Damn, this is a good movie!
As a general thumb I don't like remakes. If you need to jump cultures – like when “Seven Samurai” was remade as “The Magnificent Seven” -ok. If the original movie no longer exists, sure. If the original film had a great core idea, but was hopelessly bungled in execution, yeah, I'll allow that. (In fact, I'd love for someone with a clue to remake “Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat”). Remaking a film that had absolutely nothing wrong with it, though? Nah. I'm not cool with that. Remaking one of my favorite films of all time for no good reason, apart from 'that was in black and white and we want to do it in color?' There's no way in hell I'm going to like that. No way in hell.
Except that I did. I freakin' love this movie. I love it more than the original.
To be fair, that doesn't really violate my inherent bias all that much. As brilliant as the original movie is, it was bungled somewhat by the studio. Back in the 50s, the ending was considered too bleak. As scripted, the original begins with Kevin McCarthy walking into town, and it ends with him running out of town, being chased by the pod people, screaming “Wake up! Wake up!” Fade to black, the good guys lose. The studio insisted that a frame story be shot, so as released the film starts off with Kevin McCarthy in a hospital, talking to government officials, which segues into a feature-length flashback. Once we get to the “Wake up! Wake up!” part, it segues back to McCarthy in the hospital. The government officials thank him for his information, and organize to defeat the aliens. The end. The good guys probably win.
The 1978 remake (Or perhaps quasi-sequel) justifies itself by restoring the bleak ending. Beyond mere justification, however, it succeeds by being a totally freakin' amazing film that eclipses its origins.
The plot is basically the same: spores from space land on earth. The spores grow into odd-looking plants. When people sleep in close proximity to one of these, the plant essentially eats their brains and destroys their bodies. Then it gives birth to an exact duplicates, with all their memories intact. The 'pod people' are not human, though. They are cold, emotionless, compassionless, empty. Everything that made them human, apart from their appearance, is gone. They have no souls.
“Dehumanization” is one of the core themes of 20thcentury art, and it's always a good topic for a story. The original has the distinction of being one of the very few SF/horror films of its generation that is still actually kinda' scary, even with the hokey “everything will be alright” frame. The performances are all very good, very straight, and the paranoia and tension ratcheted up slowly, and they eschewed all but one special effect. There is very little to distract us from the human drama of people becoming inhuman. While it doesn't provide much in the way of actual shock-the-audience-suddenly scares, it generates more than a few genuinely creepy scenes that actually play a little creepier in our day an age since we know (in retrospect) that such nice, clean-cut Eisenhower Era Americans are simply not cut out to handle such weirdness. But what about Carter Era Americans?
The remake moves the action from “Everywhereville, USA” to San Francisco, and populates it with entirely new characters: A psychiatrist, a poet, a woman who runs a bath house, a lab tech, and a city health inspector. The last two are our leads. Changing the location works, surprisingly, as the original film took place in the suburbs, which were already pretty conformist (This was a deliberate choice, by the way) and San Francisco is about as nonconformist as you can get. The podification is placed in starker relief as a result. In the original there's an unintentional sense that if you just walked far enough in any direction you could probably get away, it's so wide open. Indeed, our protagonist apparently does manage to get away, at least in the frame story. In the remake, the city quickly becomes oppressive, with it's towers and hills, it's like the whole damn thing rises up against our protagonists.
The stock 50s stereotypes are replaced with somewhat less-stock 70s stereotypes. There's no disco dancers or jive-talkin' Huggybears. The female lead implies she might have been a hippie in the '60s, but she clearly isn't anymore. There's a conspiracy buff who turns out to be right. The male lead has that kind of smug smarm and tragic hair that can only be associated with '70s 'sophistication.' The shrink is portrayed positively, without the paranoia or disdain that is associated with them in modern films, or, actually, pre-1950s films. Some of these choices are ironic, and have an interesting payoff, but it's the kind of thing you have to sort of think about, and I don't want to spoil it.
You can't help but compare a remake to the original, though it's kind of tedious to do so. Despite the many changes and liberties with the story, the remake remains almost reverential of the original. Nearly every iconic scene (with one major exception) is reproduced here, or hommaged in some way. This too is brilliant. It's not “Spot the shot,” it's done very inobtrusively. You don't realize they did it until it's over. The movie is so in awe of its predecessor that it's impossible to tell if this is a remake or a sequel. I think it's a sequel, but more on that below.
Director Phillip Kaufman has had an up-and-down career. On the one hand, you've got, “The Outlaw Josie Wales.” On the other, you've got “Rising Sun.” Here we find him at the peak of his game, I think. His direction is full off interesting but not particularly showy shots, very nice rythyms, and a kind of deliberate earthiness. It's not dystopic or ratty, but there's nothing glamorous about San Francisco this time out. Also, I have to admire the guy's restraint in not going full-blown noir. The nudity in the end is maybe a little gratuitous, but that's really my only caveat. Even the old-school special effects (Which appear to have cost about $11.95, most of which was spent on the dog) are ample.
WD Richter is probably the shittiest screenwriter of his generation, but this film is proof of the old adage about a blind chicken finding corn if it pecks long enough. He never did anything good before this, he never did anything good after, but DAMN did he do good here!
As our female lead, Brooke Adams is spot-on perfect. She's not a heroine, she's not a victim. She's a modestly sucessful, intelligent, not-quite-single woman in a way that is not obnoxiously '70s. She still plays real. She's very likeable and identifiable, and I'm surprised she didn't go on to be a bigger star.
Donald Sutherland – who I'm always surprised is a big star – gives a very solid performance. This is back in the days before he became thoroughly reprehensible, so he's still able to play a likeable guy here. He imbues him with a strong intelligence, and there seems to be a lot going on behind his eyes. This is not something you usually say of Sutherland, who's not really a face actor. There's a lot of details about him that aren't needed for the plot, but are good just the same. His playful crush on Brooke Adams is nicely done as they continually tease each other, but I think it's interesting that he clearly doesn't realize he actually loves her until a climactic scene very late in the film. He's a lonely guy who takes perhaps too much glee in his job. That kind of thing. If you don't like Donald Sutherland – and I don't – you'll still like him in this film.
Veronica Cartwright – the sister of “Penny” from Lost In Space – plays more-or-less the same put-upon hard working blue-collar mouse she played in “Alien” a year later. It suits her. She's very human, which explains why...spoilers.
Jeff Goldbloom plays Jeff Goldbloom, basically.
Really my only qualm about the cast is Leonard Nimoy as the psychiatrist. It's not that there's anything wrong with his performance. It's actually quite good. His presence is simply distracting. He is so deeply associated with Spock that seeing him inhabiting any other character sort of doesn't work. Putting him prominently in an SF film feels like stuntcasting.
Finally we come to the question of whether this is a remake or a sequel. I think it's a sequel, and I base this on one of the most famous cameos of the genre: at one point Sutherland and Adams are driving around when Kevin McCarthy slams on the hood of their car screaming “Wake up! Wake up!” He runs off, screaming this, chased by a mob, and then is hit by a car. Obviously he's the same character as in the original film. So is this simply an in-joke as most people say, or did the first film happen in this same universe? I think so. Either we're supposed to believe the US Government actually did manage to shut down an earlier wave of the invasion. Or perhaps we're supposed to simply squint and pretend the first film wasn't set twenty years before this one. It's the same kind of fuzzy interrelation you find between the first and second of Romero's “Dead” movies.
So what's it all about? Well, the original was about the loss of individuality. It was an allegory for communism, or blind conformity to the suburban brown-shoe 1950s life, depending on who you ask. In the remake, Communism is off the table. The allegory about the loss of self more than anything else, the loss of the soul, the feeling that all the personal and social victories – had one – can slip away if we're complacent. We're not beat over the head with this, though, and the movie is first and foremost a horror flick, albeit a thinking man's horror flick. In fact, it's curiously nebulous as to whether the invasion is a good thing or a bad thing, objectively speaking.
“I hate you.”
“We don't hate you. […] There is no room for hate, or love. We came here from a dying world. We travel from world to world, and adapt. We survive. It is the purpose of life to survive.”
The scariest thing about the film is that nature just doesn't give a damn about us.
Strongly, strongly, strongly recommended.