It’s summer 2010. I’m visiting family and find myself in a heated debate about the merits of James Cameron’s Avatar with a close relative. I lay out all the evidence for why I didn’t find it enjoyable. The much lauded CGI and mocap special effects felt like a substitute for quality storytelling, alien hair sex is hot but gross, and the script seemed like the result of feeding the FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas scripts to a screenwriting AI. My relative couldn’t refute my criticisms (not because I’m right but because unlike me he hadn’t dedicated hours of thought to analyzing why he hated the movie so much) but defended the movie like he was defending a precious part of himself. Like my criticisms of a movie he enjoyed were interpreted as personal attacks on his self identity. That wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone take criticism of a film they enjoyed personally and it wasn’t the last. However, it is a great example of conflating a good movie with a movie you enjoyed.
When analyzing the merits of a film it’s important to recognize the skill, craft, and all other aspects of a film’s production. It’s equally important to separate that from your enjoyment of the film experience. Avatar is an incredibly impressive filmmaking feat. It won academy awards for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Production design. It’s a good movie… but I didn’t enjoy it. Cutting Class is a brainless ultraviolent indulgence whose low quality embarrasses its stars. It’s a bad movie I enjoyed. A work of arts quality and your ability to enjoy it are completely independent variables when analyzing the piece. Which brings me to the subject of this post, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A great movie I didn’t enjoy.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a reimagining of the 1956 movie based on Jack Finny’s 1955 novel of the same name. An aliens invade earth not in metal space ships but in clumps of goo that fall like rain on San Francisco. They attach themselves to local flora and sprout beautiful blossoms attracting humans with their alluring aroma and appearance. What these hapless victims don’t know is that after exposure to the plants they’ll be replaced by emotionless simulacrums that after they fall asleep. Their bodies will shrivel and dissolve into a fibrous mess of dusty coconut husks until no more authentic humans remain on Earth. Our cast of characters is a mix of local Health Department employees (Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams), psychologist (Leonard Nimoy), and bath house purveyors (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) who uncover the invasion plot in time to try and survive.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the kind of movie that’s referenced so often you’re lucky to see it without a spoiled ending. I wasn’t that lucky. It’s like Carrie or The Wizard of Oz, you don’t have to know see these movies to know the endings because their impact permeates the pop culture bleed. That probably plays into why I didn’t enjoy Invasion of the Body Snatchers but let’s go over why it’s a good movie first.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a textbook example of less is more in special effects. Playing retractable flower petals in reverse to make them look like they’re blooming. Drop $5 clear gel globs onto plants while it rains and you’ve got an image that makes me feel like I’ll never be clean again. Put a little white cotton looking substance all over your actors face and I’m convinced they’re being turned into pod people.
There’re several fun moments throughout the movie that hint at the progress of the invasion. There’s countless dead eyed faces in crowds, garbage trucks and trash cans full of an unrecognizable fibrous material, and if you listen closely you’ll notice the sounds of nature slowly disappear towards the end. One part of me thinks this is a masterpiece, the other thinks it boarders on camp.
I still didn’t enjoy it despite its numerous qualities. I found the plot slow and boring, the premise contrived and unthreatening, and the actors were emotionless zombies… no, wait… was that intentional? The cast’s performances are both perfectly and irritatingly over-the-top. The pacing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is deliberately slow to convey a feeling of a covert occupation. That’s cool and it works, but the timeline of the movie is roughly 36 hours in universe but it feels like 17 hours in screen time. Contrast that with a movie like Red Dawn that establishes the feeling of being oppressed by an occupying invasion force over the course of what must be a year but only slightly dips in pace between the second and third acts.
The premise is imaginative and the threat of being turned into a pod person is sincerely scary up until the point where it’s revealed that the transition begins as soon as you fall asleep. Running from a monster through dark woods is terrifying, running from a monster to a dead end is tragic. Fear is negated when you remove the possibility of survival.
The performances in Invasion of the Body Snatchers range from captivatingly realistic to extremely over acted. The charming dinner scene where Donald Sutherland cooks for Brooke Adams is perfectly measured but can’t make up for the mugging throughout the rest of the film. There’s a scene where Leonard Nimoy throws Jeff Goldblum up against a wall and screams at him as a way to shock Brooke Adams into honestly analyzing her troubled marriage. What? Why? There’s a scene where Donald Sutherland’s crying in believable agony only to turn into the direction of a sudden sound with a bemused look of “Oh, I didn’t see you come in.” What? Why? Veronica Cartwright’s jerky convulsions in the final scene look over exaggerated and distractingly silly next to Sutherlands immobile pointing stare.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was so boring I found myself nodding off during the second act. This actually added a surreal level of terror to the film because this is the point where they discover they’ll turn into pod people if they fall asleep, which means I was barely conscious when I heard Donald Sutherland sternly announce “You have to stay awake.” Fine Donald, but you’ve gotta give me something worth staying up for.
The next time someone is trashing a movie you loved remember that they’re not attacking you, their opinion has no bearing on your enjoyment of the movie, and universal popularity isn’t indicative of quality craftsmanship. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great movie that I didn’t enjoy and couldn’t stay awake through. Not even with Donald Sutherland’s personal encouragement. I must admit the movie did have a scene where a dog’s face is replaced by the face of a man but it still has a long dog tongue that looks hilarious flicking out of its rubber mouth… and that kind of weird shit is enough to win me over, so Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets 5 out of 5 man-faced-dogs.