

“The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 5 minutes and 24 seconds. Director of Photography Michael Chapman talks about the look he and Kaufman wanted to achieve for the film, namely that they set out to make a color film that was shot like old film noirs of the 40's. Realism was of great importance to both parties, so they tried to shoot many scenes using natural lighting in real locations. Shadows were also used to draw viewers in closer to examining the picture, that way the scares would be much more surprising.

Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer (480p) runs for 2 minutes and 12 seconds.

DISC TWO: DVD

The audio commentary with director Philip Kaufman, arguably most important extra, has been discarded and left to die on this ancient relic of a DVD. He makes a number of astute observations during the film, touching on minor artistic touches most wouldn’t notice - like the reflections seen in a window, or the decision to use certain lighting to convey different moods. He’s bright, well-spoken and never at a loss for words. The anecdotes and backstory he’s able to provide on the actors in the film and the locations where it was filmed are incredibly insightful and interesting. It’s a total shame that this is the one extra feature MGM neglected to include on what is an otherwise fantastic Blu-ray release for this film.

The DVD also includes the film’s theatrical trailer, which runs for 2 minutes and 12 seconds.

Packaging

The 2-disc set comes housed in an eco amaray keepcase with each disc housed on a hub opposite the other. I hate these cases. They’re flimsy, poorly-constructed and they force me to support doing good for the environment. The cost to me didn’t go down any once they started using these, so let me decide how I want to “keep things green”.

Overall

One of the best remakes of all-time... and that says a lot in a time when remakes make up a major portion of theatrical releases these days. Kaufman made the film his own by adapting it for the current time, casting some fantastic thespians and using a subtle, unnerving approach to allowing the events to unfold. It stands as one of the few film remakes that may even surpass the original as being a better movie. This new Blu-ray has a great picture for this 30-year-old film, and the audio has received a nice upgrade as well. I’m glad we got to retain the bonus features from the last DVD set (so I can safely sell mine), but the omission of the audio commentary from the Blu-ray is a sore spot. Regardless, this is a definite upgrade for fans of the film and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet seen this classic.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: B- Overall: B+

 


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