In the 1950s, several science-fiction films used small towns as their settings. Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the better of its kind, is set in Santa Mira, California, a locale that's meant to stand in for any average town in America.
The narrative's premise is most interesting. A peaceful town is imperceptibly taken over by an alien force: Giant plant pods, products of atomic mutation, turn themselves into replicas of people. The pods turn human beings into faceless, emotionless automatons, incapable of any feeling, be it anger or love. Once again, the image used is that of an initially normal and ordinary town, suddenly thrown out of balance. “At first glance, everything looked the same,” the narrator says, “It wasn't. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” The rest of the film explores that “something.”
Called back to Santa Mira from a medical conference, Doctor Miles Bonnel (Kevin McCarthy) is greeted at the train station by his nervous nurse, Sally. Looking through his clinic's window, everything “looks” the same: Wally Everhard is talking someone into buying insurance, Bill Bittner is taking his secretary to launch. Yet something strange is going on. In the back of his mind, Miles senses a warning bell: “Sick people who couldn't wait to see me, suddenly were perfectly all right.”
A general practitioner, Miles believes that, “the trouble is inside you!” thus recommending that she sees a psychiatrist. The first “solution” to the problem is psychiatric help, with the film acknowledging the increasing popularity of psychiatry in the 1950s. Miles rationalizes his advice to Wilma by saying, “you don't have to be losing your mind to need psychiatric help.” But Wilma is firm: “It's a waste of time, there's nothing wrong with me.”
Like many other films of the decade, Invasion deals with three issues: the definition of normal and abnormal behavior; the legitimate authority to label behaviors as abnormal or deviant; and the negative effects of conformity, apathy, and complacency.
The film suggests that the town's experts and professionals are not to be trusted. The police force, an agency entrusted with the legitimate use of physical force, can't solve the problem. In fact, when Jack's clone is found, they refuse to call the police, because cops tend to rely too much on logic and dry laws.
Miles represents the center of the moral center. He is a professional, but a general practitioner, not a specialist, thus able to see the problem overall, in its entirety. Even so, Miles proves that his common sense and critical faculties as a responsible individual are more important than his narrow professional skills. Thus, when Jack first describes the problem he says: “Would you be able to forget that you're a doctor for a while” For the duration of the film, Miles “forgets” his occupation.
The movie advocates independent judgment, common sense, intuition, and self-reliance, and shows suspicious toward anyone in a position of power or professional expertise. Invasion, like Capra's movies of the Depression era, singles out the role of an exceptional individual, a charismatic leader, in preventing society from dehumanization, from gradual transformation into an aggregate of unfeeling robots.
Sleep is the metaphor used to convey mass complacency and conformity. The pods take over human beings when they are not alert, when they are (literally or figuratively) asleep, thus passive. Escaping from town, Miles gives Becky and himself a large dose of pills to stay awake. “We can't close our eyes all night,” he tells her, because “we may wake up changed.” “Sooner or later,” Kauffman tells Miles, “You'll have to go to sleep,” i.e. you'll have to conform and join the majority. But Kauffman also reassures him that as soon as he falls asleep, the pods will “absorb your minds, your memories, and you're reborn into an untroubled world.”
The new world will be without love, ambition, grief, or any emotions, “Life will be much simpler and better.” Indeed, during their escape, chased by every member in town, Becky can't stay awake any longer and she falls asleep. “I went to sleep and it happened,” says Becky. “A moment of sleep,” narrates Miles, and “their bodies were now hosts harboring alien forms of life.”
Santa Mira is a typical small town; there is nothing special or distinctive about I; what happened in Santa Mira couldand would–happen in other towns. In most sci-fi films, the disaster first occurs on a local level before spreads all over the country. The catastrophe begins in a small town, then moves to bigger regional centers, and finally inflicts the entire nation. Attempting to get assistance, Miles first calls the F.B.I. in Los Angeles, but there is no answer. His call to the governor in Sacramento also fails; the circuits are busy in both places.
Invasion differs from other sci-fi features because there is no immediate confirmation of the hero's report of the “strange” phenomenon by other witnesses; the conflict is between one individual and the entire community. Invasion shows that the authorities, both scientific and political, are neither trustworthy nor competent. Other films went out of their way to reassured audiences that they were “in good hands,” that politicians (or the military) and scientists would come to the rescue when needed. In contrast, Invasion's ending is so tentative and abrupt that it provides no such reaffirmation, instead urging its viewers to be always alert.
What Invasions shares with other sci-fi films of the 1950s is the notion that the threat comes from the outside (another planet). The small-town locale of sci-fi films is particularly important, because it usually signals normality, ordinariness, and orderliness. In most sci-fi films, the town's members eventually organize in a united front to fight the enemy more effectively. However, in this movie, Miles, the insider and moral center, is perceived as an outsider by the town's new moral majority. But, with all the criticism of Santa Mira as a town, there's still intimacy and familiarity and the residents know each other by first name. This element of small-town life would decline in the 1960s and disappear in the 1970s.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is also effective as a nightmarish allegory of mass society, one that consists of mindless and emotionless conformists, an interpretation in tune with Marxist and Frankfurt School's critique of mass society, which was at its height in the 1950s.
In a 1980 tribute at USC, director Don Siegel singled out Invasion of the Body Snatchers as his favorite film, because it was “about something, and that's very rare.” He claimed that he was always aware of the symbolic meaning of his movie: “There are pods–not vegetables from outer space as in my movie–but real people. Many of my associates are pods, people who have no feeling of love or emotion, who simply exist, breathe, and sleep. That said, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and other films of its kind) could be enjoyed as “straight” dramas or as political allegories.
As a genre, sci-fi peaked in the l950s as a result of several political reasons. First, there was a renewed interest in outer space. Second, there was fear of the atomic bomb's destructive power. Moreover, because of McCarthy's witch-hunting, filmmakers feared to comment directly on current social problems, instead turning to “safer” stories, such as sci-fi and Westerns, using both genres as political allegories.