#42: Invaders From Mars


1953

Director William Cameron Menzies

Cast:  Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz

Watch the trailer!

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-Up

My rating:  Class F (4/7).  This is not a particularly deep picture, but it is a lot of fun.  It brings engaging characters, neat visuals and effects, and a good story to the table.

Introduction

As you may know, I’m looking backwards in time to finish this review, and that is going to rob this review of some of its immediacy and vigor.  Add to that that at the time we saw it, I was recovering from pneumonia (or maybe still in the throes of sickness, I can’t really remember now except that I was wrapped in a blanket in front of company, which is something I never do), and you’re going to have some good reasons for me not to have retained strong impressions of this film.

On the other hand, it’s not a particularly memorable movie in terms of the things that usually engage me most: plot twists, cool science, penetrating social commentary, or interesting philosophical questions.

Forgive me for saying this, but it’s science fiction for people who don’t care about science fiction!

The film had two releases, an American and a British release, in which the endings are notably different.

Plot Summary

This one opens without a complicated prologue or anything like it to set up the plot.  Instead, we get a little boy waking up to watch the stars.  The boy, David, sees a flying saucer land, and convinces his father to investigate.  His father comes back horribly changed—cold and cruel and angry—and that’s just the beginning.  As the film progresses, more and more townspeople, including David’s mother and one of his friends, exhibit changed behavior…

David attempts to get the police involved, and that’s how he meets a sympathetic female psychiatrist, Dr. Patricia Blake.  Fortunately for him, Dr. Blake thinks his story is plausible, and takes the child into her own custody.  She takes him to see a local astronomer, Dr. Stuart Keltson, and it emerges that the flying saucer contains aliens who are doing something to the townsfolk which allows them to remote-control the humans for their nefarious purposes.

It turns out the flying saucer is the start of an invasion from Mars.  David, Dr. Blake and Dr. Keltson manage to bring in the United States army, in this case led by Colonel Fielding.  They surround the flying saucer landing site, while the scientists learn that the aliens are implanting mind control devices in the heads of the people they abduct.  These devices allow the aliens to force humans to sabotage their own defenses, and explode, killing their hosts, if the human pawns fail or are discovered.

So, David’s parents are mind-controlled and at risk of death, and the army can’t find the underground lair of the Martians…until David and Dr. Blake are sucked underground.  They are captured by grotesque “mu-tants” and taken to the alien overlord, a giant green head with a tiny body.  The Martian leader plans to put implants in their heads, but Colonel Fielding arrives to save the day.  The troops plant timed explosives in the saucer, and the group attempts to battle their way through the tunnels.  With the assistance of David, who has learned how the alien tunneling device works, they escape the caves.

David’s flight from the saucer’s landing site is an extended montage with the sound of the flying saucer powering up and background images of the important moments of the film.  There is an explosion…

And David wakes up in his own bed, the explosion actually the sound of thunder.  David’s parents, now normal again, explain that he’s had a bad dream, and send him back to bed.  And then David, still watching the stars, sees the flying saucer landing…

Impressions

1953 must have been a hell of a year for movies, especially science fiction movies.  As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the Cold War was really getting going nicely by this point, and I suspect that this film is an outgrowth of Cold War fears: mind control, subversive attacks on American military installations and personnel, and scary new technology.  The ambiguous ending may have reflected a fear of the future.  Or perhaps it was a deliberate parallel to the Cold War out of the ashes of the WWII victory.

Alternatively, the film could be a metaphor for the fears of a young man on the cusp of adulthood in an uncertain world.  Instead of being forced into adult responsibilities, young David obtains surrogate parents who attempt to shield him from the bad things going on around him.  Of course they fail, because who can hold back maturation (to which I can say, maybe not physically, but emotionally and mentally I’ve done a right good job of keeping my inner child in control, thank you very much)?

Or maybe this is just a straight-up adventure story, with no hidden meaning or subtext at all.

No matter what the reason, the ambiguous ending is probably the only thing that separates this film from any number of child-protagonist adventure offerings.  That ending—the DVD was scratched, and so we didn’t see it first-hand—was rather disturbing.  It’s not just “it was all a dream.”  No, we also get David seeing the flying saucer again…and then the film ends.  Was it premonition?  Is David in a time loop?  What the hell is going on?

The film doesn’t explain it, and apparently the ending caused some confusion amongst theater goers.  The British release changed some scenes a bit, and significantly ends with David being reunited with his parents.  It wasn’t a dream, in other words, it was all real.

This film does a nice job of parading American military might around, and the square-jawed, heroic soldiers are bulwarks of defense against the alien threat.  In that sense, the film is pretty straight-forward.  There are even elements of wish fulfillment in David’s finding staunch allies against his parents in the form of parent substitutes, who are much kinder than his parents…

There are two things worth pointing out about the technical aspects of the film.  First, we get a “futuristic” music score with a sort of haunting, ethereal quality.  The score peaks with the action and never actually becomes intrusive, except possibly in the montage sequence near the end.  The second point worth noting is that the set design was very imaginative.  The police station and the planetarium, in particular, have distorted proportions.  The former is cold, sterile, high-ceilinged, long…the latter is, while very science-y, a warm, homey kind of place in terms of proportions and decor.

There are also nice touches with the camera placement.  At some points in the film the camera is at the eye level of a child, like our protagonist, instead of an adult eye level.

Wrap Up

All in all, this is a remarkably interesting and fun film.  It has great visuals, especially for the time, and the principal performers all do a very good job of portraying their characters.  Even David, the little boy, is likeable the way he should be (thereby disproving my “all children in science fiction are worthy of deep and abiding hatred and contempt” hypothesis).

If you get a chance, go watch this one.  Avoid the apparently disappointing 1986 remake, from what I hear.  Even if you’re prejudiced against old movies.

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