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August 1-7, 2007

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Cult Leader

I, Pod: Where you gonna hide from the invasion that never ends?

By Steve Palopoli

WE ALL get the body snatchers we deserve. If there's one lesson to be learned from all three film versions of Jack Finney's 1955 novel of the same name, that's probably it. Usually 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1993's Body Snatchers are considered remakes of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I have a hard time considering different adaptations of the same book in those terms. Interestingly, the two later movies positioned themselves almost as sequels, hinting at a certain overarching linear narrative (the 1993 version was tag-lined "The invasion continues"). But they also reinvent the story each time.

Yet another version, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and retitled The Invasion, arrives in theaters in the next couple of weeks, after sitting on the shelf for over a year while the Wachowski brothers were brought in to reshoot the work of director Oliver Hirschbiegel (best known for the three-hour Hitler epic Downfall). I hope the results don't screw up the curve, because the Body Snatchers films are my favorite unofficial trilogy. It's easy to say that each represents the paranoia of its era, and certainly that's true, but to me the most significant difference in these films has to do not with time, but place.

First, it's important to point out that the reason these films all stand on their own, despite their various flaws, is primarily because they were each helmed by a talented and idiosyncratic director—Don Siegel made the first one, Philip Kaufman the second and Abel Ferrara the third. And they each consider the central theme of Finney's original book (which, strangely enough, is set in the 1970s) from a radically different angle.

Here's a comprehensive guide to how to avoid getting your bod snatched by the pod people:

1.) Avoid small towns. The first Body Snatchers film made it clear that a quaint, quiet little burg (the setting of Finney's novel) is the perfect breeding ground for pods. Small-towners, the film warns, tend to gravitate toward conformity and distrust anyone they consider different or an outsider. So it's hard to tell if the senior citizens staring disapprovingly at you and muttering under their breaths at the next table are a bunch of pod people planning the overthrow of the world or just some asshole coffee klatchers. Probably both. Incidentally, there is a longstanding debate over whether Siegel's '50s version is about the danger of Communism or anti-Communism (i.e., McCarthyism). It's been said that Siegel disavowed any politics at all in the film. That's actually not true. In his book Who the Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich asked Siegel, "Is there a specific political reference in the picture to McCarthy and totalitarianism?" and he replied, "It was inescapable, but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain, and I did not want to preach."

2.) Avoid large cities. As we all know from watching the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a big, unfriendly urban center is the perfect breeding ground for pods. City dwellers, the film warns, become numb and isolated; nobody knows or cares what anyone else is doing. Next thing you know: BAM! Body-snatcher infestation. "It was like the whole city had changed overnight," says Brooke Adams at one point. Who hasn't felt that about their own city, as it rapidly grows and changes? By the way, this version is just nuts. I love it. A lot of people didn't like the effects, especially the man's face on a dog's body, but I think the only truly unbelievable thing in the movie is the idea that anyone—even a pod person—would have been going to a Warriors game in their horrific 1978 season.

3.) Avoid Army bases. The 1993 version illustrates why a military facility is the perfect breeding ground for pods. Soldiers are already trained to act emotionless and obedient—who's going to notice if they start getting their bodies snatched? For my money, this version has the best ending of the three: as the surviving humans land their helicopter on a different military base, Ferrara holds on a close-up of an ominous soldier in sunglasses mindlessly guiding them down. So did the pods spread? Or do we just condition our own young men and women to act so mechanically they might as well be pods? And which answer is scarier?

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite evil-plant movie here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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