You’ve seen the image on Twitter or you’ve seen it in your dreams. The gaping mouth, the white of the eyes. The finger pointing straight into the lens. The terrible moment of mirror revelation: I know what you are.
Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers climaxes in this primal scene of recognition. Being seen—really seen—is in some way the most elemental human drive. We spend our whole lives searching for ourselves in others, relying on our romantic partners, our parents, our friends, and our children to tell us things we can’t see about ourselves, blaming them when we don’t like what they’ve shown us, breaking from them when they reveal their mirrors to have unfixable cracks or flaws. We long for someone else to read our words and understand the invisible movements of our synapses as we wrote them; we scrape away at our skin in the mirror; we attempt to peel our outer selves off like plastic wrap in order to reveal something more perfect underneath even as we stand inside thick boxes, knowing that this process leaves us too fragile to be touched. There’s a reason that the end of Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is simultaneously so exhilarating and so terrifying, no matter which translation you choose:
for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.1
Of course. For any kind of recognition—true recognition—has to result in such an intense revelation that you cannot keep treading whatever path you’re on. It’s easy to hope that such a moment would lead to a transcendent experience, and that your Rilke moment would be one of glorious transfiguration into some platonic version of yourself. But, Invasion of the Body Snatchers seems to ask, what if the opposite is true? What if the recognition is one not of transcendent affirmation, but one of horror, of rejection? What if the person you are is, ultimately, anathema to the mirror, to the world?
for there’s not one spot that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.2
Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a supervisor of sorts at the San Francisco Health Department, has spent the duration of the film first trying to understand what is happening to the people around him—why they continue to look exactly like themselves, but undergo some transformation that leaves them, well, unrecognizable—and then realizing that whatever it is is happening too fast to stop. A mission of scientific inquiry becomes a rescue mission, and a rescue mission becomes an escape attempt. The de facto leader of his scrappy gang—a colleague, Elizabeth, with whom he is untenably in love; an unpopular and paranoid poet, Jack; and the poet’s hippie mud bath masseuse wife, Nancy—Matthew fights an impossibly rising tide of vegetal alien entities who have the ability to replicate any sleeping human forms they come in contact with.
Our merry band of alien resistors may seem to have little in common, but they all share a key quality: a basic discontentment with the paths their lives have taken. Elizabeth seems well-suited to her job, but her relationship—even before her boyfriend becomes a lethal copycat entity from outer space—seems less than ideal. She’s clearly much more at ease with Matthew, to the point where my husband argued about whether she and Matthew had already been intimate before the start of the film—I was firmly in the “of course they’ve fucked” camp, because their body language seemed so obviously familiar to me, but it turns out that was just the intimacy of an unspoken understanding of physical longing. The loss of Geoffrey seems to affect her more on an existential level (what is going ON in the world?) than on a personal level (she does not mourn their love). Jack seems unhappy the way all poets seem unhappy, but he is also clearly an artist who feels ambivalent about his lack of an audience, his lack of recognition—why write if no one reads it? His aimlessness and uncertainty about the future pervade his scenes, and I get the sense that his poems may not even be that good. Nancy is obviously not living the life she dreamed—sweaty, harried, giving massages to lonely mud-covered men who look at her not with empathy but with something more slippery, folding towels, putting on a smile. She’s one of the many people working a job because they need money, and fighting every day against the way that job threatens to depersonalize them, dehumanize them. (Make them into a shell of themselves.)
And Matthew? Matthew. Obsessive Matthew. Angry Matthew. He looks at the world like someone who doesn’t, at his core, believe in beauty, or in hope. Elizabeth gives him glimmers of it, but Matthew seems to have given up on the larger project of reality. He’s a cynic, going through the motions of a successful American life (a good job, a good white coat, a nice place to live, expensive shoes) with no actual belief in anything like fulfillment. As the events of the film begin to unravel, he gains more purpose—and more anger—seeing his worldview justified, having something tangible to fight, finding a reason for sleepless nights.
Self-hatred is the wrong fuel for resistance, and can never instigate meaningful change, but that doesn’t stop people from using it. Body Snatchers exposes this tendency of people to incite revolution out of a desire for self-preservation or self-reformation. Is Matthew fighting for humanity, or is he fighting because he finally found someone he loves and doesn’t want to lose it? Is he resisting because he believes in some noble cause, or because he needs to tell himself that he resisted, that he tried?
One can only ward off sleep for so long, of course, and when Matthew slips into unconsciousness one night outside, he wakes up only to witness the perverse birth of his inhuman double, the pod-slicked crown pulsing out of the floral canal. He, of course, destroys the body, smashing the image of his own face staring back at him.
for its searing gaze penetrates your soul, the way you live.3
Matthew loses Jack to the alien imposters, his poetic paranoia replaced by a self-righteous anger at having been denied this ecstatic erasure of self long before. He loses Elizabeth, despite his best efforts, watching her unresponsive face cave in and deflate as a new, exuberantly vacant, naked Elizabeth rises from the field, physically perfect but without humanity. She pleads with him to give in; he will be happier this way. We wonder if she’s right. Humanity—especially as represented in these drifting characters—seems destined to bring nothing but pain. In the desperation of sleepless flight, he and Nancy are separated, and we watch him attempt to bring down the body snatchers’ operation even as all evidence points to their infiltration being so virally uncontrolled as to be impossible, now, to halt. The ship he thinks he can steal away on is loaded to the brim with pods. Eventually, everyone slips, sleeps. The night around Matthew is total.
for there is nowhere to hide, nothing here that does not see you. Now change your life.4
In the final sequence of the film, we rejoin Matthew after a cut that obliterates the remaining events of the night. We watch him in his place of work—we watch him watching the others. The lens betrays nothing. Has he managed to escape detection? To blend in with the others, to slip through the cracks? Could he still stage some impossible act of human resilience and possibility? Outside the building, he walks slowly, past the rows of leafless Sycamore trees, pollarded in such a way as to appear lifeless, stunted, unrecognizable. The camera—guided by Michael Chapman (whose masterful work you can see in The Last Detail, Taxi Driver,Raging Bull, etc.) with a sort of smoothly omniscient existential dread—rests on a scene blighted by disease, shorn of natural foliage, stripped of vibrant color, devoid of any green, thick with unspoken, impossible hope.
“Matthew?” The half-whispered plea comes from off frame. “Matthew!” It’s Nancy. She’s made it. She strides towards Matthew, smiling, the relief of seeing someone she knows and loves and trusts after a night of so much loss radiating off of her in waves, calling out to him by name, asking him to be nothing more than himself. No, she had not been living the life she was meant to live. But she wanted to now. She was ready. She could be incarnated into a new purpose, she could be the person she knew she was inside, she could get through this after all. It’s impossible not to want this reunion, this reunion that could mean, after all, a kind of transcendence.
Matthew stares at her, wordless, right of center, his tan trench coat replicating the dull tones of the world behind him.
The eyes widen. The head tilts back. The finger rises. The mouth opens.
And even if you haven’t seen this shot before, you know. You recognize it in this terrible tableau before the inhuman sound emanates from the broken hole in the face—the second of stillness before the scream, the pause that harbors horror. Yes, he sees her. He recognizes her. He knows what she is. And he will eliminate her. The shot lingers in the mind long after the credits are gone, reminding us of the universe’s ultimate hostility, demanding something of us—demanding, perhaps, that we see ourselves before it is too late.
Hunting you out from every angle. Look at your life. Change it.5
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translation Stephen Mitchell.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translation H. Landman.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translation Sarah Stutt.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translation Don Paterson.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translation Elizabeth Cantwell.