Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Don Siegel’s Brilliant Sci-Fi

In the 1950s, several sci-fi films used small towns as their settings. Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the best of its kind, is set in Santa Mira, California, 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.”

Later, a boy brought by his grandmother claims that his mother is not really his mother. He is reluctant to go home, fearing that someone is going to get him. Upon meeting Becky (Dana Wynter), his old flame from high school who is back in town after five years in London, she tells Miles that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) believes Uncle Ira is not her uncle. “There’s something missing,” Wilma tells Miles, “There’s no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it.” Wilma explains that, “the words, gestures, tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling.”

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.”

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.

Psychiatrists are also mistrusted because they lack the necessary sensitivity and understanding. Psychiatrist Dan Kauffman first diagnoses the situation as a mystery, “It’s an epidemic of mass hysteria.” Later, when he is summoned by Miles to see Becky’s clone (which then disappears), Kauffman refuses to believe. “You saw it only in your mind,” he says, “The mind is a strange and wonderful thing, I’m not sure it will ever be able to figure itself out. Everything else maybe, everything but itself.” Soon, though, Kauffman himself is converted into one of “them,” another soulless pod.

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.

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.”

Invasion unfolds in one long flashback, framed between two brief sequences, a prologue and epilogue, which were imposed by producer Walter Wanger after the film was shot, against the director’s strong objection. Initially, the movie was going to end with Miles standing on the highway, trying unsuccessfully to stop the traffic, staring directly at the camera and screaming (at the viewers) “You’re next, you’re next.”

However, when previews indicated that it was alarmingly pessimistic, so a new ending was reshot. In the new version, after considering Miles “crazy” and a “madman,” the authorities (a good, more reliable psychiatrist) eventually believe in his report and come to the rescue.

If you pay close attention to the film’s beginning, before the flashback begins, you would notice that Miles is by himself. Thus, the sequence in which Miles escapes town with Becky loses some of its suspense because viewers may remember that Becky is not with Miles at the end.