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Weird Old Sci-Fi: “Invaders from Mars”

by on June 5, 2013

In times such as this, when only last year the perseverance of the human spirit has allowed us to send our most advanced and sophisticated observation robot to the planet Mars to, perhaps, discover more about the incredibly cold planet than has ever been known before, it’s fun to think back on the time for many years when we were simply scared to death of it. Indeed, throughout the 1950s, more movies about death from Mars were made than ever before, causing fear of little green men.

One of the best loved films of the era was William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars, a flawed yet enjoyable film about a kid who discovers his whole town is slowly being overrun by Martian imposters and no one is to be trusted, even his parents. It was a paranoid thriller with some fun if silly special effects. Then in 1986, Tobe Hooper remade it and it was boring.

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Why remake a 1950s allegory to the Communist scare in 1986? Because they could. The “They” in question is none other than Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who owned ’80s schlock factory Cannon Films — the studio behind such ridiculousness as Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, Chuck Norris vehicles like Delta Force and Missing in Action, and even dance movie Breakin’ and its sequel with the infamously great name, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Invaders from Mars is not nearly as schlocky as these films, and maybe that’s the problem. It was directed by Tobe Hooper, he of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Lifeforce fame, and, by this point, he was known for utilizing fairly extravagant special effects but could still make a movie on a budget, something Golan and Globus surely relished. The screenplay for the movie was co-written by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon.

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The basic story for the two films is remarkably the same; a little boy named David, whose father works on a nearby military base, witnesses an alien spacecraft landing over the hill on the horizon. He runs to tell his parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman), and his father decides to go investigate. When he returns in the morning, the father is noticeably different, and David even sees a strange wound on the back of his neck. At school David’s teacher (Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher), who already is a huge bitch, is now even bitchier, and she too has a thing on her neck. He catches her eating frogs from formaldehyde, which is a pretty good indication that she’s an alien. The more people David tells about his suspicions, the more people come back with neck wounds. David follows his teacher into a cave which leads into the Martian’s blood vessel-inspired space ship and sees big-mouthed drones and a leader who is basically Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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The only person he can trust is the school’s nurse, Linda, played by Karen Black. Together, David and Linda attempt to warn the General of the military base (James Karen) about what is sure to be a full-on invasion. David and Linda have a borderline creepy relationship. He’s probably 10 and she’s easily in her mid-to-late 30s yet they don’t speak to each other like a child and a grown up would. As the film progresses, they’re always holding hands or, if scared, holding each other tightly and basically just don’t have a child-guardian thing going on at all. Also, whenever I watch these movies for this feature, I usually choose one actor, whether I mention it or not, who is “The Worst.” Karen Black easily wins this dubious honor. Her reactions to things are about as unrealistic as it’s possible to be. The whole time it’s like she’s trying to look scared rather than just looking scared, and, as such, is less subtle than anyone in Silent-era German expressionist cinema.

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The creatures and visual effects are all quite good, it has to be said. The designs for the monsters look like something out of Terry Gilliam’s peyote nightmares, and there’s a consistency in the alien machinery, with the giant burrowing drill looking like a smaller version of the ship itself. I do have a bit of an issue that isn’t exclusive to this movie: Aliens are almost always depicted as bestial, insectoid or reptilian with big, cumbersome appendages. How, then, do they pilot a sophisticated spaceship? While we never see how this particular ship is flown, it begs the question how they could possibly make it to other planets or even how they built the damn ship in the first place. In the original film, the alien drones were clearly people in suits, but, oddly, that’s a little more logical. Regardless….

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So the aliens look great in this movie. The real problem is it takes FOREVER to get back to the aliens. This is the film’s main problem, besides the melodramatic acting, of course. The original Invaders from Mars was a brisk 78 minutes, while this remake is 100 minutes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when the story holds so firmly to the original short source material, it means a lot of padding gets added. The whole second act just seems to drag and drag like it’s just killing time until we can get the army involved. They try to keep the tension up by having Fletcher’s character act as a surrogate terrifying monster, always showing up to chase and terrorize David and Linda and then quickly be gotten rid of for another few minutes. It’s just so boring. You never feel like anyone’s in any real peril. Even when characters do die, it’s not really a shock. It just sort of happens.

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That’s basically what one can say about this version of Invaders from Mars: It just sort of happened. Hooper’s direction and the film’s design are quite good, but the acting is pretty poor and arch the entire time. If it was supposed to be a spoof or gentle ribbing of 1950s science fiction films, that’s one thing, but everything’s presented as reality, so the performances just seem bad in a bad way. And it’s not even an allegory to anything like the original had been. It doesn’t say anything. Like most remakes, it’s simply a case of wondering what the point was.