“Invented by the novelist Jack Finney in the 1950s, the pod people—the soul-swiping alien forms attempting to take over the planet by replicating and replacing the human population as they sleep—have risen to the status of a modern American myth,” wrote Dennis Lim for the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “The allegorical potency of Cold War science fiction—by now the subject of much critical and scholarly writing, perhaps most famously in Susan Sontag‘s 1965 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster‘—is nowhere more evident than in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel in 1956, it has become one of the most closely dissected genre movies of all time, inspiring contradictory readings from both ends of the political spectrum.”
“Does it show the virus of communism invading American minds, or the virus of anti-communist complacency and conformity?” asks the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “Or perhaps it is about something else entirely: the eternal horror that can creep over you at any age—perhaps mostly middle age—that your own identity and everyone else’s is just a dream, a fake, an insidious illusion.”
The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey: “Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake was a nervy modern classic, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers transferred the scenario with mixed results to a military base, and the less said about The Invasion (2007), with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig doing catatonic impressions of themselves, the better. But it all started here, in the B movie to end—or transcend—them all…. Of course, it’s the very open-endedness of the film’s subtext that gives it power. When a sleepy California town is overrun, first by the outbreak of a strange delusion that people have been replaced by doppelgangers, but then gradually by the doppelgangers themselves, the film is brilliantly placed, however unwittingly, to illustrate America’s political paranoia from both ends.”
“The original has a film noir attitude which places viewers alongside lead character Dr Miles Bennell [Kevin McCarthy], anxiously sharing his gradual discovery, fear of and reaction to what is taking over the fictitious California town of Santa Mira,” writes Kieron Tyler at the Arts Desk. “None of this should be a surprise, especially that it is more noir than science fiction. The film’s producer Walter Wanger was behind such socially aware dramas as 1940’s Alfred Hitchcock-directed Foreign Correspondent. Wanger was familiar with enforced conformity as he had spent time in prison after shooting the agent with whom his wife, actress Joan Bennett, was having an affair. The spell in jail resulted in the 1954 film Riot in Cell Block 11, which Wanger produced. It was directed by Don Siegel (later behind Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz), who went on to work for Wanger on Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“Though Corman-esque in its production design, politics and snappy 80-minute runtime, there’s an eerie artistry to Siegel’s vision of smalltown communal life,” finds David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “The question mark which nestles behind the drama for much of second half is, would it really be so bad or so different if we had our individuality taken away from us? Are these lives interesting enough for anyone to really notice that they’re being ‘destroyed’? Are they even being destroyed?”
More from BFI programmer Geoff Andrew; plus, Matthew Thrift revisits ten more American sci-fi films of the 1950s. Barry Keith Grant‘s written the BFI Film Classics volume on Invasion. See, too, Deborah Allison‘s entry on Don Siegel in the Senses of Cinema Great Directors Database.