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No peas in these pods

'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' still has us in its clutches

"We're in danger! They're here already! You're next!"

So shrieked Kevin McCarthy at the end of the 1956 paranoid classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." He meant the Pod People, of course -- emotionless alien replicants who have replaced the good folk of Santa Mira, Calif. He could have been talking about the long, long pop-culture tail of the movie itself.

Eerily resonant and open to endless interpretation, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is the B-movie nightmare that won't go away. Many films get remade for modern audiences, but when the new Nicole Kidman/ Daniel Craig vehicle "The Invasion" hits multiplexes on Friday, it will mark the fourth screen iteration of this sturdy science-fiction parable. The thing's harder to kill than one of those pods.

Why does Hollywood keep coming back? Why do we? The pulpy genius of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," as encoded by writer Jack Finney in his original 1954 magazine serial "Body Snatchers" (subsequently published as a novel) and stamped onto celluloid by director Don Siegel two years later, is that it latches onto a primal fear: Your individuality is under assault by the forces of conformity.

We prize individuality in America. It's a cornerstone of our democracy, our history, our culture. Everyone's a star, each in his or her own fashion. The notion that we're actually more alike than different -- that we're sheep, or lemmings, or the many faces of a human hive mind -- is so repellent we have to project it elsewhere. Onto alien invaders from outer space, for instance. Or Communists.

Many observers read the 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" as a coded warning about the dangers of Soviet totalitarianism. Others saw it as a critique of McCarthy-era groupthink. The movie's star once said he thought it was about Madison Avenue. Siegel always maintained he was just making a sci-fi flick.

Maybe so, but the reason this property has stuck around is that it bypasses specific threat and goes right for elemental unease. How unique are we, anyway? It's a question that has vexed anyone who has lived in suburbia or been stuck in a traffic jam -- anyone who has felt lost in a crowd.

Fittingly, the various "Invasion" remakes locate paranoia on different parts of the cultural spectrum. Philip Kaufman's excellent, still frightening 1978 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (just released on DVD in a two-disc collector's edition) moved the action from Eisenhower-era Santa Mira to Me Decade San Francisco, among the street loonies and the New Age idealists. If the central couple, played by Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, is charmingly eccentric, their married friends, played by Veronica Cartwright and a young and hungry Jeff Goldblum, are more extreme post-'60s types. She talks to plants. He has a conspiracy theory for everything.

It's that fringiness that makes them human, members of a fallen world that's still the best we have. As alien pods start popping up all over the Bay Area -- the second "Invasion" is ickily specific about the replication process -- the film's target comes into focus. The primary villain turns out to be (sorry, spoiler alert) the best-selling psychiatrist and self-help guru played by Leonard Nimoy, trading deftly on his iconic status as the coldly logical Mr. Spock.

Are Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter saying that mass self-fulfillment is as delusional as '50s conformity? Maybe. When the shrink tells the hero "You'll be born again into an untroubled world," it could be a Prozac ad a decade ahead of schedule.

Take a look, though, at how the replicants behave. They're neatly groomed and unfailingly polite. The men wear suits, the women dresses. Only when they sense you're different do they let out with that unholy alien warning scream.

They're Republicans, in other words. Two years before Ronald Reagan was elected president, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" said the 1980s were on their way and you're next.

The least remembered of the remakes is 1993's "Body Snatchers," directed by Abel Ferrara ("Bad Lieutenant") and starring the young actress Gabrielle Anwar ("Scent of a Woman"). Despite a handful of strong scenes, the film's not very good -- it feels like a late-'80s B-movie shocker, right down to the big hair and cheesy synth score -- but it does amp up the teenage rebellion that has always been implicit in the story.

In a sense, the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was always a profoundly adolescent experience, one that fit in with other '50s youthquakes. Ferrara's remake, too, says that if you're not careful you'll end up just like them (meaning your parents): dully responsible, emotionless, part of the crowd. No wonder teenagers stay up late, fighting off sleep the way the hero and heroine do in every version of the tale. They're afraid of being alien-ated.

The director and writers (including schlock kingpin Larry Cohen) have something more obvious on their plate, though. "Body Snatchers" is set on an Army base in the deep South, with Anwar playing the daughter of a visiting EPA inspector (Terry Kinney) and his second wife (Meg Tilly). Playing off the paranoia engendered by the Iran-Contra scandal of the late '80s, the movie presents a conspiracy of emotionless military personnel engineering a planetary takeover -- an army of Ollie North Pod People.

In case you didn't get the message, "Body Snatchers" ends with the Army base getting blown up in loving slow-motion. It's not a subtle movie, and it has a built-in flaw: Not only is it hard to tell a faceless soldier from a faceless soldier-replicant, the emotional stakes are a lot lower for the audience. The special effects are squigglier than ever, though, and the aliens' political philosophy is more explicit. "When all things are conformed, there'll be no more disputes, no conflicts, no problems," says the base commander (played by no less a figure than R. Lee Ermey, the gunnery sergeant in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"). "It's the race that's important, not the individual." Here, the aliens equal the Pentagon equals the Nazis.

What will be the governing paranoia of "Invasion" 4.0? What metaphorical boogeymen will be slipping their pods under the characters' beds? While the new film hasn't yet screened for the press, we know that it's set in Washington, D.C., that Kidman plays a psychiatrist, and that the alien spores come to earth by hitching a ride on the space shuttle.

We can be pretty sure the gore and special effects will be state-of-the-art, ironic considering how much suspense the 1956 original created by showing us so little. And we know "The Invasion" may have a personality crisis of its own: The film is credited to screenwriter David Kajganich and director Oliver Hirschbiegel (the German film "Downfall"), but late last year Warner Brothers brought in the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" fame) and James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") to, respectively, write and direct extensive reshoots.

Perhaps it's the Hollywood suits who are the replicants -- that would explain all the sequels, remakes, and retreads. There are plenty of other real-world candidates, though, who reflect the scary conformity that keeps this property vital 53 years after Jack Finney dreamed it up. There are terrorists. There are religious fundamentalists of every sect. There are corporate drones and direct marketers. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, there's the other side. There are all those fans of Disney's "High School Musical."

There you go: What about the MySpace generation? Talk about a hive mind. Or what about those chic, anonymous replicants silhouetted in the commercials for Apple's best-selling music player? If "The Invasion" really wanted to scare the daylights out of us, maybe Kidman should be fighting an attack of the iPod People.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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