Weekend Watch: ‘We’re not the last humans left’

News & Politics

In the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the great Donald Sutherland (who died yesterday at 88) plays Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector. He’s a bureaucrat, but one with a sense of humor who never forgets that he, like the restaurant owners he visits, is only human.

Bennell’s faith in the system is such that when his colleague Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) starts sensing that the people around them — including her husband, Geoffrey — are changing in disturbing ways, his first impulse is to suggest she see his psychiatrist friend, Dr. David Kibner. Maybe Geoffrey’s simply become a Republican, Bennell jokes.

Bennell soon comes around to Elizabeth’s theory: strange, plant-like aliens are taking over people’s bodies and duplicating them; the duplicates then work to assimilate their friends and loved ones. They won’t stop until the whole planet is theirs.

The original 1958 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” famously lends itself to dueling interpretations: the all-consuming collective coming for our heroes can represent either Communism or the anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism.

What’s brilliant about Kaufman’s update is the way it transplants this creeping conformism to the “free-spirited” milieu of Me-Generation California. When Elizabeth does meet Kibner (at a book release party for his latest pop psychology bestseller), he’s comforting another woman who claims her husband is not himself. Kibner comforts her with meaningless therapeutic babble until she reluctantly overcomes her instinctive sense that something is deeply wrong.

Perfectly cast as Kibner is Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy brings a little of Spock’s inhuman rigidness to the role, although the logic this character adheres to is that of 1970s self-help. Kibner is one of the first in their group to turn and emerges as a major antagonist; it’s one of the movie’s better jokes that it’s difficult to tell the real Kibner from the pod-person duplicate.

“There’s no need for hate now. Or love,” he says toward the end, urging our heroes to succumb. “Don’t be trapped by old concepts, Matthew, you’re evolving into a new lifeform.”

For those of us wary of the many ways life in America has been deformed and degraded by the mania for “progress,” those are chilling words indeed.

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