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COPIES AND ROBBERS

It's ironic, isn't it, that filmmakers keep trying to reinvent Don Siegel's 1956 horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Philip Kaufman did it in 1978, and Abel Ferrara is taking his shot this year. Let's hope that each of them grasps the implications of cloning a movie about the terrors of cloning.

Luckily for us, though, neither remake has been a soulless counterfeit.
Ferrara and three screenwriters have slimmed the title of the latest version down to Body Snatchers, and they have transplanted the story from the small town of the original and the San Francisco of Kaufman's remake to a bleak army base in Alabama. This is a useful choice in several ways: First, soldiers, who are already uniformed and regimented, seem the ideal victims for evil aliens intent on stealing bodies and minds; second, a hot, dusty, olive-drab army base in a distant state is the perfect place for the movie's rebellious teenage narrator, Marti Malone (newcomer Gabrielle Anwar), to land for the summer and to begin feeling even more antagonistic toward her EPA-inspector father (Terry Kinney) and her intrusive stepmother (Meg Tilly).

The subtext of Siegel's original film was McCarthyist conformity and the communist witch hunts. In the next generation Kaufman attacked the numbing obfuscations of psycho-babble. Ferrara, the maker of cult action hits like The King of New York and last year's corrosive crooked-cop drama Bad Lieutenant, has an updated social agenda of his own. In this era of family dysfunction and ecological disorder, it says here, you don't need extraterrestrial demons to feel that your soul's been invaded. The overbearing father, the barrel of toxic waste spilled on the warehouse floor or the irritating stranger sharing Daddy's bed are alien enough.

That doesn't mean Ferrara has canned the space invaders, their blood-curdling screams of accusation or those slime-drenched, hairy pods you saw in past movie incarnations of Jack Finney's novel Sleep No More. On the contrary, state-of-the-art special effects allow the director to portray the hatching of a clone-embryo from its translucent sac with fresh gruesomeness, and when our young heroine's half-formed, nonhuman twin leaps upon her in the bathtub, you might leap from your seat.

Add to the mix the hip, wild daughter (Christine Elise) of the army base's icy commanding officer (is he or isn't he a zombie?), the cute little brother (Reilly Murphy) who knows something strange is up the minute all the other kids at daycare hold up identical finger-paintings, a handsome chopper pilot (Billy Wirth) and a doctor gone mad (Forest Whitaker), and this Body Snatchers comes together.

In the end, old chestnuts spring to mind:
There's no substitute for the original. They don't make 'em like they used to. Beware of imitations--in human beings or movies. But when credit is due, let's give it: Abel Ferrara has snatched up a durable old story about the ultimate horror--the eradication of identity--and breathed new life into it.

 
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