The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Missing the Invasion

August 17, 2007

Kenneth Turan, movie critic for NPR and the Los Angeles Times, weighs in today with a review of the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Having not seen this newest version yet, I can’t speak to the quality or accuracy of his review (and I probably won’t be able to until the DVD comes out — hard to get out to non-G-rated movies with young children, sigh). But I would like to call attention to one rather striking omission from Turan’s comments: he characterizes the original film as “a B movie about zombies” and declares that all subsequent remakes adhere to this “pulp premise.”

True enough — but characterizing the story in this way misses the social context of the core plot. All versions of this tale, from the original book to the various filmed versions, revolve around the idea of aliens invading and replacing ordinary people with emotionless lookalikes; invariably someone figures this out and tries to warn others, encounters Peril, and has to Go On The Run. Zombies? Maybe. But this is also about a particular kind of anxiety about a foreign infiltration, and the film resonates with and shapes those fears in particular ways.

To be more specific, the core plot of the “invasion” story is a kind of narrative translation of a sense of threat from an enemy that is both invisible and insidious. Bad guys, who hail from somewhere Outside of the safe borders of the community, sneak in and start being able to “pass” as normal upstanding citizens. And they do so both by impersonating “normal” people and by converting/brainwashing/seducing other citizens, and doing so by magical means — i.e. means that aren’t readily explainable in a rational fashion, in part because normal citizens (including us, the readers and viewers) can’t rationally fathom why anyone would willingly and rationally consent to compromise their individuality in this way. So the narrative obliges our sensibilities by providing some science-fictional bit of technobabble to cover the gap between reason and outcome, which also serves to increase our anxiety: we don’t understand how these invaders are making converts, even though we can see the results of their doing so.

The fact that this sounds familiar — or at last, it should sound familiar — is not an accident. The original Jack Finney novel, published in 1954, summed up a series of fears about how Communism was thought likely to spread. There’s a whole cultural apparatus about being watchful for the expected Communist agitators who would be taking advantage of holes and gaps in American society (including the quality of toilet paper) to create sympathizers; Finney’s novel riffs on that cultural apparatus, and the 1956 film does so even more explicitly.

Fast-forward to 2007, where most people in the United States and Europe (the likely primary markets for this film) aren’t worried about Communism any more — instead, they are worried about terrorism. And at least some of them are worried about terrorism in strikingly similar ways, using strikingly similar “contagion” metaphors. Indeed, some analysts go further, and actually propose the use of epidemiological principles to study terrorism. We’re worried now, just like we were then, about becoming “infected” by alien infiltrators, and we’re worried about the possibility of ordinary people “catching” the terrorism bug. Indeed, that was one of the major points in the report just issued by the New York City Police Department:

Their 90-page report highlighted how ordinary people in Western nations, with unremarkable jobs and with little or no criminal histories, sometimes come to adopt a terrorist ideology.

In other words: ordinary people get infected by alien invaders, and end up participating in a nefarious plot to overthrow all that is good and holy in our normal lives.

There’s something quite fascinating about the persistence of these disease/infection metaphors for dealing with threats. It’s not as simple as saying that Communism and terrorism “really are” diseases or disease-like, since there are clearly other useful ways of characterizing these phenomena: as criminal activities, for example, or as geopolitical state-sponsored activity. And these aren’t completely incompatible metaphors, either, which further complicates the issue. But there is something quite striking about the resurgence of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers story in the era of homeland security and vigilance against suspected terrorists — something that might help to explain the persistence of these metaphors over time.

At the very least, it’s something that should be kept in mind when reviewing the film.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.