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Seeing the Pattern: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and US Immigration

Warner Bros. is riding the wave of immigration anxiety with its latest remake.
By  · Published on July 21st, 2017

Warner Bros. is riding the wave of immigration anxiety with its latest remake.

And the cycle continues. The story that can be interpreted a million different ways seems to be on the road to getting just as many remakes. Yes, that’s right, Warner Bros. has announced yet another version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to be written by David Leslie Johnson (The Conjuring 2).

In a world overrun by sequels and remakes, this news could merely seem to be another case of Lazy Hollywood Executive Syndrome. However, the announcement is, in reality, a small piece of a larger pattern. Every time Invasion of the Body Snatchers is redone, it’s preceded by a spike in US immigration anxiety.

All monster films capitalize on social anxieties. According to cultural theorist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, the monster itself only exists through a collective culture. Indeed, the monster is continually reborn. It exists in the shadows until suddenly it appears, only to disappear just as quickly as it came. In America, the immigrant has consistently been monster-ized. Tensions between US citizens and immigrants are always present, boiling over periodically, resulting in new legislation. Now the latest spell of heightened turmoil is also accompanied by the release of another iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Jack Finney published his serialized novel “The Body Snatchers” in 1954. The first film adaptation premiered two years later. In the heat of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of American communists, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was mostly interpreted in two ways. Either the body snatchers were commies, subverting our American way, or they were the McCarthyites, stripping Americans of their freedom. While these readings are valid, there were other points of social tension in the 1950s: namely immigration policy.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 consolidated multiple bills into one tex, providing a federal basis on which to manage immigration. Mass emigration to the US by Eastern Europeans at the end of World War II catalyzed the bill, as many people believed the foreign culture brought along by these immigrants threatened to dilute the country’s “American-ness.” Borders had tighter restrictions as US sentiment and policy grew increasingly isolationist.

The author of the bill, Senator Pat McCarran, convinced Congress to pass the bill, saying, “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization, and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.” Sounds a lot like the fear exploited in Invasion, huh?

The first remake premiered in 1978, starring Donald Sutherland. This version again followed widespread social anxiety of large-scale undocumented immigration, this time from Latin America and Asia. In fact, the Migration Policy Institute designates the 1970s as the beginning of large-scale migration as we know it today. Between 1969 and 1980, the number of undocumented immigrants in the US tripled.

Fifteen years later, the Body Snatchers returned again. The 1993 film Body Snatchers supplied little variation on the core story. However, this remake was just as topical as its predecessors had been. The economic boom of the 1990s led to increased numbers of undocumented immigrants in the US, and increased labor demands sustained the mass migration. Therefore, immigration anxiety boiled over once again, resulting in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996. With the passage of the act, immigrants could be jailed for a crime for up to two years before coming before an immigration board. However, these new strict measures did not stop the mass migration.

In 2007, when The Invasion was released, jobs were scarce, and anxiety over immigration was again heightened. Multiple political and economic factors contributed to the anxiety felt by many Americans. The War on Terror contributed to an anti-Middle Eastern immigration movement while foreshocks of the Great Recession added to labor tensions and the Democratic Congress was at odds with the Republican president. As a result of the fragmented government, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 died on the Senate floor. The bill would have provided citizenship to 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Now, as Warner Bros. preps another remake, immigration tensions are the highest they have been in the last 50 years. Large numbers of Americans are afraid of terrorist attacks in the US. Attempting to stop the movement of Islamic extremists into the US, President Trump is determined to enact a temporary travel ban on the entire population of six Middle Eastern countries. Specifically, the issue of admitting Syrian refugees is causing mass contention. The studio’s announcement perfectly fits into the film’s remake cycle. The monster has reappeared, taking on the form of Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees.

This next version will not likely paint the Body Snatchers as either immigrants or those who seek to oust them from their country. After all, the Body Snatchers aren’t either of those groups. The anxieties held by every human are the actual Body Snatchers. Thus, they can be anyone. In fact, by the end of each film, the Body Snatchers are almost everyone. Though The Invasion has the most hopeful ending — spoiler: humanity reverses the aliens’ work — they receive no reward at the end of their journey. Even the final frame of the film is accompanied by an ominous piano chord. It seems to say, “this is not over.” It acts as the “You’re next!” line from the original film, that is, with a lighter touch.

Finney’s book ends differently. The Body Snatchers give up on colonizing Earth, and they do not return. Humanity, with all of its issues and anxieties, wins. This is the one thing I want from Johnson’s script. I want to see Finney’s original ending on the big screen.

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