I had been dreading it for days, but it was finally time to brave the supermarket again. Never in my forty-four years on the planet has grocery shopping been as menacing a prospect as it is these days, in the era of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Out I went to grab more food and supplies, wearing gloves and repeating to myself, “Don’t touch your face.” It was less apocalyptically insane than the last time I went, eight days previously. Fewer people, less chaos, far fewer empty shelves–except, of course, for the shelves that formerly held soap, hand sanitizer, and the unfathomably difficult to find toilet paper. Still, while I could move with a little more ease down the aisles, maintaining a hopefully safe distance from my fellow shoppers, the tension was still thick everywhere. People are no longer blithely going about their ritualistic and mundane shopping business, and instead, seem to be straining against an unseen force threatening to suffocate them at any moment.
That looming sense of dread has permeated every facet of daily life since the coronavirus’s arrival across the globe. That dread now lives in stores, in neighborhoods, and even within the walls of our own homes. This constant state of unease, fueled by an indiscriminately vicious virus that’s spreading at a rate faster than scientists and health officials can stay ahead of it. Many of us are staying home as much as possible, either by choice, because we can work from home, or because we’ve been laid off as countless industries collapse under the weight of this pandemic. Flatten the curve, we’re told. In some places, it seems to be working. In others, like my state of New York, projections are showing that the worst is still to come. Add to this the White House’s epic levels of ineptitude and the President of the United State’s callous and utterly reprehensible disregard for the lives of the people he swore to serve, and you have the ingredients for escalating anxiety and mass panic.
Kurt Russell’s oft-quoted line from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) has been going through my head a lot lately: “Nobody trusts anybody, and we’re all very tired.” Fear and paranoia lead to a constant state of exhaustion, as we all white-knuckle it through our days now. Yet it’s another, longer series of lines from a different movie that feels even more relevant to these trying times. At one point in Philip Kaufman’s masterpiece of 1970s dread and paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) confiders in her San Francisco Health Department colleague and love interest, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland):
“Matthew, I’ve lived in this city all my life. But somehow today, I felt everything had changed. People were different. Not just Geoffrey, but everybody. Yesterday, it all seemed normal. Today, everything seemed the same but it wasn’t. It was a nightmare. It really became frightening. It was like the whole city changed overnight.”
That’s the line I can’t get out of my head right now. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the film I can’t stop thinking about right now. Written by W. D. Richter and directed flawlessly by Kaufman, it speaks to our current sense of global paranoia in ways that few other films can. It certainly doesn’t hurt that its two main characters work for the health department and consistently ignored by the powers that be as they discover evidence that the city might be in a pandemic situation. Sound familiar?
In the film, alien life forms descend on San Francisco (and beyond), where they are sucking the life force from human beings and creating “pod persons” in their place. These pod people may appear normal outwardly, but there’s something off about them. They can’t completely replicate our individuality, and instead appear conformist and slightly mechanical. Paranoia spreads among the film’s protagonists, including Elizabeth and Matthew, as the city around them feels stranger and more dangerous by the minute. Kaufman regularly utilizes jerky, handheld camera shots to convey the characters’ disorientation and fear, as they navigate a city they no longer recognize.
There are two magnificent examples of this: first, as Elizabeth recites the monologue quoted earlier to Matthew as they drive through the Tenderloin district, Kaufman cuts to what we realize are flashbacks to earlier in the day as she walks through the city while a growing sense of dread overtakes her. Kaufman shoots Adams in close-ups, from slightly above and at odd angles, as people briskly pace by her in every direction, making her seem surrounded and nearly suffocated by what we later realize are likely pod people. In another scene, Kaufman whirls and spins the camera to dizzying effect as Sutherland haltingly wads through a jam-packed downtown that now feels sinister and unwelcoming.
The particulars of Body Snatchers’ plot may differ from our current pandemic end-times scenario, but that’s irrelevant because this film from 1978 feels exactly like life feels right now, in 2020. Life seemed normal one day and then the next it all seemed to flip sideways. Suddenly, nothing makes sense, and we’re all grappling to keep up as news flies fast and furious about the seemingly unstoppable spread of the virus. Are we supposed to wear gloves to the store? Surely, handshakes are out, right? Is wiping down packages and groceries really necessary? Is the virus really only dangerous to the elderly and the immunocompromised? How frightened–terrified, even–should we be for our lives in this situation? We have so many questions and too few answers of any certitude right now. We are all like Matthew, Elizabeth, and their friends, the married couple Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright)–confused, scared, and facing an uncertain future. Trips to the grocery store now resemble Kaufman’s disorienting shots of Sutherland or Adams surrounded by a sea of inhumanity, the unusual camera angles strongly resembling our own points of view as we stagger through this strange new world.
For several days, maybe even weeks, I’d felt a growing need to revisit Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s the best iteration of this story, which has been made into several films in the years before and since. It’s also a stellar example of how pervasive paranoia was in American culture in the 1970s. Indelible scenes and moments from the film kept creeping into my subconscious, every day, until finally watching it again felt like an inevitability. There’s a strange comfort watching it now, despite the film’s famously unsettling ending. Not just because seeing ourselves right now at this moment in history within the protagonists of the film provides powerful moments of recognition and connection, but also for other, less-heralded aspects of the film. Late in the final act, as Matthew and Elizabeth are on the run from the pod people and their fate seems dire, they take a moment, hiding in the shadows, to profess their love for one another. These two people, longtime coworkers who have always shared easy chemistry, now have no reason to deny each other this simple yet profound truth, this declaration of hope and love in a time of enormous anxiety.
The world changed overnight for the characters in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We now live under the looming shadow of mass paranoia, ourselves. For us, this change may have taken several days or weeks, but it’s an equally unforgiving and frightening disruption. For most of us, beyond taking the appropriate safety precautions, all we can really do right now is live in the moment and love each other. (Just like Matthew and Elizabeth late in the film.)
I think in our hearts we always knew this, but it’s taken a pandemic of epic proportions usually associated with a science fiction/horror film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to really drive it home: there are no guarantees in life. Living with that knowledge now, in a time of extreme uncertainty, will ensure our collective paranoia and anxiety remain at stressfully high levels, just as they were for the protagonists in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.