THE BACKWASH OF 1960S shock waves broke down the firewall between serious cinema and genre films. (In the “P” column alone, the mid-’70s had Polanski’s Chinatown, Penn’s Night Moves, and Pakula’s The Parallax View.) Hollywood wrestled—flailing, kicking, and squirming—to assimilate disruption and ambiguity into an updated commercial playbook. Remember that Robert Altman, funky high priest of alternative, independent-minded cinema, got his break with a wacky military-service comedy (MASH), hit his zenith with a poet-junkie-woodpecker western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and a shambling private eye fugue (The Long Goodbye), all while making sharp-elbowed buddy pictures (California Split), gangling Depression-era gangster remakes (Thieves Like Us), transposed Bergman psychodramas (3 Women), and a big-tent, Face in the Crowd meets Grand Hotel circus called Nashville.
From that skewed, almost-but-not-quite-anything-goes context, screenwriter W. D. Richter’s and director Phillip Kaufman’s ambidextrous 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers emerged. Set in a tangibly lived-in, ramshackle San Francisco, right along the fault line between Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance chiller The Conversation, it refashioned a new kind of self-aware suspense out of the loss of self and awareness.
Invasion wasn’t just verbally knowing: Its wit extended into the compositional elements, symmetries of plot and production design, even the delectably macabre sound track. (The jazz pianist–psychoanalyst Denny Zeitlin’s atonal score melds with amplified natural sounds to suggest a world being quietly overrun by organisms that had escaped their petri dishes and gotten inside the characters’ heads.) It’s a nightmare of hip gnosis bridging the pulp allegory of Don Siegel’s 1956 original with the icy domestic touch of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975)—that’s what gives its estrangement such a specific satiric jolt, but also enhances the utterly mundane, methodical, step-by-step terror of the Pod takeover. (They are genuinely, biologically pulpy—gummy fruit that ripens into human replacements.)
These plant-based organisms enter the San Francisco ecosystem in stages straight out of the exotic invasive species handbook: Introduction, Establishment, Spread, Impact, and Naturalization. The flowers and tendrils running through Kaufman and Richter’s Invasion are grafts of layer upon layer of rueful urban jokes and urbane angst: gentrification physicalized, displacing prickly countercultural remnants with humorless drones who are the avatars of the dreaded “hive mind.”
Casting was impeccably eccentric, Leonard Nimoy being the closest to type, the perfect smiling image of a suave, best-selling psychological guru who seems hatched from Mr. Spock and the collected album covers of Leonard Cohen—a Pod Person even before the Pods get to him. Everyone else was as deftly off-center as Michael Chapman’s deviously angular camerawork: Donald Sutherland as a rumpled hero who is a little late on the uptake (a post-hippie Columbo, working as a crusading health inspector), the half-giddy melancholy of Brooke Adams (when she spins her eyeballs, it’s worth a thousand CGI effects), Jeff Goldblum’s angry poet (establishing himself as the jittery virtuoso of weirdos), and the heartbreakingly plaintive holdout, Veronica Cartwright.
The key to this Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be the procession of indelible, haunting, incongruous faces that flash by or trigger some inexplicable association: Robert Duvall’s background cameo on a swing, wearing a priest’s cassock; Lelia Goldoni, from Shadows, as another woman who thinks her husband isn’t her husband anymore; the Turkish bath customer who politely raves about Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision. Everywhere people are behaving aberrantly: Driving through the city with a broken windshield (the spidery cracks in it as subliminal foreshadowing), Sutherland and Adams are like a couple of civilians who’ve wandered into an undeclared war zone. And then Kevin McCarthy crashes onto their hood, reprising his run-for-your-life Paul Revere dash from the end of the original Invasion; this time, there’s nowhere to run. The aliens outnumber the alienated.
Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) doesn’t come directly out of his Invasion screenplay, or anything else for that matter. Yet it’s just as aberrant and cerebral in a screwball-know-it-all way. Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had shifted Hollywood back into safe, retrograde-gee-whiz-kid mode, but Earl Mac Rauch’s screenplay—which Richter commissioned and nurtured for years, through countless permutations—plays deadpan havoc with those very elements. Points of reference include Buck and Roy Rogers, Thomas Pynchon, Preston Sturges, Dr. Strangelove, Adam Ant, Nikolai Tesla, and Orson Welles’s infamous Halloween 1938 radio production of War of the Worlds (here, it turns out Welles’s ostensible drama/“hoax” was used to cover up an actual alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey).
The original cinematographer was Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Blade Runner (1982), but he got fired early in production by honcho David Begelman, who wanted something straighter (and brighter). That tension runs through the movie—a sense that Richter was aiming for a stranger, darker, and more beautiful picture than he was able to push through the corporate interference. Still, Buckaroo Banzai is a film that seems to be made of Easter eggs—it’s the comic-book twin of Repo Man, which came out the same year. A fully imagined alternate universe, the Banzai world is a revenge of the absurdist nerds (for whom stuff like “Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems” and Rastafarians from Planet 10 are catnip) against the dweeby, treacly legions of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Some of its non sequiturs have become dada-Yoda catch phrases: “No matter where you go, there you are.” “Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy!” “Why is that watermelon there?” Why indeed.
The flecks of mischievous spangled irony only makes figures like Weller’s metacool Banzai and Ellen Barkin’s magically felicitous Penny Priddy (part Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels, part Barbra Streisand if she’d done Barbarella instead of Funny Girl) more tenderly romantic. (“You’re like Jerry Lewis,” she blurts to Buckaroo: “You give me hope…”) A palpable camaraderie and affection runs through the movie—of the actors toward their characters and for one another. It’s in the crazed electricity in John Lithgow’s operatic, frothing Dr. Lizardo, passing on down from the leads to Jeff Goldblum (as New Jersey, the puckish neurosurgeon in chaps and spurs) on through Clancy Brown (Rawhide), Lewis Smith (every inch Perfect Tommy), Christopher Lloyd (John Big Booté), Rosalind Cash (John Emdall, though her best line was cut), and undertaker-faced Vincent Schiavelli (John O’Connor). They all seem like alumni of the same therapy group in an asylum for the mentally deconstructed.
Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Buckaroo Banzai are why Blu-ray exists: ripe for rediscovery, or discovery, where you can scrutinize their nooks and crannies endlessly, listen to the commentary tracks on headphones, and lose yourself in mutant minutiae. The Invasion disc is solid enough, with two commentary tracks, and some making-of interviews, but for the true obsessive the Buckaroo Banzai set (also two commentary tracks, but in addition a second disc with two hours’ worth of rather lovely reminisces and many deleted scenes and sequences) is like a guided tour through the Banzai Institute itself. Maybe just a little too much so—Richter and Rauch do the commentary “in character,” playing up the movie as a docudrama about a real half-Japanese scientist-surgeon-crime-fighter-rock-star. On the other hand, the mordant genius of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that it looks and feels so plausible, so timeless, so viscerally all happening right now. “It’s a conspiracy.” “What’s a conspiracy?” “Everything.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension are now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory!