Running From Non-Existence
Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
At a time that I can only call between things, I found myself turning to the menacing strings at the start of this horrific movie. Few films portray such a looming, sinister threat to our world—not just to human existence, but to our very conception of it. The film rises to enormous heights of epistemological skepticism, asking us and, more shockingly, telling us what makes a human. Fear is more than an emotion in this film; it’s a matter of its theoretical integrity. It balances its absurd heavy-handedness with an honest confession of terror and uncertainty. That’s why the picture holds up through all its old-timey charm. It pierces into the present, because out of the vast expanse between artifice and earnestness, it is caught up in a timeless fear of the future.
Dr. Miles Bennell is bound up in a psychiatric ward, his hair pulled over his forehead, screaming “You have to believe me!” Who hasn’t been in such a helpless, solitary moment of defense, wanting to say the same thing, knowing no one will listen? What has gotten him here? The film flashes back and we are riding with Miles into the small town of Santa Mira when suddenly a little boy runs out in front of his car. Why are people always running out in front of cars in this film? One of its most famous images is Miles standing in the middle of traffic on a freeway, holding up his arms in front of unwavering headlights, screaming, “Listen to me! They’re coming for you next!” Everything in this film is allegorical. The cars are listless, ever-churning progress.
The boy that runs in front of the car will be the first of many to make a claim that at first seems like a syntactical error, then a simplistic sci-fi plot setup, then a statement on the nature of being: “My mother isn’t my mother.” But she looks the same, has the same memories. On paper, she is the same woman. This film is about how the human eludes paper, paint, photograph, and even celluloid. Like the first ounce of doubt in any nightmare, everyone laughs off the boy’s odd claim. Eventually, once the doctor catches onto the plot that is underway, that boy will have progressed into the very state that had overtaken his mother. Now it’s the doctor, a psychiatrist mind you, who finds himself in the shoes of the outcast. The whole town’s acting up. People will respond to him with the same tone of “if you say so honey . . .”
Huge, plastic, movie prop sea-pods are the start of it. Originating in gardens and cellars, they grow into copies of the human nearest them and quietly replace the original with the reproduction. Miles sees these copies in transformation. Their faces are flat and scarless, the features not fully rendered yet. Eventually, they will look and sound exactly like the real thing. The physical aspects are easy to reproduce. But the pods cannot replicate the fragile inner part that makes a person a person. Like Walter Benjamin says in his essay on mechanical reproduction’s effects on the work of art, something is lost in the transition from original to copy. For Benjamin, it was the “aura.” In this film, it is the soul. Eventually the townspeople chase Miles and his loved one Becky, the only two who are not body-snatched, into a cave, all the while chanting an anti-Socratic sales pitch: “There’s no pain. You’re reborn into an untroubled world. Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life’s so simple.” Losing their souls, the copies have lost desire, the desire to live and love that resolves in pain. But is existence without suffering really existence at all? Could ignorance, as the body-snatched seem to argue, really be bliss?
Of course, the man who has spent his life studying the inner workings of people is the only one to learn of the plot. Miles has seen too much, lifted the veil of mundane existence off a system far more sinister and complex than one person can ever understand (the film knows exactly what to explain and what to leave unsaid). Just as Benjamin’s “optical unconscious” sees what the ordinary eye cannot, so Miles sees the unseeable. By the time the body-snatched corner him with the pitch that he won’t have to experience pain again, it seems that his knowledge is more of a burden than a gift. Until, that is, Becky shatters the seduction of numbness with a life-affirming appeal, impactful in its directness. Out of breath, terrified, with no one to turn to but the only other human being she knows, she leans onto Miles: “I want to love and be loved! I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty! I’d rather die!” Becky understands that life without pain is death. To live is to feel.
I remember first seeing this film a couple summers ago during a relatively clear-minded stretch of time. Becky’s words hit me like a bullet to the chest. They crossed the threshold of reproduction and reality and supplanted both notions with a glimpse of honesty, an aura. Shortly after, Becky leaves the living in a strange scene of simultaneous death and rebirth. Alone and hopeless in a dark cave, she and Miles hold each other. Suddenly, they hear angelic music. Is there hope yet? Miles leaves the cave and follows the music until he gets to a hill overlooking a huge sea-pod harvesting facility. An angelic guitar is blaring out of a truck radio. The truck driver quickly cuts the radio, ending in that snap any glimmer of future light. To the dead, music is just noise. Miles returns to the cave, but he is too late. Becky opens her ice-cold eyes: “Stop acting like a fool, Miles, and accept us!”
The B-movie shlock title, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, deceives the film’s power as a transparent manifestation of Benjamin’s aura. The movie isn’t really about body-snatching but aura snatching, widespread theft of the very essence of being. It is by no means exempt from the gimmickry of its day, but it moves past these gimmicks. Its selling point is not 3D, color by Deluxe, or ultra-widescreen. It is the way it so brazenly explains what defines a human being. “Body snatching” is at its essence a loss of uniqueness, of aura, which Benjamin calls “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” The aura is the difference between singular existence and the non-existence of mass conformity.
It is a terrifying film that can spin its own web and simultaneously acknowledge that spinning. An unused introduction that would have featured Orson Welles explains the context of the film rather explicitly: “This is no ordinary world we are living in. We have A-bombs and H-bombs, space ships and atom-powered submarines. We send men and machines hurtling through the skies faster than the speed of sound . . . Now we can know there are undreamed-of forces in our strange and changing universe.” Most films merely dance around undreamed-of forces, or they show them in the form of Martians, bird claws attacking from the sky, or 50 foot women and shrinking men. This film shows us undreamed-of forces with the same audacity, but balanced with a very real fear that the end is nigh. Becky’s words are a maxim and a breath of solace, a pointed confirmation of all the love, grief, and beauty entangled in the thicket of being. The fear the film elicits is essential to its philosophy that feeling is being. As you sit in the dark after the film has finished, not sure what’s going to happen next, you can at least know that someone else felt that way too.