The Poddification of Everyday Life

[I don’t often subject you to leftovers from my former life in academia, but earlier today I was having a GIF interchange with two friends, writers Andrew Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson, and the movies The Invasion of the Body Snatchers came up (the 1956 and 1978 versions). I was reminded that at one point in early 2000s I was quite taken with the films, and had written a book chapter and several conference papers on both movies, along with the 1994 re-remake. Here’s one of the papers. Unlike many academic critics, I tried to keep it mostly in English. Enjoy!]

“The Poddification Of Everyday Life”

All three of the filmed versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—Don Siegel’s 1956 original, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the same name, and Abel Ferrara’s 1994 Body Snatchers—posit as their central horror the systematic replacement of the real with the simulated that French theorist Jean Baudrillard suggests is characteristic of postmodern life. In all three films, mothers, fathers, wives, uncles, lovers, and friends are replaced with simulacra that look and sound “real,” but have no connection to the human reality they resemble. This paper will examine the original and two remakes to suggest that these films offer a progressively grimmer critique of American culture.

Each of the three begins by posing the central question of personal identity—“Who’s there?” as Bernardo demands at the beginning of Hamlet. Relatively uncomplicated readings of these films have interpreted them through the lenses of broad (or global) social concerns current at their times of production. Thus the first has often been associated with what James Monaco called the “political paranoia” of its era (232), in particular with the discourses of communism and McCarthyism, connecting the dehumanization of being replaced by pod people with the “soullessness” of the former and the mass hysteria of the latter. The second has been variously associated with Vietnam and the death of the hippie movement, and critic Roger Ebert suggested the third film might be driven by the spread of AIDS.

And in fact, in each version, the main characters meet the proliferation of people who suddenly believe their loved ones have changed with a search for reasonable explanations that reference elements exterior to the film. In the 1956 version, the main character, Dr. Miles Bennell, first suggests his small town is seeing an epidemic of mass hysteria brought on by worry about world events, and later wonders if the pods result from atomic radiation, foregrounding the prevailing cultural fears of atomic warfare at the height of the cold war.

In the 1978 version, the scientist hero is Matthew Bennell, not a physician but a civil servant who works for the Department of Public Health in San Francisco. He approaches the problem as a public health epidemic, viewing pods as a kind of disease vector; considering its setting, we might see the second film rather than the third as driven by HIV. Later in the film, Nancy Bellicec, who runs a bathhouse in San Francisco, initially thinks the pods are part of a pattern of global environmental damage.

And finally, in the last filmed version, a tentative explanation is first offered within the context of psychotropic effects of the chemicals used in biowarfare.

As the three films offer these early explanations of the invasions, it is tempting to locate these as the heart of each film’s cultural critique. However, an analysis of each film reveals that in each “poddification” becomes a trope for a different, what I might call “local,” cultural discourse supplied by the film itself. While these are related to cultural trends and concerns of the films’ moments, they are more complex and darker in their views of the culture than traditional interpretations have suggested.

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Thus poddification in the 1956 film becomes a metaphor not of the communist or anti-communist menaces, or of concern about larger world issues, as Miles opined, but rather of what the film suggests are the pernicious effects of creeping mass culture represented within the film itself. The events take place within a carefully constructed nostalgic representation of a “typical” American small town, Santa Mira, which appears at first glance to be a kind of Anytown USA, with its city center of small businesses surrounded by quiet neighborhoods and rich farmland, where everyone knows everyone else, children are named Jimmy and one’s childhood sweetheart is named Becky, and when things seem out of joint everyone looks for answers to the kindly, dedicated Dr. Bennell in his small office that overlooks the town square.

As events unfold, we begin to realize that this artificially nostalgic view of Santa Mira also supports a social reality based upon a rigidly hierarchical system of class and gender that the film offers as normal (racial difference having already been erased in the film before it even starts, as all the characters are white). On their way home from the train station where his nurse has come to pick him up, they almost run over a youngster who has noticed his mother has changed; Miles stops to speak briefly with his grandmother, a farmer’s wife whose rough housedress clashes noticeably with Miles’s suit, and even with the nurse’s crisp uniform, marking the class difference immediately. Though his image plays into the nostalgic vision of the dedicated doc who makes house calls, Kevin McCarthy, who plays Dr. Bennell, is anything but the rumpled and overworked country doc. His classic aristocratic good looks, with pinched nostrils, tailored suits, and ever-present cigarette, are all markers of a higher socioeconomic class. He cares for working class residents in his practice but in his private life hobnobs with others on his level at the town’s tony restaurant, and his former girlfriend, Becky, has a pseudo-British accent and elegant bare shoulders in the revealing dress she wears when she first meets him after her return from living in England, where her marriage has broken up. Both Miles and Becky are divorced, which lends to them both the frisson of modern scandal in the staid 1950s small town.

Jack Bellicec, a writer in the film and friend of Miles, is also surrounded by signifiers of upper-crust sophistication. He lives in a house with a wet bar from which he serves up the martinis and bourbon that he and Miles knock back constantly, a pool table in his rec room, foreign-language posters, pottery, and expensive knick-knacks scattered throughout. The film is full of these markers of 1950s caste privilege, as the upper-class characters drink martinis, tool around in new cars, wear impeccably styled clothing, and comport themselves (at least before the pods take over) with an impeccable urban sangfroid.

When the pods do arrive, the first to change are not these members of the higher socioeconomic class, but ordinary working people; the pods enter this community through farmers. As more people change, we realize the class distinctions marked by what the characters wear, do, and value are all being leveled under the relentless onslaught of the pods. Suddenly the pod people come from every class in this microcosm of American society, and the higher-class now mingle with shopkeepers, police, housewives, meter-readers, and gas station attendants in common cause in ways that were not previously sanctioned.

As Santa Mira’s social distinctions are leveled, so, too, do the characteristics that the film supports as essentially human disappear once the pod people begin taking over. These, the film asserts, are foundational to the nostalgic, rigidly stratified social reality the pods replace. The film makes clear that the lovers Miles and Becky resist poddification so staunchly in large part because their transformation will mean the end of the intense emotion they feel for each other. Yet the film also suggests this emotion is only one characteristic pod people will lose. Poddification also means the end of desire, ambition, and faith, arguably the three cultural elements most responsible for the power and status enjoyed by Miles and the rest of his class in the film’s mythic meritocracy of America. When these pillars that prop up their class-stratified society disappear, the discourse of “normality” changes and Miles and Becky lose their privileged status, worth, and material advantages, and literally take to the hills, on the run for their lives.

Only at the end of the film are these distinctions restored, as another man in a suit takes charge at the out-of-town hospital where Miles makes his way. At first believed to be insane, not only because of his story but his dirty, disheveled, sweaty (that is, working class) look, he finally convinces the physicians at the hospital when a truck driver is brought in after dumping his load of pods across the highway. The original ending had Miles wandering through the highway traffic shouting, “You’re next!” as the pod-bearing trucks spread the invasion. The final ending, the outer parenthesis of the frame added on by the studio that felt the original ending would have been too depressing, restores the social distinctions the pods undermined.

Thus this view of the discourse of the 1956 original offers poddification as a trope for the leveling of well-entrenched social distinctions brought about by the mass culture of the modern world then taking shape in post-World War II America. A casualty of this leveling, the film asserts, is the elimination of emotion, desire, ambition, and faith. The “happy ending” halts this, at least temporarily, and the status quo is upheld.

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With no such happy ending, the multi-layered 1978 version asserts a considerably grimmer vision of poddification. Within the local discourse of this remake, the invasion becomes a metaphor for the spread of the antihuman culture of commodification and religious fundamentalism represented in the discourse of the film, and, in a broader frame, the cosmic inevitability of the erasure of disenfranchised groups. The scene switches from small Santa Mira to San Francisco, an urban milieu that has already devolved into the mass culture for which poddification was the first film’s metaphor. Where everyone knew everyone else in the small town America of Santa Mira, the characters in the San Francisco of the 1978 film careen through the anonymous teeming crowds of a modern neon metropolis. In such an atmosphere, human contact becomes all the more important, and the sense that “something’s missing” in the ones we love becomes all the more disturbing (as well as inevitable). The images of starbursts and webs scattered throughout the second version also suggest the extent to which the society has become interconnected, as the visual tendrils of the growing space plants are mirrored in the crack in Bennell’s windshield, and, structurally, in the reappearance in different settings of characters involved in the pod conspiracy as they pass their secret between them. As in the first film, “Who’s there?” becomes the key question, and in the mass culture of the 1978 film that question achieves enormous existential importance. A knock on the door can mean help or destruction.

In such a milieu, the 1978 film targets a number of local discourses, particularly the relentless commodification of daily life. The cost of everything is always among the first considerations in this version, as for example when Elizabeth Driscoll, Matthew’s coworker and friend (and Becky’s counterpart from the first film) early on has trouble getting a pod flower analyzed at her lab because it will cost too much. The smug well-to-do psychiatrist David Kibbner represents the commodification of emotional life as a hustler promoting his newest book on relationships at a book party that is one of the set pieces of the early part of the movie. Time, and everything else, is money in the film’s social reality, which is driven by what Cornell West called the market morality of American capitalist society. Indeed, West’s description of market forces could stand as a description of poddification in general in this remake, noting that “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities”; it is a voracious culture that, like the pod people, “engulfs all of us”.

Kibbner is also responsible for much of the localized cultural discourses for which poddification is a metaphor. His language is a mélange of psychobabble about the dangers of “shutting down feelings” (with massive irony, of course, since emotions are the first to go when one is replaced by one’s pod replica, and Kibbner becomes a malevolent agent for the pod transformation), relationships, 1970s therapies, and, most importantly, once he is revealed to be a pod person, fundamentalist religion. If Matthew and Elizabeth would only give themselves up to poddification, Kibbner tells, them they will be “born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety, fear, and hate”; he cautions them, “don’t be trapped by old concepts . . . you’re evolving into a new life form.” Kibbner’s use of the religious discourse of being “born again” explicitly connects poddification with religious transformation in addition to the market culture noted earlier; both religion and capitalism appear to result in the loss of what makes us most human.

The religious association gains resonance near the end of the film, when Matthew hears bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” by the docks when he is looking for an escape. He discovers the song is only on a radio playing as pods by the hundreds are being loaded onto a ship for distribution to far ports. The transformational salvation the song describes becomes an ironic false salvation that is no longer possible in the new, poddified world.

The metaphor of birth assumes additional importance in this film as the remake uses birth imagery to mark how women’s insights, ways of knowing, concerns, and especially bodies are replaced with a crushingly brutal cultural and cosmic imperialism that is clearly associated with power and patriarchy. The film begins on another planet, with a series of striking images of the original space seeds. The seeds are shown as gelatinous and sperm-like, and gradually break away from their seedbed on the alien world to enter the solar winds exactly as microphotographs show sperm being ejaculated and rushing on their way to fertilize an egg. After they reach this planet (round as a human egg, contributing to the visual metaphor of cosmic fertilization), they fall to the ground in rain, an obvious image of fertility, and are shown clinging in seminal lumps to vegetation on the ground.

Later in the film, the large pods are seen in great detail as they break open and expel the replicants in visual images that exactly duplicate birth. The heads of the pod replacements gradually protrude through the cervix-like opening of the pods, and the plant creatures being expelled into the world reproduce, ontogenetically, the development of a human from wet squirming newborn to adolescent to full grown pod person in a matter of minutes.

The meaning is clear: pods replace women’s bodies as the source of the race’s regeneration. The need for the replacement of women is clear considering that, since women are the first to notice the changes in their loved ones in all three films, women seem to be more attuned to emotional nuances than men, and in a new world without emotion, they must go. Furthermore, in this film women are the repository of not only emotional intuition but also the important impulses for caretaking; a woman, Nancy Bellicec, speaks one of the film’s most emotionally resonant lines: “We’ll watch over each other when we sleep,” she says, voicing the key human impulse to care for each other. While the original conflated emotion with ambition and faith as American values, in the first remake these have been commodified and poddified and what is at most stake, what makes us most human, are what Cornell West calls the “nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations” (27). These are precisely the communitarian values that West says the market culture (like the pods) overwhelms.

What is left at the end of the 1978 film is a social reality dominated by men. Not only do men change first, but men who occupy positions of social control: health providers (Elizabeth’s boyfriend Jeffrey, a dentist, and psychiatrist Kibbner both become agents of poddification); police, who, as in the first film, are among the first to become complicit in the pods’ work; even the ubiquitous garbage collectors who haul away the desiccated husks of the replaced humans, are all male. From the first images to the last, the film suggests this dominance is a matter of cosmic, not simply cultural, imperative.

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The third film, Ferrara’s 1994 Body Snatchers, takes this cultural erasure of women further. Set in the aftermath of Gulf War I, it strips down the setting, characters, plot, and title to focus the film’s purpose more clearly. Gone in the third version is the playful postmodern intertexuality that enlivened the second film. Body Snatchersinstead zeroes in on the cultural characteristic that predominates in its world: the violent male imperialist culture of the military.

The film establishes the rhetoric of replacement immediately as the narrator and main character, the teen-aged girl Marti Malone, talks about her stepmother as the woman who replaced her mother. The third film establishes a binary between the vulnerable anti-authoritarianism of the young, displaced Marti and the brutal world of affectless military automatons. This is seen most clearly on two occasions, once when she falls asleep in the bathtub and is almost replaced by a pod and a second time when she is taken to the base infirmary and again is almost replaced; in both scenes she is nude, and the frailty of her slender body is in stark contrast to the fully clothed soldiers whose presence is everywhere. The representation of poddification as a sexual crime of aggression is also most evident in these scenes, where the tendrils snaking out from the pods to envelope, overwhelm, and replace the sleeping girl is a kind of rape that quite literally sucks the life from the victim.

The general setting is one of violence simmering below the surface of daily life as the screen alternates scenes of Marti’s family life with images from the discourse of war: helicopters, jeeps, guns, looming soldiers in camouflage, all relentlessly controlled by military protocol. While admitting women into the ranks as desexed soldiers, this is a world of men at war. In this case, the literal war is for the perpetuation of a race of creatures from a dying world; the credo of the warrior is the soldier’s credo: the race, not the individual, is important. Ultimately, the conformity of life on a military base filled with the looming silhouettes of impassive soldiers becomes indistinguishable from the conformity of the pod people who replace the humans.

The third film offers the harshest vision yet of a poddified America “purified” of dissent and difference. In the first two films, the systematic distribution of pods moves out from the towns to other cities (working through families and friends), yet in the third film the pods are distributed through military bases. This not only literalizes the metaphor of poddification as a war against humanity, but also suggests that a ubiquitous military culture is what will survive, a notion with particularly disturbing implications for post-9/11 America. The film sees the proliferation of pods as a trope for the relentless militarism and endless state of war of post-Gulf War I America. Concerns over what is lost in poddification—whether emotion, ambition, faith, or simple human kindness—disappear as the fight becomes one against an implacable imperialist force bent on domination.

At the end of the 1994 remake, Marti and her pilot escape to an army base in a big city, where, in the film’s final chilling image, they are met by an anonymous and ominous figure of a soldier looming over the camera. The implication is that, as in the second version, resistance to poddification is futile; there is no place to run. This remake is a far more straightforward, bleaker, and devastating vision of what local discourse poddification becomes a metaphor for. Though the society of the end of the 1978 film is purged of communitarian values, the outward appearances of the culture remain essentially as they were before the pod invasion. People go to work, children go to school, government functionaries still go about their business clipping newspaper articles, and except for a regimentation evidenced in the penultimate sequence where the public health employees all march off to some common destination, things will go on as they have been.

In the 1994 version, however, the vision we are left with is of the world as armed camp. Thus from the “happy” ending of the 1956 version, to the black hole of poddified hero Matthew Bennell’s shrieking mouth caught in freeze-frame at the end of the 1978 film, to the figure of the soldier blocking the sun in the final image of the 1994 version, each view of the culture that remains following the Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes progressively more desolate. The pernicious effects of mass culture that the first film resists become embedded in the second film, and by the time the final version of this important cinematic artifact ends, the outward appearances of “normal” daily life have been totally eclipsed by the strict militaristic control of poddified life during a time of endless war.

The latter is all the more terrifying, of course, for its remarkable resemblance to the conditions of life in the early years of the twenty-first century, when the uncertainties facing Miles and Matthew Bennell and Marti Malone—determining what is real, what we value, and who really is there —have become our most urgent questions.

Author: Donald Levin

A prize-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of six Martin Preuss mysteries: Crimes of Love, The Baker's Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and the newest, Cold Dark Lies. He is also a contributor to Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity's End, and has recently published a sequel to his contribution, The Exile. He is also the author of The House of Grins, a novel, and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine. He lives and writes in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for the Martin Preuss Mysteries.

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