Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the name of the first two of four films based on Jack Finney‘s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers. Though the writers of the novel and the first film vehemently denied any allegory or political subtext surrounding the “pod people,” one finds it irresistible to read such meaning into the story; for however one may insist that the story was just meant as an entertaining thriller, there are subtle, if unconsciously given, meanings to be gleaned from it.
According to the Wikipedia article on the novel (sadly, without a source to verify it, so I have to take it on faith), a “pod person” tells a human that the latter’s race is no less parasitic than the former, what with man’s using up of resources, wiping out indigenous populations, and destroying ecosystems in order to survive. Assuming Wikipedia is accurately referencing the novel, is this not a clear political subtext?
Then, in the 1956 movie, Dr. Miles Bennell says, “In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” Such a line doesn’t seem necessary in a mere thriller without any sense of, at least some, social commentary.
Here are some more quotes.
From the novel:
“I saw my father’s wooden filing cabinet, his framed diplomas stacked on top of it, just as they’d been brought from his office. In that cabinet lay records of the colds, cut fingers, cancers, broken bones, mumps, diphtheria, births and deaths of a large part of Mill Valley for over two generations. Half the patients listed in those files were dead now, the wounds and tissue my father had treated only dust.”
“Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love, and reproduce your kind? Because it’s your function, your reason for being. There’s no other reason, and none needed.”
“If we believe that we are just animals, without immortal souls, we are already but one step removed from pod people.”
The 1956 film:
“It started — for me, it started — last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I’d been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” –Dr. Miles Bennell (voiceover)
“Sick people who couldn’t wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn’t his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn’t her uncle.” –Bennell (voiceover)
“Keep your eyes a little wide and blank. Show no interest or excitement.” –Bennell
“Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see?! They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! THEY’RE HERE, ALREADY! YOU’RE NEXT!” –Bennell
“I want to love and be loved. I want your children. I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty. I’d rather die.” –Becky Driscoll
“It’s like the first impression that’s stamped on a coin. It isn’t finished.” –Jack Belicec, describing a body he’s found.
“A strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic mass hysteria. In two weeks, it spread all over town.” –Dr. Kauffman
“You say it as if it were terrible. Believe me, it isn’t. You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.” –Kauffman, as a pod man
Ambulance Driver: We had to dig him out from under the most peculiar things I ever saw.
Dr. Hill: What things?
Ambulance Driver: Well, I don’t know what they are, I never saw them before. They looked like great big seed pods.
Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?
Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.
The 1978 film:
Elizabeth: I have seen these flowers all over. They are growing like parasites on other plants. All of a sudden. Where are they coming from?
Nancy: Outer space?
Jack: What are you talking about? A space flower?
Nancy: Well, why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?
Jack: I’ve NEVER expected metal ships.
Elizabeth: I hate you.
Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), as a pod man: We don’t hate you – there’s no need for hate now. Or love.
Matthew: There are people who will fight you, David.
Elizabeth: Will stop you.
Dr. Kibner: In an hour you won’t want them to. Don’t be trapped by old concepts, Matthew, you’re evolving into a new life form.
“We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.” –Kibner, as a pod man
“It’s like there’s some kind of a hallucinatory flu going around. People seem to get over it in a day or two. All I can do is treat the symptoms.” –Kibner
Now, as far as political interpretations go, liberals see the 1956 film as an allegory about the excesses of McCarthyism and conformity to American values during the Cold War. Continuing with the Cold War theme, conservatives see an allegory on Stalinism.
As for the 1978 film, which I’ll be focusing on the most, I’ll examine the story from my more decidedly left-wing stance, as such a position, to my knowledge, seems lacking in any interpretation of the films.
The anti-McCarthyist and anti-communist interpretations of the 1950s were fitting, what with the realities of the Cold War and the Red Scare. It is also fitting that the novel has a happy (if unconvincing) ending, and the 1956 film has a hopeful ending, with the defeat of McCarthyism, the rise of the radical 60s as a cure for the bland conformity of the 50s, and (from the capitalist class’s perspective) the substantial end of communism by the early 1990s.
The 1978 film, however, has not only a pessimistic but outright frightening ending, which I find fitting for the political allegory I propose: the metastasizing of neoliberalism, which substantively began around the time of the film’s release, and which has continued unabated to this day.
This idea of metastasizing–of growth, spreading (as of a disease) is important when we consider an important motif, developed the most in the 1978 movie: pods–plants–flowers…Just as seeds spread out over the land, and themselves grow into plants; just as a contagion spreads and infects more and more people–so do pods replace more and more humans with unfeeling automatons, comparable to Winnicott‘s False Self.
How can this idea of a contagion be related to our world, especially since the late 1970s? I normally find little inspiration in Richard Dawkins (i.e., his anti-Muslim attitude), but he had one good idea–how ideas spread in the form of memes.
One of the memes that started spreading from around the mid-twentieth century was the ‘philosophy‘ of Ayn Rand. Government involvement in the economy should be minimized, or at any rate only used in the service of capitalism. ‘Rational’ self-interest has a way of benefitting everyone. The individual will outweighs collective needs in importance. (The individual would never, ever subordinate the needs of the many, causing them to conform to the dictates of the individuals in the ruling class! No, no!)
Rand’s ideas, combined with those of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek, resulted in a hijacking of libertarian thinking, changing an originally left-wing ideology into a right-wing one. Pods, all four of them.
Doctors and departments of health do all they can to stop the spread of contagions, and the Doctors Bennell of both films (Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 film; and Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland in the 1978 film) do all they can to resist the pods.
One of the ill effects of ‘small government’ right-libertarian policies is cuts to healthcare coverage, with a risk of thousands of poor people acquiescing to sickness and death annually. Single-payer healthcare is just something the rich don’t want to pay for.
As a health inspector doing a thankless job searching for health violations in a fancy restaurant, Matthew finds “a rat turd” in a pot; the owner of the restaurant insists it’s just a caper. Matthew suggests he eat the “caper,” which of course, he won’t.
As a capitalist, the owner hates Matthew, a man working for the government in the Department of Health in San Francisco; the restaurant employees, dependent on the restaurant’s survival and without a sense of class consciousness, also hate the health inspector, showing their hate by smashing the windshield of his car.
Those promoting health go against capitalism, forcing regulations on bosses, which limit their ability to make profits; those supporting capitalism, including workers without class-consciousness (i.e., workers who are asleep) tolerate the spread of germs…of pods…
Recall that the pods come from a dying alien world, adapting to Earth and taking over for the sake of their survival. This, an invasion, is akin to the capitalist form of imperialism: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall endangers the survival of the capitalist, and when markets dry up in his native country (the “dying world“), he must seek out new markets in other countries, steal their resources to enrich himself, and either take over or kill off the locals, as the pods do on Earth.
The pods “adapt and [they] survive”…as does capitalism: ‘Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.”’ –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262
A well-known ill effect of capitalism is alienation, not just that of workers, but of society and of one’s species-essence. This alienation is vivid, even literal, in this story. People are made alien: alien to each other, and alien to themselves.
The pod replicas’ creation causes the disintegration of the original humans. On the other side of the coin, Miles and Matthew destroy the pods about to replicate them. As we can see, the feeling of alienation is mutual.
Little Jimmy Grimaldi, in the 1956 film, is crying because his mother isn’t really her; in the 1978 film, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) complains that her boyfriend (Art Hindle) is no longer himself. Characters constantly complain about imposters at the beginning of both movies…then many of the original complainers stop complaining, because they’ve become pods themselves who, like capitalists, deny any evil intent.
By a strange (dialectical?) irony, it’s plants in the 1978 film that destroy humanity, instead of vice versa, as in real life; or, more accurately, the invasion of alien imperialism poisons the environment, which in turn destroys humanity–like Monsanto, Agent Orange, or land mines; then there’s what Jair Bolsonaro wants to do to the Amazon rainforest…
So with this invasion, instead of people bonding together in love, they exist merely to survive–just like the ‘sleeping’ proletariat (i.e., those without class consciousness); and as those ‘woke’ proletarians who fight to end this scourge of imperialism are hunted down and destroyed, so are Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), or Matthew and Elizabeth. Furthermore, they are branded as crazy (as how left-leaning people may be labelled ‘nut-bars,’), extreme, or conspiracy theorists…how familiar. Paranoia about neoliberalism is as justified as it is about pod people.
Recall Kevin McCarthy, both as Miles and as the ‘running man’ in the 1978 movie, frantically yelling to all the drivers passing by, “They’re coming!” and “You’re next!” In the first film, drivers shout at him to “Get outta here!,” and call him “crazy,” “idiot,” and “drunk”; in the second, Matthew and Elizabeth lock their car doors. This is the average person’s response to such desperate warnings.
When the ‘running man’ is hit by a car and killed, pod people surround the body and stare at it with unfeeling faces, yet they’re satisfied that the threat to their ascending hegemony is removed. This is like the ruling class’s response to warnings about the growth of neoliberalism.
Outwardly as replicas of the humans whose bodies they’ve ‘snatched,’ the pods have all their memories, and can even mimic emotion on a superficial level, causing us often not to know for sure when the switch to pods has happened. This is the case with Nimoy’s character, Dr. David Kibner, who, a third to halfway into the movie, still shows some emotion, but has no sympathy for Matthew’s fears about the pods at all. As a celebrity pop-psychologist, pre-pod Kibner represents the capitalist tendency to exploit people’s emotional problems by selling them happiness in the form of self-help books, so the blurred line between him as human and as pod makes sense.
So many of the ‘left’ are pods, people who are publicly known as progressives, but who are actually, directly or indirectly, helping the neoliberal agenda. George Soros is one: he helped with the demise of the USSR, yet he pretends to be concerned with the excesses of contemporary capitalism. Slavoj Zižek critiques capitalism, but doesn’t offer any real solutions. I’ve written about how the Clintons, in ‘left-leaning’ guise, have caused enormous damage to the lives of ordinary people, as have Obama and Tony Blair. Justin Trudeau is doing this in Canada, though he’s seen as ‘progressive.’ Pods, all of them.
Neocons like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have pretended to be progressives, too, in their opposition to religion; yet they were and are content to let imperialism in the Middle East carry on unabated. Pods, pods, and more pods.
The memes that people such as these have spread–“socialism doesn’t work,” “communism killed 100 million people,” “the freer the markets, the freer the people,” “TINA,” ‘only the state is the enemy of the people,’ etc.–continue to infect the entire world in a pandemic. No matter how loudly we yell to warn people about neoliberalism and growing fascism, we aren’t listened to…or we’re struck down and killed, like Kevin McCarthy’s frantic runner in the street, in the 1978 film.
Matthew, Elizabeth, and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) learn that they can fool the pods by hiding their emotions whenever they have to walk among them. This is like how crypto-communists have had to hide their sympathies about the Comintern…yet it seems left-leaning George Orwell turned into a pod when he helped the IRD compile a list of those people.
Becky, or Elizabeth, can hide her humanity for only so long before something shocks her–like a dog hit by a car, or a busker sleeping too close to his dog, causing a pod to merge the man’s head with the dog’s body.
Note how the pods don’t care if an animal is killed, or if a dog-man monster is created, symbolic of the bestial nature man is reduced to by neoliberalism. Similarly, the pods don’t bat an eye, or make that ugly shriek, if a pod is walking about naked outside…but they will react if a human is still among them, as chagrined Nancy learns.
I’ve argued elsewhere that–citing Shakespeare’s use of the word in Hamlet—naked can be used to mean ‘without any possessions or means.’ Pod-Elizabeth’s nakedness can thus be seen to represent those deprived of basic necessities by neoliberalism. Many of the deprived, like her, would rather rat out (or ‘squeal out’) those unlike them, as working-class supporters of fascism do, instead of banding together with other workers in solidarity against the ruling class. Neoliberal capitalists, like the pods, don’t care about the deprivation of the naked, such as those suffering in Yemen or Palestine.
The pods are spread by boat from San Francisco (or by truck from fictional Santa Mira in the 1956 movie) to the rest of the world, just as the contagion of neoliberalism spread from Austria to the US and UK, and then to the rest of the world.
And how do humans turn into pods? By falling asleep. What a powerful metaphor for how one’s liberty…one’s very humanity…dies. Only through endless vigilance–indefatigable class consciousness–can we prevent our dehumanization, our mutual alienation.
So, to recap, the contagion of the pods can be seen to represent the spread of capitalist imperialism, in its neoliberal form, through tax cuts to the rich, deregulation, and pro-capitalist/anti-socialist propaganda in the form of memes spread in a market-friendly, corporate media. We lose our humanity to wage slavery, with soulless False Selves that are alienated from each other.
We’ve allowed this to happen because we’ve lost our sense of awareness–we’ve fallen asleep. What had been a thriller with a happy ending–due to the tireless efforts of humanity to repel the pod people in Finney’s novel–grew into an increasingly pessimistic story in these two movies (even the 1956 film originally had a dark ending–that is, before the studio wanted the framing story with the psychiatrist [Dr. Hill, played by Whit Bissell] listening to Miles tell his story, to add a hopeful ending).
But such is the nature of a contagion: to cause a problem to be more and more desperate. Such has been the metastasizing of neoliberalism, to bring the problem of capitalist imperialism from a formidable struggle–in which at least there had been hope of victory–to one in which defeat seems almost a foregone conclusion.
In the 1978 movie, we go from a vigorous Department of Health, with human Elizabeth and Matthew aggressively trying to find out where the flowers and pods came from, to one with pod-Elizabeth and pod-Matthew sitting around lazily at their desks, doing nothing of importance. No one is interested in healing the sick, or stopping the spread of disease. The 1956 film would have ended with Miles shouting his hysterical warning to the drivers on the highway, and perhaps–after the film’s end–hit and killed by a car, as he is in the near-sequel 1978 movie…a dire prognosis for the world.
Can we, our bodies snatched by neoliberalism, find a way back to Finney’s ending?