Unlike most horror movie remakes, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands as an excellent companion piece to the 1956 classic. The script by W.D. Richter closely follows the original's plot trajectory, but also added further depth, deeply rooted in the milieu of the late 1970s. Phillip Kaufman's direction brilliantly utilized San Francisco as a place oozing paranoia and mystery. There's an unorthodox geometry to every shot: the angles are off center and distorted. Danny Zeitlin's music, a fusion of classical and jazz adds to the disjointed vibe. Solid performances from Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy round out a brilliant film.
The story begins in outer space as amoeba like organisms drift towards earth. They land in San Francisco and begin to feed off the vegetation. Early on we notice people are acting strange. When Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes a sample of one of the plants a woman stares at her suspiciously. Meanwhile, a priest (Robert Duvall cameo) looks catatonic as he sits on a playground swing. Elizabeth returns home and we meet her fiance Jeffrey, a typical American guy watching a game on TV. The next morning Elizabeth discovers Jeffrey is no longer Jeffrey.
Elizabeth explains Jeffrey's odd behavior to her co-worker, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and he recommends she see his psychiatrist friend Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Kibner's one of those celebrity doctors who writes a bestseller every six months and frequently appears on talk shows. He encourages Elizabeth to stick with Jeffrey and work on improving the relationship, noting people leave relationships too easily in the 70s.
Bennel's friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum) is a cynical writer who holds Kibner in outright contempt. Jack goes off on a few rants denouncing the course of modern culture as if he's the last echo of the counterculture. Jack's wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) quickly becomes wise to the fact people are being replaced by duplicates. She is well versed in the New Age trends of the 70s, among them the idea aliens have played a role in earth's history.
As the invasion gains momentum, the characters are increasingly besieged by the pod people. The tone grows increasingly downbeat. After repeated viewings you notice the soundscape moves from the natural to mechanical Garbage trucks appear frequently for sinister purposes. Other recurring images include smashed windows and mirrors there to distort your point of view.
If the 1956 version parodied 1950s conformity, the remake comes from a post-Watergate mind set. It's ironic that the setting of San Francisco, the heart of the counterculture, falls victim to the pod invasion. With the hippy dream on the cusp of falling into the dust bin of history and Reagan's counter-revolution waiting in the wings, the times-were-a-changin.
In addition to the sharp social commentary, there's an even creepier spiritual undercurrent. The pods do appear rather benevolent, as Dr. Kipner's duplicate explains, "You will be born again into an untroubled world free of anxiety." What a relief! No more fears or complications that can make life so unbearable. Near the film's climax we hear a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace" playing as pods are being shipped all over the world - spreading their own message of salvation.
As a straight on horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers works. It also plays on other levels - making it a valuable cultural artifact in its own right.