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Body Snatchers - Movie Review

Body Snatchers
Body Snatchers (1993)

Until a few months ago, I had no idea there was a 1990's adaptation of The Body Snatchers, and when I learned of its existence, I was excited to see it garner a relatively high critical score. Roger Ebert, in particular, gave the film a glowing review, calling it the best adaptation of them all (a position he reaffirmed when reviewing 2007's The Invasion). I have had some disagreements over the years with Ebert--his opinion of slasher movies and the artistic merit of video games chief among them--but on the whole, I respect the man and value his informed opinion. Usually, when I disagree with one of his reviews, I can understand and appreciate his viewpoint, even if I don't share it. On this one, though, I cannot possibly comprehend what the man was thinking. I had to watch 1993's Body Snatchers multiple times and double-check my research to make sure he is referring to the same film. Sufficed to say, he is, and Ebert is flat wrong: this is, if anything, the worst adaptation of Finney's novel.

It's not wholly without merit, mind you, but when compared to either the 1956 or 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is clearly and all-but-objectively inferior on multiple levels. That's because Body Snatchers wants, at its heart, to be a B-movie. It's made with B-movie sensibilities by people whose names should be quite familiar to fans of campy B-movie cinema, names like Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Fortress), Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, New Rose Hotel), and Larry Cohen (It's Alive, Maniac Cop). When I first watched Body Snatchers, it was within twenty-four hours of watching Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and I can unequivocally say that this was an enormous mistake, because the contrast between the two couldn't be starker. If I had gone in knowing I was in for a B-movie, though, I probably still would have been disappointed, because unlike every single one of those B-movies listed above, Body Snatchers lacks a sense of quirky fun, taking itself far too seriously to be a successful piece of schlock.

It also doesn't take itself seriously enough to be considered an A-list film. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle, in a kind of disappointing limbo not unlike that of a forgettable made-for-TV movie. As I mentioned, I watched it multiple times, trying to get a handle on it, before I realized that it is a movie torn apart by its competing impulses: to be both a ridiculous B-movie and a serious, creepy horror film that lives up to the legacy of those that came before it. If you watch the film expecting it to commit one way or another, you'll be annoyed by those aspects that try to pull it in the opposite direction.

Body Snatchers
Meg Tilly makes one creepy stepmom

On the serious side, the story does a pretty decent job layering new and interesting themes onto the established ones from previous iterations. It deviates so thoroughly from the source material that it is hardly the same story at all. It only keeps the most general premise along with a smattering of dialogue, doing away with all of the previous version's characters and situations. This is actually not a problem, because many of the core concepts still come through, despite the radical departures. It manages to alter the relationship angles of previous versions into a study of how a family is affected by a second marriage. It also endeavors, though less successfully, to offer a commentary on military life.

Unfortunately, it's about as subtle and nuanced as a nuclear bomb. This is the kind of movie where, in order to make a statement about military conformity being potentially unhealthy, they slap an Army general's uniform on R. Lee Ermy, tell him to look directly at the camera and say, "Conform!" Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of room for an adaptation of The Body Snatchers to riff provocatively off the idea of military conformity. It's just that this movie fails to do that in any meaningful or interesting way. It comes really close to saying something, but then throws it all away in a baffling power trip of a happy ending that comes across like a jingoistic, militaristic anti-military fantasy. It just doesn't make sense, as though the writers couldn't come up with anything to say about military conformity aside from pointing out that it exists.

Body Snatchers
R. Lee Ermy and Forest Whitaker are in this movie, overacting their hearts out, but only for a handful of scenes

The theme of a broken family, though, bears a bit more fruit. Almost immediately, the stepmother, Carol (Meg Tilly), is turned into a pod person. The protagonist, Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), is her teenage stepdaughter, and her greatest fear (as expressed all too clearly in a painfully overwrought voiceover narration) is that Carol is turning her father, Steve (Terry Kinney), against her, which becomes literally true as things ramp up. This offers a pretty brilliant view of this kind of family dynamic, of how things can seem perfectly wonderful from one person's perpective (Steve's, in this case) while other family members (Marti, along with her little brother, Andy) are rightfully petrified by the gross changes everybody is going through. This thematic arc runs its course by the end of the second act, however, and once Carol reveals herself to be a pod person, both the arc and Carol are dropped from the story like a brick.

Lest you think I am applauding the script for clever writing, rest assured this is a mess of a screenplay. It's full of convenient, lazy storytelling and dialogue that is so thoroughly terrible that the finest actors on the planet would be hard-pressed to find a good way to deliver it well. There's one moment where a simple change could radically alter the story into something better: when Steve is shot to death at Marti's insistence. In the movie, Steve is immediately revealed to be a pod person, affirming Marti's panicked decision to kill him. However, it would be so much more interesting, provocative, and meaningful if Steve were revealed to still be human (not to mention that it would make more narrative sense, but in this movie, that's asking a lot). The last big twist of the film involves a young child being a pod person, so it's not like the writers lacked the balls for such a move; I can therefore only conclude that it's just ineptitude on their part for not seeing the better choices they could have made.

Body Snatchers
The best sequence in the film

Still, I can't dismiss it entirely. There are a few exceptional scenes in there, like the scene in which Andy, the little brother character (played by Reilly Murphy, who, despite appearing in only a handful of films, might just deliver the best performance in the whole flick), is in day care. He and his classmates have been tasked with making finger-paint drawings and then holding them up, all at the same time, for the teacher to see. The camera pans from one painting to the other, and they're all the same, save Andy's, which is quite different. The teacher then gives him a cold, judgemental stare, and we the audience realize that everyone in the room except for Andy is already a pod person. It's a wonderful, creepy scene. There's also a surprisingly suspenseful sequence involving a bathtub, along with some clever moments near the end when Marti and her love interest, Tim (Billy Wirth), are trying to talk their way out of situations by pretending to be pod people. Unfortunately, these good moments aren't nearly enough to hold up the rest of the film, which is ham-fisted, poorly written, overacted, and hokey.

And then there's the music, which is emblematic of all the movie's biggest flaws. It is blaringly loud and over-the-top, filled with maximum cheese and minimum originality. It sorely lacks one thing this movie could use in abundance: subtlety. It merely apes other, better films, just as the cinematography is so busy gracelessly apeing the Dutch angles of the 1978 film that it fails to show us something new. If this were a committed B-movie, these would be par for the course, but unfortunately, Body Snatchers feels like something made by B-movie veterans who were earnestly trying to make something serious and reputable. As a result, it comes across as amateurish and joyless, an emotionless copy of something that used to have more heart.

We're not finished with the pod people yet. Next week, we'll finish with 2007's The Invasion, a film that, when it was released in theaters, I managed to get nearly an hour into before even figuring out that it was an adaptation of The Body Snatchers. Most people I talk to only vaguely remember it, and few seem to realize what it is. It may not have earned the classic status of the first two adaptations, but one thing I can say for sure is that it's better than the 1993 version, no matter what Roger Ebert tells you.

-e. magill 12/12/2018

  • The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
  • Body Snatchers (1993) - Movie Review
  • The Invasion (2007) - Movie Review

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