Invaders from Mars (1953) Directed by: William Cameron Menzies; Written by Richard Blake; Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke
Available on DVD
Invaders from Mars (1986) Directed by: Tobe Hooper; Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby; Based on the original 1953 screenplay by Richard Blake; Starring: Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman, James Karen, Louise Fletcher and Bud Cort
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“If you know my dad, there isn’t anybody like him, not anybody. But today he acted like somebody I never saw before.” – David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt)
“I thought it was a picture well worth remaking because of…what I saw…the potential of what could be brought to a contemporary audience.” – Tobe Hooper
Note: Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, and this post is no exception. About the same time I was pondering a comparison of two versions of Invaders from Mars, another writer (Sarah Jane @FookThis) on Twitter discussed a similar exploration. I was a bit apprehensive to cover the same ground, but she encouraged me to go forth with my take. I similarly encourage you to check out her film musings on Letterboxd.
Science Fiction is an ideal forum to address the sort of subjects that would be unsavory in some other, more “conventional” genres. Even in the darkest of times, clever writers and filmmakers have managed to inject subversive elements in their work, while appearing to produce “escapist” fare for the masses. We can address the pink pachyderm in the room head on, confront our demons and shake hands with our deepest fears. One such example is 1953’s Invaders from Mars, which blended elements from a child’s darkest nightmares into a tale of Cold War paranoia. Three decades later, Tobe Hooper saw fit to grace the world with his updated interpretation of one of the defining sci-fi films of the 1950s. How did his version fare? Let’s take a look…
The original Invaders from Mars could be seen as a commentary on ‘50s “gee whiz” optimism (yes, the main character even exclaims “gee whiz.”) replaced by Cold War cynicism. The film falls in a sweet spot, following The Thing from Another World by a couple of years, and pre-dating Jack Finney’s novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers by the same time span. Director/production designer William Cameron Menzies and crew obliged the prevailing xenophobia and paranoia of the time, with alien invaders who would stop at nothing to undermine the pillars of American society. One boy wakes up to discover his family, friends and neighbors aren’t who they appear to be. He spends the rest of the film trying to convince anyone who will listen that the residents of his town are being manipulated by Martians to carry out their diabolical (albeit vague) scheme for world domination. The whole message is diluted in Hooper’s version, as the story services the effects, not the other way around. There’s so much that could have been said, in a version re-tooled for the Reagan years. Instead, Hopper just seems to be mimicking key scenes from the original film, creating a pale imitation.
Menzies’ film is a textbook example of doing more with less. What the filmmakers might have lacked in funds, they compensate with ingenuity. The distorted camera angles and minimalist sets recall German expressionism, especially in the scene with David (Jimmy Hunt) in the police station. The alien spacecraft interiors also have a simple, understated design. Realism takes a back seat to tone, as we’re immersed in a boy’s nightmare. By contrast, Leslie Dilley’s spacecraft sets look like a pale imitation of H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs for Alien.
In the 1953 version, the creature effects were quaint at best (some might say cheesy). The Martian invaders were human-like mutants, clad from head to toe in green footie pajamas, complete with zipper up the back. Their leader appears as a head with tentacles, encased in a glass globe, a representation of “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence.”
One gets the feeling Hooper and his team tried to one-up the original with spectacle at every step, from the obnoxious title sequence to the overdone spaceship interior. In addition to Dilley, Hooper’s team included other talented individuals, including John Dykstra and Stan Winston. With all due respect to Winston and his brilliant achievements in creature effects, the Martians seem borderline cute. With their giant mouths and awkward, rubbery gait, the Martian guards recall something from Joe Dante’s Explorers. I have to give Winston credit where it’s due, however, for his interesting re-interpretation of the Martian leader, which emerges from a shaft like a giant birth canal.
* If you must watch the remake, look out for a neat little Easter egg in the scene where David and Linda escape into the school boiler room. Watch for a pile of Christmas ornaments, including a globe housing the Martian leader from the original film.
Jimmy Hunt does an admirable job as David MacLean (he has a cameo as a cop in the remake), who keeps a cool head in the face of adversity. His father (Leif Erickson) undergoes a radical mood swing as he succumbs to Martian mind control. His rapid mood shift is positively frightening. Helena Carter is also very good as Dr. Pat Blake, David’s only ally in the fight against extra-terrestrial conquest.
Hooper assembled a good cast of veteran character actors for the remake, but most of their talent is wasted. In contrast to Erickson’s scary transformation, Timothy Bottoms as David’s father doesn’t seem particularly threatening, just eccentric. As a school nurse who’s prone to histrionics, Karen Black’s character is a step down from Carter’s Dr. Blake (“You’re not just a crazy child, are you?”). Louise Fletcher seems to be going through the motions in the usual thankless villainess role we’ve grown to associate with her. As David, Hunter Carson (Black’s real-life son) doesn’t fare any better than the rest of the ensemble. His acting ranges from blank expressions to flailing his arms about and shouting hysterically.
Both films take a different approach with regard to introducing the invaders. The original prefers a slow build (we don’t see the alien invaders or their lair until two-thirds of the way in), but that time isn’t wasted. The filmmakers wisely chose to leave it to the audience to speculate what was hidden underneath the sand dune concealing the Martian ship. A haunting chorus accompanies the scenes in which people are sucked into the ground. The tension is palpable as David wonders who to trust, and an atmosphere of overwhelming paranoia mounts. In the remake, things are taken at face value. Possibly a result of pandering to pressure from Cannon Films, or a sign of the diminishing attention span of filmgoers, Hooper doesn’t waste much time before we catch a glimpse of the alien spacecraft interior and its weird inhabitants.
In what has become an all too common trend in remakes, what worked in the original film is somehow lost in translation. The 1986 version follows the same recipe and uses the same ingredients, but the recipe ends up tasting wrong. The “bigger means better” approach recalls a line from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who lamented “…they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Hooper somehow manages to screw up everything that worked in Menzies’ original. Thanks to dodgy acting and an ill-advised freeze frame, even the ending lacks the bite of the 1953 film. While the 1986 film is a missed opportunity, the alien invasion trope is always in style. Another 30 years have elapsed since the previous attempt, and the story is ripe for another remake, re-tooled for the current, uncertain climate.