Total Recall: The Invasion Joins A Long List Of Paranoia Movies

Celebrating the cinema of fear: M, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Conversation.

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Last week, The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, hit theaters, spinning a tale of a world in which an epidemic strips everyday people of their emotions, creating fear in the hearts of the ininfected. Time will tell if The Invasion is remembered as a movie that captured something about the way we live in the 2000s (though with its 21 percent Tomatometer score, that seems unlikely), but one thing is for certain: It's the latest in a long line of films that attempt to grapple with our collective anxiety in uncertain times.

Perhaps, in this age of domestic spying and alleged sleeper cells, we're more anxious than ever. If nothing else, filmmakers have certainly found much to mine from our collective angst; in 2007 alone, such varied films as The Bourne Ultimatum, Disturbia, The Lives Of Others, Red Road, and Civic Duty have hit screens. Despite profoundly different settings and methods of execution, what these films share is a sense of unease, be it in the form of vast machinations exerting greater control over our lives, or a sneaking suspicion that someone's watching.

The cinema of paranoia is nothing new; you can expect moviemakers to tap into a spirit of discontent. In fact, for one of the finest examples of how the movies can depict a society torn apart by fear, you have to go all the way back to the birth of the sound era. Fritz Lang's M, made in Germany only a few years before the Nazis took power, depicts a nation where there's only a thin line between the cops and the criminals, where paranoia and fear can sweep through the streets like a fever. In the role that made him cinema's favorite sketchy character, Peter Lorre plays a child killer whose crimes have set the city on edge; when an elderly man tries to help a lost child, he's accused of being the killer and beaten for his trouble. The situation becomes so dire that even the city's crime bosses decide to find M, since he's making it hard for them to do business. Once Lorre is being pursued by both the police and the underworld, a strange thing happens: he becomes our point of reference, and we realize we identify with him, partly because he's as much a manifestation of collective fear as he is an evildoer.

M is a forerunner to cinema's most paranoia-minded subgenres (film noir, serial killer flicks, police procedurals), and certainly David Fincher owes a debt to the film; both Se7en (84 percent) and Zodiac (88 percent) borrow from its bleak, shadowy palette. As Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader writes, "The moral issues are complex and deftly handled: Lorre is at once entirely innocent and absolutely evil. Lang's detached, modified expressionist style gives the action a plastic beauty." It's at 100 percent on the Tomatometer.

Many horror and science fiction movies of the 1950s drew from a variety of postwar fears, from atomic power to the rise of Communism. Though it's been remade twice (and The Invasion was originally intended as a straight remake as well), the original Body Snatchers retains a potent, disquieting aura, and as a political allegory it's tantalizingly hard to read. The plot involves a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) who finds that many of the citizens of his small town have started acting strange; they look the same as they ever did, but emit no emotion whatsoever. He soon discovers plant-like aliens are taking over people's bodies when they fall asleep, stripping them of their humanity and spreading out to claim more victims. Is it a dark satire on the (Joseph, not Kevin) McCarthy era? A warning of what a Communist future would bring?

However one reads it, there's no denying Body Snatchers has proven to be one of the most durable and influential sci-fi films of the 1950s, inspiring everything from Shaun of the Dead (90 percent) to Signs (74 percent). And it's at 100 percent on the Tomatometer. "Its title implies that it's something you might watch for its campy comic value," writes Audrey Rock-Richardson of The Tooele Transcript Bulletin, "but it's flat-out nightmarish.

In the 1970s, the fallout from the Watergate break-in -- and the general feeling that the government was veering into criminal territory -- inspired a number of fine suspense films, from Three Days of the Condor (92 percent) to The Parallax View (91 percent). But perhaps the finest paranoid thriller from the post-Watergate era is The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's taut, haunting reworking of Blow-Up (85 percent). Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who's been commissioned to listen in on the conversations of a powerful businessman's daughter. Caul is intensely private -- he lives alone in an apartment with four or five deadbolts, and he never gives out his phone number -- but he's also results-oriented to the extreme, more concerned about making the perfect recording than what anyone's saying on the tape. But on his latest job, he can't help but notice that the young woman he's taping seems to be discussing something particularly ominous; is she in grave danger?

Caul's attempt to get at the truth result in a chilling embodiment of the old adage: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not after you." Featuring hypnotic sound editing from Walter Murch, as well as one of Gene Hackman's finest performances, The Conversation "grapples with the moral issue at stake in a country where technology has outstripped our knowledge of how to use and control it," writes Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice. At 97 percent on the Tomatometer, this "masterpiece of modern-day paranoia is far more than a simple rehashing of a classic slice of cinema. It proves to be more prescient now than ever," says Shannon J. Harvey of Australia's Sunday Times.

These movies are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Whenever there's a collective unease, someone will make a film like Panic in the Streets (92 percent), The Manchurian Candidate (100 percent), or V for Vendetta (72 percent) that taps into our sense of fear.