From distant worlds, a colonising force has travelled across space to reach planet Earth, something that resembles a plant or a parasite. It arrives in San Francisco in the rain, falling on the leaves and growing there into small pods with tiny flowers, and a public health worker, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes an interest when she sees a few near her home. That evening, she tries to interest her partner Geoffrey (Art Hindle) but he's more interested in watching the sport on television, so she places the little pod in a glass of water and leaves it next to the bed. The next day Geoffrey rises before she does and she catches sight of him at a garbage truck outside, which she thinks is odd. She might have more luck with her friend and colleague Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland)...
When you think of the talent explosion that emerged from Hollywood in the seventies, in amongst all the Spielbergs, Scorceses, De Palmas and Coppolas, Philip Kaufman tends to be overlooked, which is a shame as this bleak remake of the classic 1950s chiller shows. It was scripted by W.D. Richter, the man who would bring Buckaroo Banzai to the screen for an authentic eighties cult movie, from the novel by Jack Finney, but instead of smalltown America, it was the big city that provides the setting for the paranoia. In nineteen-seventies America, the population is alienated enough as it is: strangers can be hostile, self-help classes and books are relied on for answers to the general unease, the authorities aren't necessarily going to provide all the assistance you need.
Yet as the details littered around the plot illustrate, everyone is seeking some big answers to some big questions, though the solution that has settled on their society is rather drastic, and involves wiping out whatever humanity caused its problems in the first place. Kaufman skilfully increases the tension by filming almost everything in shadows (this has to be one of the murkiest big budget science fiction films ever made), holding his camera in too close, using jarring sound effects like clocks, telephones and police sirens, and largely sustaining a mood of growing isolation where the central characters find themselves clinging on to what makes them human and vital by their fingernails. Even shooting the public on the city streets is effective in creating a sense of anxiety: a simple shot of someone running is cause for unease.
The casting was excellent, making the human aspect strong in contrast to the emotionless results of being taken over by a pod, from the tentative romance between Matthew and Elizabeth, to the fast-talking writer Jeff Goldblum or his plucky health spa-owning wife Veronica Cartwright (again suffering in a science fiction or horror movie, this was to become a habit). One of the cleverest bits is having Leonard Nimoy play a fashionable guru: he starts out being kind, emotional and instinctive - even laughing and shouting - but when he is replaced he has become like his Vulcan alter-ego, cold and clinical. The whole film shows a genre awareness, with Kevin McCarthy (star of the original, still frantic) and Don Siegel (the director, as a taxi driver) appearing from the first film, and a wonderful reprise of its radio scene, using "Amazing Grace".
But, as in that radio scene, the film continually dashes the hopes, making for a depressing experience as the narrative quashes ever last vestige of opportunity; in the first movie, Siegel was requested to put a more optimistic final scene on his work, here however it acknowledges that part represented too little too late and we would not be organised enough to combat such an insidious threat. If there is a problem, it's that we're always one step ahead of the action, waiting for the protagonists to catch up, meaning the film tends to be predictable, not that ending doesn't pack a punch, the climax a chilling and bleak reminder that going with the herd unquestioningly leaves those pondering the moral implications of enforced conformity trapped in a swamp of paranoia, which Kaufman and Richter conveyed with great integrity and conviction. This remake is proof that it's difficult to make a bad film out of this compelling premise, though the Nicole Kidman remake proved it wasn't impossible. Sound effects by Ben Burtt and spooky music by Denny Zeitlin, surely an influence on a bunch of video nasties.