This may be my favorite sci-fi of all time. I absolutely love this movie. Part of the reason for that love is probably because the film is so simple, and so effective for being so simple. Aliens invade a small town, slowly and insidiously replacing people with emotionally vacant space pod replicas. The idea alone is frightening.
Another reason I love it is not just the simplicity of the story, but the simplicity of the execution. This is a small film shot on a tight budget with no special effects (unless you count the soap bubbles on the rubber dummies).
For me the emotional impact comes from the idea of people you love turning into something else – people with all the same memories, but no empathy or ability to love. It’s waking up and finding that everyone you know has become a sociopath. And then there is the knowledge that it could happen to you – that you could lose the thing that helps define our humanity.
On another level, this is intellectually interesting because what the space pods are essentially doing is turning everyone into Vulcans. The replacement process (which is very fuzzily defined, requiring people to fall asleep, but clearly killing the original human’s biological body) strips people of their compassion – and I assume passion as well. But while those converted express a clear zeal to convert the remaining real humans, they don’t seem especially violent. They want to take over the world by replacing everyone, but they don’t seem to have any other real goals. In addition, I suspect that once that replacement has been made, most of what we consider the evils of human civilization (war, poverty, etc.) would have been eliminated. For the space pod people the road to utopia requires crossing the toll bridge of emotional detachment. The reason it is horrifying is that while they promise a world without suffering, it can only be accomplished by removing our ability to care for the suffering of others. A nice philosophical irony.
Based on a novel by Jack Finney, the script is lean and focused, although rife with the sort of occasionally over ripe dialogue that was common in the sci-fi films of the 40s-60s. Much of that dialogue comes straight from the novel. Interestingly the novel has a much more upbeat, if not exactly triumphant, ending than the film.
Director Don Siegel does a great good job creating an atmosphere of paranoia throughout the film. It’s this sense of paranoia that I think often gets the film described as an allegory for the Cold War angst of the age. While it is easy to think of the film as metaphorically representing the fight against communism, it can also be seen as highlighting the struggle against the crushing conformity of McCarthyism. While I can see the usefulness of that kind of analysis, I don’t believe the author or the filmmakers intended it (as they all have stated). The 1978 remake by Philip Kaufman seems devoid of any such allegorical power and it is a relatively faithful remake. I like the remake, but it doesn’t hold the same power over my subconscious imagination as the original. But it does raise some very interesting questions, as it ends with the space pods basically having taken over. To me, a really interesting story could be told by picking up from that ending – say 20 years later, and showing a reverse invasion of sorts, where humanity and compassion reassert themselves on a world civilization that has been devoid of them for decades.
There are so many images and scenes from this movie that I love, but the one that always comes to mind first is Dr. Miles Bennell running down the highway trying to warn people what is coming. NO, wait, it’s when he wakes up to find that Becky has become a pod person! NO, wait, it’s when they discover the pods in the green house! NO, wait…