Stay Woke: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

I've never expected metal ships.

Stay Woke: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

I rarely write about “classics.” Everyone has seen them, or read about them; everyone has an opinion. The most well-received opinions have been repeated over and over until they’ve acquired the status of truth. You know that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in 1956, was sort of about communism, and the superior remake, in 1978, was sort of about modern urban alienation, and what you definitely know, about this movie, is that Donald Sutherland makes a face so goofy that I assumed for years it was an image of Graham Chapman in some old Monty Python skit. I could not imagine that face coming out of a horror movie. But it does.

So when I tell you that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is actually about what it feels like to be trans in the United States of America in 2022, I have a lot of things working against me, most obviously the fact that it could not possibly be true. Still: I plan to make my case.

The plot of Invasion is simple: One fine morning, the city of San Francisco is invaded with a strange new species of wildflower. We (having seen the credit sequence) know these flowers come from outer space, but everyone else just thinks they’re neat. People begin picking the flowers, handing them to each other, bringing them home, and then, within about ten minutes of the opening sequence, the changes start.

Some people go blank. They’re cold, unemotional. Sometimes you’ll spot them conferring with each other about something important, in dark abandoned spaces, faces devoid of expression. Some people, other people, start breaking down and getting hysterical: Husbands insist their wives have something terribly wrong with them, women claim they no longer recognize their husbands, businessmen run down the street screaming about an unspecified “them.”

In time, a select group of all-stars (and they are good: aside from Sutherland, you’ve got Veronica Cartwright, baby Jeff Goldblum, non-baby Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke “The Unborn” Adams) learns the terrible truth: These people, these creatures who look like their friends and neighbors and loved ones, are no longer human. They are identical-looking duplicates, secreted out of pods grown by the alien flower, and they have killed the original people, absorbed their memories, and taken over their lives.

Every time you fall asleep, your duplicate begins growing out of a pod somewhere. If it grows to completion, you die. There is no way to call for help, because, by the time our heroes realize what’s happening, the duplicates outnumber the humans, and control the city’s infrastructure and government. They are powerful enough to hunt down the few remaining humans in the city, starting with our heroes, who have had the temerity to threaten their plans.

Again: You already know all this. You’ve seen it parodied on Community and ripped off for a bad Nicole Kidman movie. You’ve heard the term “pod people.” You’ve seen the memes. Watching it in 2022, it’s hard not to notice that the characters keep begging each other to “stay awake” — to keep their eyes open to the destructive social order, to resist being absorbed by hostile forces — and that this not only sounds like “stay woke,” it echoes that phrase’s original meaning.

I may or may not be inventing that last resonance, but it’s there. What makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers scary — genuinely scary, even after so many repetitions — is that it is very good at depicting how quickly a community, or the world, can be taken over by a dangerous idea, and how easily someone can transform from a neighbor into a mortal threat without their intended targets noticing the change.

Kaufman famously changed the setting of Invasion from a small town to San Francisco, a major city, where a certain amount of anonymity and distance are a given. City dwellers are constantly surrounded by people, but those people are almost always strangers. How well do you actually know the guy who does your dry cleaning, let alone his wife? If he said she was acting strangely, what standard would you use to assess her behavior? If a guy comes charging down the street screaming about invaders, is he a harbinger of apocalypse, or is he the fifth mental breakdown you’ve seen this week? A group of children is being led back into their daycare, and one of them complains about having to take their nap early: Why would you notice that? Why would you care?

It’s a quiet apocalypse, a collapse perceived only from the edges and in scraps, like history itself. You catch little glimpses of something that might be bad, but not until you’re being hunted down a dark alley by a police helicopter do you suspect how bad, or how pervasive, it really is. J.K. Rowling liked a few bad tweets, unless it was more than a few bad tweets, and now Mark Hamill and Stephen King are liking bad tweets by J.K. Rowling, and now I guess Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead follows a lot of TERFs, and also Brian Cox from Succession turns out to be transphobic, and it’s just celebrities, right? You don’t actually need to be loved by celebrities, that’s childish, but I guess Jesse Singal has this newsletter, and Glenn Greenwald has this newsletter, and Andrew Sullivan and Abigail Shrier and Bari Weiss, they’ve all got their little newsletters, but they’re just newsletters, right? Except now it’s the New York Times, and then it’s another article in the New York Times, and then another and another and now lawmakers are citing the New York Times to say we should ban trans people, and now the people who hate you are everywhere, they occupy every seat of power or influence, how did it get this bad this quickly, why is every voice on the phone so much colder than it used to be, who do you call for help, who’s flying that helicopter, what are you going to do —

It’s interesting, in this context, to note that director Philip Kaufman — and several of the movie’s stars, most notably Goldblum and Nimoy — are Jewish. I hesitate to belabor the connection as a non-Jew, but history is always pushing at the edges of this movie, reminding you that some people know more than others about having their communities turn on them.

It can surprise you, that hatred. It’s fast, it’s contagious, it happens (like love, like bankruptcy) slowly and then all at once. Differences that formerly didn’t seem to matter, or even exist, become matters of life and death. Forms of monstrosity that once seemed impossible — Dave is from outer space; Suzy is a Nazi — become common. We’re all just people, until one of us is Other, and outnumbered, and by the time that happens, the world as we know it is already gone; replaced, overnight, without anyone noticing the change.

Am I confident that this is the one and only way to read Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I am not. It’s a reading that is suspiciously relevant to me personally — always a mark against claims of universal truth — and one that I only could have made in the past few years.

I can imagine a completely opposed reading of Invasion, done by someone enraged at “cancel culture.” That person would note that the pods want to wipe out free thought and individuality, make everyone agree with each other all the time. They would argue that speaking your mind, even when it offends people, is the only way to resist them  — and, in a way, it is; like a lot of movies from the ‘70s, Invasion glorifies “individuality” and “rebellion” in a way that ultimately comes off as narcissistic and bratty. They would say that by refusing to use people’s correct pronouns, they are resisting the woke culture’s totalitarian censorship, fighting back against the pod people. The pod people who are, in this instance, me.

We all like to imagine each other as less than human when we disagree. That may be our most human trait. What I can tell you is that I feel outnumbered, right now. I don’t know who to trust, and I’m scared. I feel as if something very large has been happening all around me, for quite some time, first quietly, and now out in the open. I don’t know how much longer my body will be my own.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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At my other job: Trans Pinhead, queer horror, and the uses of monsters.