Of the four feature film versions of Jack Finney’s classic 1955 sci-fi tale The Body Snatchers, this 1993 update is the only one to employ the original novel’s title. Which is ironic considering it doesn’t seem as if anyone involved in making the movie bothered to read Finney’s book.Despite different settings and allegorical preoccupations, both Don Siegel’s 1956 adaptation and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake remain reasonably faithful to the source material’s paranoid parable of conformity. Not this third retelling courtesy of indie provocateur Abel Ferrara, which excises nearly the entirety of the original plot and along with it the slow-building atmosphere of dread and infinitely adaptable social commentary.
Culled together from the contributions of five screenwriters (including cult directors Stuart Gordon and Larry Cohen), Body Snatchers retains only the source novel’s central conceit of an alien species overtaking mankind by replacing the populace with emotionless doppelgangers that gestate inside giant pods. The film transposes the story from its original small-town 1950s setting to a contemporary Alabama army base, a locale that is already in the midst of a pod-person takeover when EPA chemist Terry Kinney arrives to evaluate the base’s toxic chemical storage with his dysfunctional family (sullen teen daughter Gabrielle Anwar, her icy stepmother Meg Tilly and young half-brother Reilly Murphy) reluctantly in tow.
To Anwar, her stepmother is already a “replacement” even before her alien assimilation (similar to how Ferrara views the United States military, fresh from a victory in the first Persian Gulf War, as already being a conformist society attempting to imprint its ideology on others) and her father a figurative “alien” she no longer recognizes. It’s not long before those parental units are both literal “aliens” as well and Anwar is running for her life with the help of cradle-robbing helicopter pilot Billy Wirth.
Body Snatchers represents one of the few films made by iconoclastic Bad Lieutenant director Ferrara under the thumb of a major studio, thus it should comes as no surprise that this dumbed-down genre exercise is among his least interesting work, void of the boundary-pushing sexuality, violence and religious imagery of his best low-budget independent features.Ferrara does manage a few slivers of subversiveness among the angst-laden teen melodrama and exploding military vehicles – presenting the United States army as a monolithic entity forcefully imposing its way of life on other cultures, and the nuclear family as a fractured and failing institution - but ultimately Body Snatchers seems less interested in updating its source material’s allegorical underpinnings for a 1990s zeitgeist than in upgrading to slimier special effects.