This unforgettable film might just be the best sci-fi movie ever made. Here’s why

Two men look fearful in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

The most iconic image of Donald Sutherland’s career is a spoiler. To describe it would risk giving away more than the uninitiated might want to know about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 adaptation of the Jack Finney novel about extraterrestrial imposters out to replace humanity with emotionless doubles. But you know the image. You’ve almost certainly seen it used as a meme sometime over the last couple of decades — or maybe the last couple of weeks, in response to the actor’s death in June. For those who have watched the movie, there’s always been some cognitive dissonance to seeing that shot transformed into internet joke currency. It is, after all, one of the most blood-curdling images in all of cinema: the look of hope shriveling away, of the future disappearing into a screaming black hole.

It’s a tad ironic that Sutherland might be best remembered for such a grotesquely outsized expression, such a monstrous moment. He was one of Hollywood’s most subtle performers, a New Hollywood legend who often underplayed what was going on inside his characters’ hearts and heads. But his work in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is richer than its final note. As Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector who slowly becomes aware of a hostile alien takeover in progress, Sutherland offers a vast range of feelings. Arrogance, good humor, fear, deep romantic longing, bottomless despair: Long before he’s literally running from the pod people, Sutherland runs the emotional gamut across this peerless sci-fi nightmare of a thriller.

Two men talk in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

Kaufman’s Invasion is more than the best version of Finney’s story, which has been officially adapted four times and unofficially countless more. It’s also the ultimate paranoid thriller of the 1970s, a decade filled with movies about how someone was always watching and plotting against you. Contemporaneous thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor refracted the mounting anxiety and disillusionment of the Watergate era. Invasion takes those bad vibes to their logical endpoint. Sleeping with one eye open isn’t enough, it says. You can’t go to sleep at all. And if the film’s more literally down-to-Earth Hollywood cousins captured a growing distrust in our institutions, Kaufman went much further in declaring that you literally couldn’t trust anyone. Your closest friends, your nearest and dearest — they could all be in on it.

A priest and a child swing on a playground in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

The first adaptation of The Body Snatchers, the Don Siegel version from 1956, arrived during the Red Scare, and has been alternately read as a warning against communism and a warning against the communist witch hunts in Washington and Hollywood. Either way, conformism was the enemy. Kaufman, working from a brilliant screenplay by W.D. Richter, rewires the allegory for the anxieties of a new era. The movie does not belabor its metaphor — the Body Snatchers are an existential threat first and foremost — but it’s easy to see a cultural sea change in the biological terror spreading across a hapless Bay Area. This Invasion exists at the moment when a nation of Baby Boomers were growing out of their anti-authority stances and fully buying into Me Generation priorities. We see that in the inciting incident of the film, the way Matthew’s friend and co-worker Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) no longer recognizes her husband. Like hippies becoming yuppies overnight, he’s been replaced.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (6/12) Movie CLIP - Wake the Others! (1978) HD

While the original Invasion left the actual body snatching to the imagination, Kaufman’s makes it grotesquely explicit. The special effects are remarkable in their disgusting tactile intricacy: When, around the midway point, the pods in Matthew’s garden open, spilling squealing, gestating quasi-humans, it’s as if we’re witnessing the birth of the practical effects renaissance of the 1980s. (Was this the seed of Rob Bottin’s similarly jaw-dropping depiction of shapeshifting alien life in The Thing a few years later?) Kaufman also hands his invaders that inhuman siren, the chilling atonal shriek the snatched emit when they’ve spotted the un-snatched. Fifteen years later, Abel Ferrara would preserve that sonic effect for his own Body Snatchers remake.

A man look at his clone in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

The creature-feature aspects are nifty and creepy, but the real power of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is in the realization of the characters’ fears: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the pod people aren’t really after you. The first hour of the movie throbs like a quickening pulse, as the evidence of sinister machinations mounts. More unnerving than those glistening alien bodies are scenes like the one where Sutherland’s inspector talks with a dry cleaner convinced that his wife isn’t really his wife anymore. “I keep seeing these people, all recognizing each other,” Elizabeth says. “Something’s passing between them, some secret.” The thing about Body Snatchers as a premise is that it’s endlessly malleable, interpretatively speaking (there’s a reason they’ve made so many versions), but the crux of the material is a primal fear beyond rational thought — the bone-deep terror that no one is who they claim to be. The second half of the film realizes that on a grand, nail-biting scale, as the characters try to flee a San Francisco that’s become one big, parasitic organism.

As a thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is basically perfect: The arc of the plot from steadily tightening suspense to extended chase sequence has never really been matched. But like that infamous dog-man thing — a mistake of the cloning process — that scampers in to blow Matthew and Elizabeth’s cover, the film is a genetic hybrid of genres. Beneath its expert blend of body horror, H.G. Wellsian sci-fi, and conspiracy thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers works splendidly as a sly satire of a society hooked on self-help and New Age platitudes, as embodied by a damningly logical Leonard Nimoy. What are the pod people but malevolent life coaches, helping humanity permanently shed their messy, inconvenient emotional baggage? 

A man holds woman in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

And on another level still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers works as a rapturous romance. While the world is swallowed by an invasive species, Matthew and Elizabeth confess their feelings for each other, a friendship blossoming into something more on the eve of humanity’s total assimilation into a hive. Sutherland and Adams have a warm, casual chemistry that betrays the truth about their relationship before their characters dare speak it. So does the scene where Matthew finds himself incapable of destroying the nearly perfect, slumbering doppelganger of the woman he loves. Their climactic declaration of devotion is like a death rattle for mankind, beautiful and tragic.

A man stands near bare trees in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
United Artists

It’s Sutherland, working at the height of his skills, who anchors Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a full movie-star performance, getting the absolute most out of his shaggy ’70s sex appeal, his intelligence, his wit. More than that, he becomes a kind of ambassador for humanity’s messy worth, embodying all the qualities we stand to lose if the pod people complete their purification protocol. Therein lies the gut punch of the unforgettable ending, undiminished by a million out-of-context memes: As Donald Sutherland goes, so goes humanity.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is currently streaming on Amzazon Prime with a MGM+ subscription, and is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.