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Body Snatchers, Then and Now September 5, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

I watched The Invasion (2007) the other night. Since I like both previous Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (1956, 1978), for various reasons, I was curious to see the updated version. And it came through with a female lead, 21st century special effects, enough bio-speech to make it sound plausible—not bad. But what I really liked was the place it took in what is now the triad of Body Snatcher visions, and the thread it carried through from the previous two films: For those of you who are clueless, rent the two older movies, and “compare and contrast” them: The original from 1956, in glorious B&W, believes we humans might win the battle (the film is usually interpreted as a metaphor for the fight against Communism).  The 1978 version, in cynical post-Vietnam color, is more pessimistic—the political climate has changed, and fears of conformity and big business are stirring. And the 2007 version has its moments of doubt whether winning is such a good thing after all.

Here is the basic plot for all three movies: Aliens are trying to take over the planet, one human at a time. They need our bodies to move around, so they take them over while we sleep, and we wake up being “somebody else.” A husband doesn’t recognize his wife anymore, a mother doesn’t recognize her daughter, a dog barks furiously at her master: they look the same, but there’s “something wrong.” These alien beings are without emotion. And the terrified relatives and colleagues will try to seek help from the incredulous and incompetent authorities, until they, too, are overwhelmed in their sleep, and become the enemy. The still unchanged humans can fool the increasing hordes of unemotional aliens by not displaying any joy, fear, surprise, anger, and so forth—walk and act like a robot, and you may delay your capture, but you will probably not prevent it.

You’ll probably recognize the “logic vs. emotion” storyline from numerous sci-fi stories over the past 75+ years (the Star Trek universe included), all the way back to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (Morluks and Eloids), and it’s usually a nice dichotomy for a movie, well suited for 1-2 hours of entertainment. A little thin for further philosophical discussions, because logic vs. emotion isn’t a B&W issue, but it’s a good metaphor for the start of a discussion. Are we fundamentally a rational or an emotional species? Should we emphasize our reason, or our emotional qualities? The Body Snatcher movies, all three of them, are not in doubt: the superbly humanizing quality is our capacity for emotions. What makes this timely and interesting is that this emphasis on the humanizing quality of emotions has been the conclusion of neurobiologists within the last few years. This, again, is of course oversimplified, especially when we pull the field of ethics into the mix: Just because an act feels hard to do, and will cause pain to others, doesn’t necessarily mean it is always the morally wrong thing to do. Long debate, and we’ve touched on it before, on several occasions. But what I want to get to is the contribution by the 2007 version, The Invasion, maybe more so than the two previous versions: the aliens in the human bodies insist that they are creating a better world than the humans were capable of: With no emotions there will be no wars, no violence, no enmity, no depression, and no jealousy. We will have the peace and harmony we all dream about! And when (spoiler alert!) an antidote is found, and humans revert to their old, violent ways, we are told, by one of the characters in the film, that “We are human again—for better or for worse.” This is a version of the story that matches its decade (just like the other two did). It seems as if the Body Snatching theme needs a new filmic expression every other decade or so, reflecting our changing fears and sensibilities, and the latest one (in a nicely dialectic pendulum swing) is less cynical than #2, but perhaps a little bit wiser (once you look past the endless chase scenes):  Look what “being human” has brought upon us, it asks—would we not, perhaps, be better off all around, being a little less “human,” and more rational? An interesting idea to throw into the mix, considering that (1) neurobiologists are now telling us that, indeed, we “feel, therefore we are,” (2) the film features emotional humans whom we identify with, and (3) philosophers have told us for the past 25 centuries that the ultimate humanizing quality is reason. So how badly do we want world peace? Harmony at home? No strife, no fighting, no conflicts? Would we be willing to give up our most humanizing qualities of empathy, joy and love, if we could avoid the inevitable emotional flip side leading to antagonism, depression, conflicts, and war? The film says no, but it doesn’t do it lightly. Now, for Hollywood, that’s interesting. Makes you feel a little bit like you’re back in the day of Robert Ardrey. A better question would be, why should we assume that we have to give up on our emotional legacy with all its baggage in order to maintain a rational composure? And who says that reason can’t be passionate?



1. Paul Moloney - September 6, 2008

I think the primary emotion would belong to love. Reason and emotion are not essentially opposed. Emotion can have a bad connotation because so many people are emotional because they are unreasonable. I would argue that one reasons for the sake of love and friendship and both of these have emotional elements. It is only reasonable people that have true friendship.

We can make ourselves insensitive to the emotional aspects of love in order to preserve our feelings from being hurt. It seems that with the idea of love comes the idea of sorrow. We even hate the idea of experiencing sorrow before we have ever experienced it. We will seemingly do just about anything to avoid experiencing sorrow. This might be why many people make themselves emotionless.

It seems to be a common notion that with love comes sorrow. It seems that we can hate love because of the sorrow associated with it. We want to love someone but we do not want to be hurt by that person. There seems to be an absolute dividing line when it comes to love; we either hold a grudge against someone because they hurt us or we forgive that person. It is better to love than to be loved. When it comes to love we will be hurt. Love is not for the fainthearted.

There seems to be a catch to love. If we are not in love with someone in particular, it seems that we cannot be friends with people in general. Some people can be annoying because they try to use others to avoid being in love with someone in particular. They want to be friends with everyone without being in love with anyone. I would take being in love with someone in particular to be the highest form of friendship.

2. Huan - September 7, 2008

My question is can reason actually be without emotion for human beings? Why do we utilize reason at all? Is it not to satisfy some desires or fears with the most efficient way possible? I can not think of any rational actions that do not in some way involve emotional drive.

Biologically speaking, actions are dictated by neuro networks and chemical hormones right? If we define emotion a bit loosely as physical effects, we’d HAVE to be act on emotion all the time, theres no way around it. Then again, if the qualia of emotion is but an after image of the chemical processes like experiments suggest, it’d be hard to differentiate between emotion and a lack of emotion. Chemical robots with an emergent property of conscious emotion is really no different from plain chemical robots empirically speaking right?

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