Invaders from Mars (1986)

Let’s get this straight:  The original Invaders from Mars (1953) was not a great movie. William Cameron Menzies made it on a tiny budget and it shows.

But it does something that Tobe Hooper and a big budget couldn’t do.

It seems hard to imagine now, but Tobe Hooper was once considered a promising young director.  His Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a film school staple because of its “raw” style, and his Spielberg-produced Poltergeist wasn’t just a box office smash, but enjoyed a fair amount of critical acclaim (although from all accounts, Steven Spielberg controlled the production so completely that he might as well have put his name on it as director).

Somehow, it all led Cannon Films’ Golan and Globus to break their financially-successful model (making low budget American films and getting their money back with overseas sales) to offer a huge three-film contract to the young director.

That was a mistake.

All three — the gloriously silly naked space vampire film, Lifeforce, this film, and his sequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre — tanked at the box office, and ultimately sped (or perhaps even caused) Cannon film’s demise.

Mind you, even knowing that this one was an epic disaster which ultimately destroyed a studio and sent a “promising” young director off on a downward spiral of dreck for hire, it still seems an amiable SF monster movie.  A minor one, yes, and with its fair share of flaws (although, to be fair, that does seem to go with the genre), but still basically reasonably enjoyable and better made that most.

The creatures were the work of Stan Winston (and are superbly brought to life: nasty, but decidedly silly); the beautiful spaceship of John Dykstra.  It all looks quite good, with great sets and effects work.

But it never quite seems to know what it is trying to be.

Part of the problem is that the film is far too realistic.  The original was a paranoid child’s fantasy, an extended dream, where Menzies had deliberately warped and distorted his sets in subtle ways to make everything almost imperceptibly…wrong (one notes particularly the jail cell, which has no right angles, and the stark and over-simplified Police station set).  Occasionally, Hooper uses a fish-eye lens for some of the more dramatic moments, but it seems jarring — it is far too obviously an effect, and fails to create the sense of unease the great set designer created in his TV studio.  While Hooper deliberately copies the iconic (and somewhat surreal) path up the hill set from the original (albeit making it look far more realistic), the later scenes with young David Gardner going through the woods anchor it too firmly in reality.

Nor does Tobe get the disturbing behavior of the grownups right.  The original plays off the idea that the behavior of adults is often mystifying and inexplicable to children,  wheras the remake offers us such weird, gross-out moments as David’s hated tyrant of a teacher eating a live frog, or his mother eating raw hamburger with a huge pile of salt on it.  If the aliens are controlling their behavior, what exactly does this mean?  Is there any reason why their probe would make them want to consume raw — or live –food?

Other scenes leave me questioning just what Tobe is trying to say — particularly one in which the school nurse fleeing with David clings to him, with the scene framed as if he were the hero and she the clinging female lead.  Is it meant to evoke some sort of Freudian childhood sex fantasy from a dream?  Or a childhood hero fantasy?  Or am I reading too much into his being in the upper (dominant) position with the girl resting her head on his chest?  I don’t know.

But in a highly controlled medium like film, if it reads that way, it seems unlikely that it is just an accident.

Some bits just don’t make sense:  why does the alien drill burst through the school basement’s floor?  and why, in a narrow set of tunnels, does the same drill simply fly past the soldiers escaping from the saucer?

And how exactly do you get massive amounts of power from copper?

I really don’t know whether it was aimed at adults — or children.  Neither seems a good fit, 

Ultimately, the film’s real problem is that it lacks the original’s heady atmosphere of paranoia, its nightmarish, dream-world distortions, and growing sense of panic.  In many respects, it is more comfortable parodying the movie conventions of Fifties SF (one of the few things legendary Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon seems to have brought to the party) than in staking out its own nightmarish territory.  

The original, despite its flaws, was one of the most memorable of the Fifties SF films, with some of its scenes lingering far longer in our minds than many better films.  But that was something Tobe Hooper just couldn’t achieve.

It isn’t bad.

But it could have been so much more.

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