Monday, September 13, 2010

Five Reasons to Love Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I like to watch movies,  and of all the movies I have ever liked to watch, the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks in my personal top five. (The list changes daily, but Invasion invariably stays up at the top.) Today we got the news that Kevin McCarthy, the handsome actor who starred in the film as Dr. Miles Bennel, died at age 96. It was Bennel who, in the movie's famous final scene, gave America some sound advice about communists, right-wing demagogues, sub-prime mortgages, bed bugs, Internet porn stars, and Sarah Palin's family:

Here are five reasons to love this movie:

The malevolent monsters in this monster movie came from something growing in the back yard. How scary is that? The pods hatched zombie recreations of nice locals (not that Mrs. Grimalldi's son seemed very worried that his mom was acting even weirder than usual), were hard to kill, and had astonishing  reproductive capacities (like the Palins!). Poor Miles pitchforks one in a greenhouse, only to find more growing in the trunk of his car. Frighteningly, they emerge from native American soil. Let Alice Waters explain that!

I grew this myself!

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that American men in 1950s movies and TV shows spent a lot of time padding around the house in pajamas and robes. I suppose that after sleeping in tents and trenches through World War II and Korea they simply wanted a bit of comfort during the evening hours. But this film warns us that we should not be asleep to the dangers all around us, including the attic.

Now where did I put the Christmas tree lights...doh!

They're great to have around...until they aren't. In this movie, which came out during a period of U.S. history when trust in government (and authority figures in general) was fulsome and widespread, we learn that even kindly police chieftains can be corrupt. Of course we already knew that from older Westerns, in which local sheriffs are very often on the payroll of rich cattlemen. But at least in those movies we could secretly admire the rapacious cattlemen for their tough individualism: They knew what they wanted—as much land, money, and political power as possible—and did whatever was necessary to get it. A cop fronting for pod-zombies has no excuse for himself whatsoever.

Keep a lookout for headless bodies in the desert!

Science fiction movies exist to scare us, but the best make us worry, too. And Invasion was the best of the best. There is very little violence. There are no giant ants crunching unlucky citizens with their mandibles. In fact, no one really dies in the film...they just change. And change is scary. Ultimately, it is normalcy itself that is done in by the pod people.

Crystal Bowersox didn't win? It's rigged!
Every real film critic worth his or her salt has had a go at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Was it a Cold War film about the dangers communism seeping into American society? Or was it a warning about the conformity of American society during the McCarthy era? It always works, this plot, no matter what frightens us, which is why filmmakers keep remaking it, with varying success. (Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake, which takes places in Me-Decade San Francisco, is the best of these.)

We never stop fearing that we may be replaced on our own land by aliens of one kind or another. How else to explain the pungency of Arizona Senator John McCain's claim that illegal aliens are known to intentionally cause car accidents. (I'm still unclear about why they would do this, since many illegals work very hard to stay under law-enforcement radar, and most people simply dislike being in auto accidents, but undoubted it made perfect sense to McCain at the time he said it. )

Likewise, the governor of Arizona famously declared on FOX News in July that headless bodies were turning up in the desert because of rising violence related to illegal immigration. Actually, the pod people were sort of headless, in a way.

Of course, we all feel the paranoia we deserve. I felt a twinge this morning, because shortly after reading about Kevin McCarthy's death I got a Tweet from Texas journalist Evan Smith, who reported that 31 percent of Texans now identify themselves as Tea Partiers. I'm sure they look just like normal Texas voters used to look, but I know they're different. Listen to me, please, you have to listen:

You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us...they're here already!



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