Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Early on in Jordan Peele’s Us, the protagonist, Adelaide, says she’s been noticing a lot of weird coincidences lately, and she thinks they’re a hint of something larger coming. It’s hard to know what to make of that in the context of Us, given that the plot point doesn’t seem to come to much. But it does feel like it’s a potential way of explaining all the coincidences that abound around the film’s relationship to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe it’s even a reference to Invasion’s own odd series of coincidences, starting with the meeting that radically shaped the film. In a making-of featurette, Kaufman explains that he’d been thinking about remaking Don Siegel’s 1956 horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so he dropped in on Siegel’s office, looking for his blessing and his advice. While he was there, who happened to walk in but Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 Body Snatchers. And as the three men started talking, Kaufman says, Siegel and McCarthy let him in on some of the details of the film they wanted to make back in 1956, and couldn’t get past the studio at the time.
That’s how the 1978 Body Snatchers came to get made, and how Siegel and McCarthy ended up with cameo roles in the film. Here’s another mild coincidence for you: in 1978, the idea of a sound designer — not a sound recorder or supervisor, or a foley artist, but someone whose entire job was to invent new sounds for things that didn’t exist — was a rapidly growing discipline, thanks to the tremendous influence of George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars, and his tremendous focus on created sound effects for that film. Lucas’ sound designer, widely credited with having pioneered the discipline as it exists today, was Ben Burtt — who wound up on Body Snatchers, trying to figure out a way to create the noises of alien duplicates being born out of pods. Coincidentally, his wife was pregnant when the film was being made, and when he sat in on an ultrasound to hear what his new baby sounded like — also a newly popular and common technology at the time — he heard the sounds he wanted to use in Body Snatchers. When Donald Sutherland is sleeping in the garden, and a steady wet throbbing surrounds him as four alien duplicates form at his feet, you’re listening to the heartbeat of Ben Burtt’s unborn child.
There are a lot of fascinating production stories like that about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, about how Kaufman worked to get what he describes as the look of a film noir, but in color. Or how he had no budget for the opening alien-world sequence, so his effects designers assembled an alien world on a small piece of plywood, and populated it with writhing creatures made by pouring a $10 bottle of art gel into water. Or how once again, Alien’s Veronica Cartwright went into a horror sequence without having been told beforehand what would happen. When Donald Sutherland shrieks at her at the end of the movie, she says, that was real horror on her face in response — just as with the Alien chestburster scene, she’d been given some leadup idea what to expect, but hadn’t been filled in on the details.
But the making-of aside, Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains fascinating for other reasons. The stars — Sutherland, Cartwright, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy — are facing a threat that sounds like a paranoid fantasy, no matter how you spin it. Aliens who copy humans and then destroy the originals are rapidly taking over Earth, and there’s no way to explain that without sounding insane. The original 1956 Body Snatchers was taken as a metaphor for the creeping spread of either communism or McCarthyism, but the 1978 version, Kaufman says, is more about the dread and malaise of the 1970s — that feeling that the government couldn’t be trusted, authority figures couldn’t be trusted, and especially the psychiatric community couldn’t be trusted, since it was so determined to tell everyone that their problems could be solved with positivity and hugging.
So if you can’t trust anyone, who do you turn to when humanity starts to disappear? According to this version of Body Snatchers, all you can do is cling to your loved ones as long as you can. Maybe that involves trusting a few friends to watch your back. Maybe it involves acting on a longstanding crush, and seizing whatever emotional connection you still have time for. And maybe eventually it involves giving in and becoming the thing you most fear, because there’s no other choices. It’s a conclusion Peele also reaches in Us, in a very different way, and that certainly isn’t a coincidence.