Monthly Archives: November 2014

Viewer engagement analysis of Matthew Bennell: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978), a small group of close-knit friends are thrust into the centre of an alien invasion, albeit a peculiar one. This group of people slowly discover that the residents of San Francisco are being replaced with emotionless alien clones. Even though the film has a ensemble cast, most of the action is centred around Matthew Bennell, and his developing love affair with Elizabeth Driscoll (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 2014).

How are viewers coaxed into engaging with Matthew Bennell, a seemingly plain man, and what leads them to sympathise with his character in the light of the absurd events that ensue during the course of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978)?

By applying Coplan’s (2009) methods in understanding empathy and character engagement, and by using examples from the film alongside my own reasoning, I will attempt to explain how viewers cognitively engage with the characters in this suspenseful film. This will show how recognition, alignment, allegiance and mimicry might influence viewers’ emotional and cognitive engagement with Matthew Bennell, and inform the films so-called structure of sympathy (Coplan 2009).

According to Coplan (2009) there are three levels of engagement present during the cognitive process of viewer engagement, of which recognition is the first. Recognition builds the characters as individual, constant human agents in the viewers’ minds (Coplan 2009:102), and in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978) this is prevalent from the beginning.

After the opening scenes with Elizabeth Driscoll, the viewers are immediately put in the day-to-day world of Matthew Bennell, an inspector for the Department of Health as he investigates a French restaurant for health violations. Matthew has a certain unwavering nature about him, as well as a tenacity for his work, which after finding the restaurant unsanitary, leaves him at odds with the management and workers.

This introduction to the character, in his day-to-day dealings, eases the viewers into recognising Matthew as an individual functioning in the society presented. Besides that, it also offers a glimpse into his personality, but I will expand on that in alignment.

If the filmmaker chose to introduce Matthew like Elizabeth, simply happening upon her in the park, or like the other characters introduced later, in the middle of action, the viewer wouldn’t be given the chance to place Matthew as an individual, and as the anchor in the film. It is very important for the viewers to firmly place him in the world that is presented, through what Coplan (2009:102) calls recognition.

Alignment fits into the structure of sympathy as an important bridge between recognition and allegiance. Coplan (2009:102) states alignment as the way a film’s narrative leads viewers to access a character’s thoughts and emotions, alongside and as a result of, the character’s actions.

In the part where Matthew breaks into Elizabeth’s house to find her, we are introduced to Matthew’s protective and proactive traits. Whereas in previous parts of the film other characters had started reacting in adverse ways to the invasion of human bodies, it takes Matthew longer because of his rational way of thinking. The filmmaker decides to do two things in this part, confirm Matthew’s caring affection for Elizabeth, and firmly put him at odds with the menace of the body snatchers. From this point onward, these two attributes guide Matthew’s actions for the rest of the film.

Due to the nature of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978), it is important for viewers to understand a character’s thoughts and feelings. If not, all the actions performed would seem completely unmotivated, especially if the relationships were shallow. Kaufman however manages to portray the interactions Matthew has with the rest of the group very well, and to good emotional effect. As other characters interact with Matthew, though they may be saying more about their own feelings, through his presence in the situation a viewer learns a lot about Matthew’s thoughts and feelings.

Kaufman uses other characters to inform the viewer of where Matthew is at any point in his film. Almost like a sounding board for his own developing thoughts. And through scenes like the rescue of Elizabeth from her house, the viewer can firmly place Matthew and his goals in the world presented.

Regarding allegiance Coplan (2009:102) describes it as a process through which the film leads viewers to sympathise with or against characters. Throughout the film the viewer is drawn closer and closer to Matthew as a character. First recognising him as a individual, then in understanding his feelings and thoughts. Through all the trials he faces the viewer is lead to sympathise with his struggle, and his admirable, yet futile attempts to help his friends.

An example of where these factors culminate for the viewer is in Matthew’s revengeful strike against the aliens near the end of the film. After Matthew and Elizabeth escape the aliens, Elizabeth is cloned in a corn field, and Matthew is the witness. By this point most of their friends have been taken, and the only thing remaining for Matthew was keeping Elizabeth safe. But after the traumatic experience he leaves for the pod factory with reckless resolve to destroy it.

By this point the viewer strongly sympathises with Matthew, and most likely vies for him to beat the alien menace that has taken everything from him. This allegiance was very important for Kaufman to establish, as without it no one would care for Matthew’s actions. But after understanding why, and sympathising with him, the viewer can be completely engrossed in Matthew’s final attempts at retaliation. A necessary factor if the traumatic end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978) is to carry any real weight.

Coplan (2009:104;105) explains mirroring, or mimicry as a set of automatic, or involuntary experiences that are similar to what the character is going through on screen. This happens under certain conditions, but can be used to great effect if a filmmaker understands its use.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978) has many tense and terrifying scenes, but without the fearful expression on a characters face, the viewer would not experience the terror as intensely as required in a film like this. Throughout the film there are many cases where the close-up, and track to close-up filming style is used, a very effective mechanism to help mirroring take place. The viewer is put in a position to project what the character is experiencing upon themselves, and as such is drawn completely into the illusion the film presents.

There are many scenes where the close-up is prevalent, but another case where mirroring may apply is around the middle of the film. Matthew franticly tries to call authorities about the alien menace, but is continuously put down by them as being paranoid, or rushing to conclusions. During this scene of confusion for the character, the camera also spins around in a dazed manner, which puts the viewer in the world of Matthew, a man who’s life is falling apart. Thus the confusion a viewer can experience at that point is a reflection of what Matthew is going through, and what Coplan (2009:104;105) refers to as mirroring.

By using various stylistic and narrative elements, Kaufman helped establish the viewer’s concern for Matthew and his friends. Yet Matthew is used as a centre point from which all the other character’s thoughts and actions are reflected. Because of his unique role as that centre point, the viewer associates with Matthew as the film progresses, using him as an entry point to the world he lives in. This makes the famous final image of the film a terrifying sight that sends shivers down the spine of any mortal not yet turned into an emotionless husk.

For a thriller like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978) to be successful, everything depends on getting the audience to care about the lives of the characters. And while analysing the films characters through Coplan’s (2009) methods, it’s easy to see why Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman 1978) is considered the greatest Sci-Fi thriller remake this side of the galaxy.

Rean Combrinck – Copyright 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 2014. IMDB. (Accessed 27 October 2014).

Coplan, A. 2009. Empathy and character engagement, in The Routledge companion to philosophy and film, edited by P Livingston & C Plantinga. London: Routledge: 97-110.