Sunday, 2 November 2008

Body Snatchers

Body Snatchers (1993) is not the first feature-length adaptation of Jack Finney's pulp sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers (serialised in 1954, published in 1955), but it is the first to examine its themes of conformity, paranoia and assimilation within a mostly domestic setting. Previous adaptations by Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman used the general sub-text of the book to give a satirical weight to its B-movie premise; suggesting the air of 1950s McCarthyism in Siegel's film, or the growing right-wing conservative bias of the 1970s in Kaufman's great remake.

In Ferrara's film, the idea of an alien race cloning the species with the intention of world domination carries no greater political commentary, but is instead used as a backdrop to a particularly convincing evocation of teenage alienation. The notion makes perfect sense given the familiar adolescent belief that the world, and in particular the grown-up world of parents, teachers and authority-figures in general, is somehow conspiring against us. "It's like my parents are from another planet..." the kids say, exaggerating the recognisable generation gap while simultaneously reinforcing the one-sided belief that the old-folks just don't get it.

The lead protagonist of this Body Snatchers 3.0 is appropriately enough a teenage girl. Her natural sense of disconnection and displacement is further exaggerated by the film's setting; a military base where her father has been sent to monitor possible levels of contamination following recent government experiments. Right away, the location not only emphasises the feeling of confinement felt by this character - as she is trapped, physically within the walled community of the base and watched at all times by the armed military personnel that "defend" it - but the necessary requirements of the genre to create uncertainty and unease.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

Further separation can be found in the presentation of the family. The opening voice over, delivered by the protagonist from the perspective of having survived these events - thus deliberately reducing the natural suspense that one might expect when engaging with a film of this nature - establishes the sense of domestic dysfunction. As the character herself deadpans during the long road trip that begins the film, "It's not easy being stuck in a car with a six-year old and the woman who replaced your mom..."

Here the dialogue establishes the great theme of Finney's novel - the assimilation of the species - but does so in a rather knowing, almost tongue-in-cheek approach. It's also perfectly in keeping with the irreverent, somewhat belligerent qualities of the central character; wanting to break free from the influence of her father and step-mother to find her own personality and direction through life. This struggle for independence - to be seen as a genuine adult with relevant opinions and emotions that should've been taken into consideration before the decision was made to move - plays into the larger metaphor of Finney's source material; the nature of conformity.

In Ferrara's film, conformity is not only suggested by the central B-movie variation on 'pod-people' replacing the human race, but by the emphasis on his adolescent protagonist. As a teenager, the great struggle in life is about finding your own identity; kicking against the trends and the fashions and the peer pressure to reclaim a sense of self.

Even the location breeds conformity. In popular media, the 1960s counter-culture would jokingly refer to the military as a "conformity factory"; a place where people are conditioned into thinking a certain way. These soldiers aren't individuals; they're an instrument with one mind. If this alien organism was going to successfully gestate in a single environment, then the military base offers the perfect cover; a place where emotions are kept hidden; where the rank and the uniform become the only identification.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

For most of the film, Ferrara uses the horror elements, not as props to increase or embellish the necessary requirements of the genre (for the most part these things are created naturally, through shots and movement) but to give a sense of real, tangible tragedy to the teen soap opera of Marti's life. Think about the situation not as something literally taking place, but as a metaphorical amplification of a particular feeling or a state of mind. This is a character feeling cut-off from her own generation; lost and alone with a family she can no longer relate to...

Rather than developing an immediate atmosphere of terror or even the broader science-fiction elements of the plot, the earlier scenes of the film emphasise the loneliness of this character; moments where she ponders the emptiness of her new life in this cold and loveless environment. Where the windows of her bedroom (unfurnished and therefore without personality) separate her from the other children heard playing in the gardens below; suggesting the image of a prisoner behind bars.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

Whenever possible, Ferrara presents the threat as a natural occurrence. These aren't monsters terrorising the characters; they're something familiar, ordinary even, and difficult to define. The terror comes from the realisation that these things, which look human, can almost pass for human, are here, watching and waiting. Shadows, shapes, silhouettes; appearances that emphasise the idea of formless bodies without character, identity or personality are used by the director to suggest the possible threat.

Likewise, simple shots of characters observing the events taking place are given a greater feeling of agitation and disquiet by the general implication that something terrible is going on beneath the surface of this community.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

It's a daring move by Ferrara and his collaborators to approach the film, for the most part at least, from the perspective of a coming of age story. Unfortunately, when the film does delve deeper into the more overt conventions of the horror movie it tends to fall apart. The final act in particular seems rushed and unfocused. In fact, it almost feels as if Ferrara is fulfilling a contract with his producers; explosions and disintegrating corpses replacing the intense minimalism, pace and formal control exhibited during the first two acts.

However, despite these last-minute flaws, the film is still a fascinating work. Given the largest budget of his career, Ferrara has complete control over the look and design of the film and presents the viewer with one of the most visually creative projects of his career. As an example, the widescreen cinematography is remarkable throughout, with every inch of the screen used artistically, making great use of the edges of the frame to introduce potential danger or clues to the actual reality of the situation. Also, the way the camera moves, often in long languorous tracking shots or via subtle use of the Louma crane, gives the impression of the various unseen forces that motivate these events.

These creative experiments are nothing short of thrilling, but the most audacious move is still the decision to create a multi-million dollar domestic drama that only occasionally reminds its audience that we're watching a crossover between the markedly more mainstream conventions of horror and sci-fi cinema.