Some readers have been on me to add this movie to the site, and I always meant to add it, so when it came to be my selection for movie night with my friend and I felt like seeing something kind of fun, this was my selection. He was rather nonplussed, but whatever, he likes musicals and older movies and has a hard time seeing something like this as anything but silly.
We open on this alien planet where there are these clear globs jiggling, and at a certain point they float up off the surface and start drifting through space, eventually landing on San Francisco. I listened to brief bits of the commentary, and apparently the alien goo was this tube of clear gel he bought, dropped into a water tank and ran backwards. The goo lands in the rain, and we see the clear snot-like substance on the ground and on leaves, where it starts growing roots [more of the ever-fun footage run backward], and before you know it, has created these little pods with pretty red flowers. We see kids on a school trip picking them. Look quick and you'll notice a shot of Robert Duvall as a priest on a swing. We are briefly introduced to Brooke Adams as Elizabeth, coming home to her boyfriend Jeffery with one of the small pods, and meet Donald Sutherland as Matt, a city health inspector. That night Elizabeth goes to bed with the pod in a glass beside Jeffery. I was all astonished how they [if you look at the pic] made the flower color and pattern appear to spread across Jeffery's pillow—since we know that flower will be taking him over that night—but this turns out to be just an example of over-interpretation, because in the commentary he makes it clear that they didn't have the budget to try to accomplish such things. Ah well.
The next morning Matt is cleaning up the broken glass and taking out the trash, throwing it into truck filled with what looks like gray hair. He seems different to Elizabeth, and that night he abruptly says he's going to a meeting, which is apparently completely out of character. Elizabeth touches him and recoils. She goes over to Matt's, but he brushes her off while he's cooking. Notice a shot where the camera tilts down to his saucepan and all we hear is him saying "Okay, pass me the oregano… okay, now chop up that mushroom…" or suchlike. It's just odd--it's about how he isn't listening to her. He promises to introduce her to this psychologist he knows, Dr. Kibner. There's a good underlying dynamic here, never explicitly acknowledged, that Matt bears a torch for Elizabeth and doesn't like Jeffery very much.
There are some good touches in this section. A man in a Chinese Laundromat mistakes Matt for a doctor and tells him that his wife is not his wife. Elizabeth followed Jeffery during the day, and saw him passing strange objects to total strangers. As Matt and Elizabeth are driving, a man jumps on the car, raving about how they're coming to get everyone. This guy is played by Kevin McCarthy, who played the hero of the original film. Kaufman tells an amusing story on the commentary, in which he and McCarthy saw a homeless man who asked them what they were working on, and they told him what it was. The homeless guy said that it wasn't as good as the original—despite the fact that the remake hadn't been released yet—and Kaufman says they laughed, knowing that some people would always react that way. In the movie, more and more people in town are acting strangely—they don't react at all to a man hit by a car—and they also don't seem to notice the huge piles of gray hair that is filling up all the local dumpsters.
They go to this San Francisco party, where Leonard Nimoy as Dr. Kibner is having a sort of healing encounter with a woman who says that her husband is different. Kibner is a psychologist who I believe has written a few books, and is very new agey and touchy-feely. He thinks that the reason people feel like their spouses and partners are different people are because "people are jumping in and out of relationships," i.e. using the ol' my-husband-is-a-completely-different-person routine to disguise the fact that they want out. It's also a problem that people are "cutting off their feelings." This is where the choice of this setting was excellent for this story in this time period, since at that time San Francisco was one of the places where people who were a little odd, who didn't necessarily fit in, would congregate, and be embraced. And, you know, hippies. So it's a little ingenious to set this story of conformity and loss of identity in the middle of the center of individuality. It's also brilliant to set it during this time, when everyone was questioning their assumptions about what society should be like, and what people should be like. "Don't be trapped by old concepts," one of the aliens tells our heroes later on, illustrating how easily all of this "transformation" stuff could easily fit into the prevailing views of the day.
You gotta also love this time and place that two of our main characters just happen to work in a mud bath! You don't see that every day. These are Jeff Goldblum as Jack and Veronica Cartwright as Nancy. Cartwright, who was the younger sister in The Birds and also had a notable appearance in Alien, brings her screaming and freaking-out talents to bear here. I swear, no one can do pissing-her-pants scared like Veronica Cartwright. Things get significantly weird here and just keep going, so I'm going to refrain from spoiler-esque details. I will note that this group keeps Dr. Kibner around much longer than you'd think they would, given that he's such a snide, belittling spoil-sport, but I think it speaks to how confused these characters are about the ways they should act, and if their normal reactions are just old prejudices, or "old concepts." So they just look to this OTHER authority figure to tell them what to do.
Perhaps you know that this is the second of four incarnations of this film, the last one being the absolutely dreadful The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman. I used to feel that every generation should make their own version, and on into the ages, but after watching this version again, I feel that they have pretty much covered all of the possibilities that this story holds. Yes, you can switch out the setting and social situation [the latest version makes the case that our tendency toward war is what makes us human], but it doesn't make that much of a difference, and one is unlikely to find a better backdrop for a parable about individuality vs. conformity that the San Francisco of the early 80s, when the hippies and radicals were slowly being bought out and replaced by the yuppies. To this end Kaufman, on the commentary, keeps pointing out how the movie is purposely filled with images of the TransAmerica building… but lets the fact that they funded the majority of the film keep him from completing what his intentions behind showing the building most probably were—that it is the CENTER of the yuppie influence, come to Destroy San Francisco as it was.
That said, I have always felt that this move goes on 15 minutes too long. And this recent viewing did not dispel that feeling. It just loses energy and deflates in its final minutes, to the point where you start speculating on which parts would be best to cut, which is never a good sign. Regardless, this is probably the best incarnation of this story it is possible to make. The original is a wonderful, surprisingly suspenseful little chiller, but this one fleshes out the story in interesting ways and fills in whatever small gaps remained.
Yes! It's a very compelling version of this story.