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"The Invasion" debuts today; fourth version of the 1956 classic

August 17, 2007 6:00 AM

Q. How many times must the human race be menaced by body-snatching aliens?

A. As often as the American people are seized by a pervasive political fear.

Also acceptable: At least four.

"The Invasion," directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, opens today; it's the fourth film based on Jack Finney's 1954 novel, "The Body Snatchers."

Each film version has spun Mr. Finney's story differently. But political allegory is the common thread running through them.

Written in the midst of the Cold War, the novel and the first film adaptation, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," directed by Don Siegel in 1956, are steeped in the pervasive paranoia of the Red Scare/McCarthy era.

The critically acclaimed 1978 remake with the same name, directed by Philip Kaufman, is widely read as a satire on the "Me Decade" preserving individual identity and the fear of conformity.

Abel Ferrara's largely panned 1993 version, "Body Snatchers," shot shortly after the first Gulf War and set on an Army base, takes the conformity of militarism as its subtext.

The 2007 version is the first of the films to take place in Washington, D.C., apropos of a post-9/11 world.

Ms. Kidman plays a psychiatrist who must save the planet from a mysterious flu-like pandemic. (Read: bird flu, bioterrorism, etc.)

Noticing a pattern here?

"The basic premise in these films fear of someone taking over your mind, the theme of distrust is easy to adapt to the different fears of the times," said Dr. Kevin Spicer, a history professor at Stonehill College in Easton.

Dr. Spicer's course on horror film history looks at how directors draw on events of their respective times to send messages to their audiences.

"This latest film, I would think, would be adapting to the fears of 9/11, the fears of our times terrorism, uncertainty, radioactive materials."

Dr. Spicer said that while a 1956 audience might not have necessarily picked up on the communism subtext, we can read it now as "very clearly having a McCarthy theme ... Your neighbor could be a communist; your identity is being questioned; you can't trust anyone."

The original film is a black and white classic, considered one of the best B-movies ever. Its plot:

A small-town doctor sees patients accusing their loved ones of being "impostors." He soon discovers they are, in fact, being replaced by exact body-replicas, grown from plant-like pods.

The "pod people," who lack human emotion, literally take over the bodies of their victims when they fall asleep.

"The (1956) film is an allegory alien ideology is trying to take over American democracy," said Jack Nilan, who runs and operates the Web site, "McCarthyism and the Movies."

Mr. Nilan, a Connecticut high school film and history teacher, spoke to The Standard-Times about the films:

"It's about a totalitarian state that's offering security and comfort in exchange for the surrendering of one's individual freedoms. It's the choice of either living in North Korea or the United States," he said.

He agreed with Dr. Spicer that the film is not obviously about communism or conformity but can easily be read that way.

"Most people just see this movie as an exciting adventure flick, and that's probably how the audience in 1956 saw it."

Today, the film "can either be viewed as being pro-McCarthy or anti-McCarthy," he said.

"The protagonist can be viewed as a McCarthy-like character, looking to save the U.S. from a communist takeover, or as a warning to fight against McCarthyism, which is asking us to give up our individual rights and freedoms in the interests of battling the Red Menace."

Either way you interpret it, Mr. Nilan said the bottom line is "a warning that we needed to fight for our individual liberties and not give them up to a bigger entity."

Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake starred Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. Mr. Sutherland plays a San Francisco health inspector who discovers the takeover by soulless invaders.

This version includes a few homages to the original: star Kevin McCarthy cameos as a man on the street; Mr. Siegel plays a cab driver.

But Americans in 1978 didn't fear "Reds" the way their parents did this generation valued individualism above all else.

"The 1978 movie was a satire on urban conformity," said Mr. Nilan.

"The main focus of both films was a warning against conformity. In 1978, the warning was not against a communist threat but from a threat from within ... where everyone wanted to be the same."

So why did director Abel Ferrara remake the movie in 1993? Critics looking for subtext weren't entirely sure and Mr. Ferrara himself described "Body Snatchers," shown at the Cannes Film Festival, as an art-house film. But one pervasive fear of the times is obvious the Gulf War.

This version starred Gabrielle Anwar and Terry Kinney as a daughter and father who travel to a southern Army base, where soldiers are being turned into pod people. Filmed in the wake of the Gulf War, "Body Snatchers" smacks of militarism concerns. But critics also suggested the dissolution of the family and the AIDS epidemic as underlying themes.

The latest film seems to bring us full circle.

Mr. Nilan said Americans "are going through a phase very similar to what (Americans) went through in the Cold War years. The fear of communism has been replaced with a fear of terrorism and Muslim extremism."

He cited as examples the 2004 film, "The Bourne Supremacy" and its 2007 sequel "The Bourne Ultimatum," starring Matt Damon as a CIA assassin.

"You see (in those films) that the secret government intelligence agency has acquired the ability like it had in the Cold War days to act outside the law, and answer to no one, in response to the new terrorist threats."

He expects this fear will play a prominent role in "The Invasion."

"The current movie is coming out at a very important time," Mr. Nilan said.

"In the wake of the terror attack on the World Trade Towers and the passing of the Patriot Act, we as Americans are going to have to decide how much freedom we're willing to give up."

"Once again we're confronted with an outside menace and we're being asked to sacrifice individual freedoms for the collective good. Individual rights and freedoms are most at peril in times of danger, and it is then that we must guard them the most. Once we give up our individual rights, we may never get them back."

Contact Lauren Daley at ldaley@s-t.com.