Sunday, May 15, 2016

Invaders from Mars

Invaders from Mars (1953) plays like a collection of childhood fears, physical and psychological: needles, big scary adults, loving parents replaced by cold monsters, not being believed when you try to ask someone for help, nightmares, thunderstorms, getting sucked down in sand. What? Don't look at me like that. Don't tell me getting sucked down in the sand wasn't something you were afraid of when you went to the beach as a kid.

Made at the height of all those 1950s sci-fi movies that used aliens as a metaphor for creeping Communism, Invaders from Mars is just as cheesy and dated as any of them, but it does a develop a genuine sense of paranoia and alienation. When it works, it's because it chooses to tell the story from a child's perspective.

The story is easy to sum up. A kid wakes up, looks out the window, and sees a UFO land. He tells his Dad. Dad investigates and comes back taken over by the aliens. Soon, the aliens have taken over Mom, the chief of police, and others as they go about plans to threaten the Earth.

It's tempting to call the movie dated. Sure, the effects are hokey, but that's part of the charm. When we see the aliens, most of them are actors in unconvincing green body suits, but I can't really hold that against the movie. The Supreme Martian Leader is actually a pretty neat visual, basically a head in a jar with tentacles, and while you can tell they accomplished it by sticking an actor's head inside the glass, it's looks cool in a cheap sci-fi way. The movie is firmly entrenched in the 1950s. The boy, David (Jimmy Hunt), even says, "Gee whiz" a couple of times. The whole movie has that kind of dopey, naive innocent tone, where the Army will mobilize against a Martian threat based on the word of a young boy.

Director William Cameron Menzies uses a number of exaggerated sets and frames David to look very small: long hallways, twisting tunnels, and high ceilings. This gives the movie a distorted texture, that this seemingly normal world of mowed lawns, picket fences, and nuclear families is off kilter and warped. The movie is admirably restrained, waiting until near the end to reveal the aliens themselves.

The movie taps into a common fear in children: that for whatever reason, their parents will turn against them and try to harm them. Whether it's because of alcohol, mental illness, or even Martian invaders, it's terrifying to have parents change from protectors and providers to something with unsavory designs. When the police try to return David to his parents, who by now are both under alien influence, his reaction is not unlike those of kids being forced to return to abusive families.

Invaders from Mars is cheaply put together at times. Most of the footage of the Army mobilizing consists of stock footage, and it goes on for a long time and keeps getting reused, which I suspect is to pad the movie out. The film is less than 80 minutes long, even when they reuse the same shots of aliens running through the tunnel. Plus, it's packed with a lot of hokum that went with the territory of the genre at the time, and the movie spends too much away from David and his predicament in the second half.

Still, at its best, the movie plays on those childhood fears, so maybe the best time to see it is as a little kid when you're not going to care about fake costumes or recycled documentary footage. Tobe Hooper would go on to remake this in 1986 with a lot more money for special effects, but oddly enough, that one turned out to be even campier than this.

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