Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I think what it came down to was that Menahem Golan, a big fan of old science fiction movies, prevailed upon director Tobe Hooper to direct a pair of expensive, effects-laden hits that would put The Cannon Group up in the sci-fi action success bracket. 1985's souped-up Quatermass-like tale of space vampires Lifeforce certainly fit the bill. For their second attempt Golan simply wanted an out-and-out remake of the original 1953 William Cameron Menzies thriller Invaders from Mars. Known as the '80s sci-fi that made fans wish people would stop remaking classic sci-fi pictures, Tobe Hooper's J-D-C Scope Invaders from Mars is a disappointing curiosity. Unlike Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's 1986 The Fly, nobody exited theaters saying, 'Gee whiz, that's a great version of Invaders." The filmmakers reportedly worshipped the original, but they don't really do anything interesting with it.
Cannon and Hooper threw name talent at their Invaders, which remains a movie with no reason to be. The story is identical to the earlier plotline, with the ham-fisted addition of new elements. 1 Young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) is given a new human nemesis in the evil schoolteacher Mrs. McKeitch (Louise Fletcher), a figurative filmic daughter of the hostile Nurse Ratched and the cackling Miss Gulch. David takes a quick peek at the Martians and their underground lair early in the show, removing any feeling of suspense that might have been generated. When the scientist character Mark Weinstein (Bud Cort) tries to make meaningful contact with a couple of Martian drones (equivalents of the Mutants of the first film), he meets a fate borrowed from a different movie, the original Thing from Another World.
The new Invaders from Mars is lively, noisy and loaded with expensive looking, inventive works of mechanical-effects makeup. The cinematography is colorful and dynamic. We'll leave out the reaction of fans of the original, beside which it pales in every way. New viewers will find Hooper's version a campy romp that never establishes a tone one can hang onto. The direction is all over the place, good in its follow-the-storyboards pictorials but failing to get the actors on the same page. Little Hunter Carson is good half the time but often sputters his lines out as if frustrated or bored. He's either incapable of expressing surprise in any credible way, or Hooper rushed him through the part. We can see that the kid is trying; in the sentimental stuff he's fine.
Hooper doesn't handle the adults much better, resulting in performances that fly way over the top. Most of the dialogue is disconnected declarative sentences. A pro like Louise Fletcher probably offered a range of takes before she realized that Hooper wanted her to be at constant manic-rabid pitch, and from then on made everything broader than the Wicked Witch of the West. We can imagine Ms. Fletcher at a preview, looking at her gross overacting and thinking, 'could the editor not exercise any judgment on which takes to use?' Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman try out some interesting tics and gestures when first possessed but are soon defeated by a lamebrain script that seems to want to punish us for liking the original concept. The thoughtless inventions include things like showing Newman eating raw hamburger with sugar.
The possessed humans in the first movie behaved like stilted zombies, telegraphing their alien status for wide-eyed 12 year-olds. The actors in this version seem desperate to be in on the joke, making every scene play like a bad satirical skit. This of course comes to the
forefront when Laraine Newman actually reads one of her lines in her Connie Conehead character voice from Saturday Night Live. A movie that wants to use in-jokes (Martian globe on a school shelf, etc.) first needs to establish a working tone, a 'normal' for the zinger references to tease. As the end credits roll Invaders from Mars is still trying to get a handle on itself.
Happily, actors Bud Cort and the always on-target James Karen hit just the right note of pulp excitement. In 1986 it was actually fun to see a gung-ho, cigar-chomping general presented without irony. Karen's General Wilson is a quick study when it comes to exterminating Martians, making him the only character in the movie that knows what he's doing. The U.S.M.C. was surely grateful to have a politically neutral movie to show off their prowess, and their cooperation lends flashy firepower to the movie's conclusion. Kids that want to see Martians shot to bits real cool-like will certainly be satisfied, although one shot where an exploding monster blows a string of guts onto a Marine is pretty silly.
Original actor Jimmy Hunt is so good in his two-line walk on that we're sad he didn't have a bigger part, or that somebody didn't think to write a new movie, perhaps about a kid named David MacLean who disappeared at the age of ten after having nightmares about flying saucers, but now suddenly reappears telling us that Martians will be coming back soon. Hunt just keeps an intelligent, straight look on his face -- we remember how good he was, even at five years of age.
The effects in the newer Invaders from Mars look like dreams money can buy. The designs seem thrown together from classic Wallace Wood or Ron Cobb illustrations, solely on a subjective basis of 'what looks cool'. The aliens' organic look looks limp compared to H.R. Giger's conceptually clean, scary-nasty visions for Alien. The underground Martian lair is colorful, but it's lit like the interior of a Disco dance club. With its plastic sections roughly grouted together it could be a tacky, low-maintenance interior for a Universal Studios attraction. The various semi-organic pillars and curved-wall ornamental ribbing are just 'curvy stuff' to fill in space; the Martians really dig groovy multi-colored accent lighting.
A couple of the animated ray gun effects dazzle us with a multicolored Ghostbusters-like light show. But the other optical effects range from cheesy animated electric bolts to cheesier flashing lights in the sky. The John Dykstra optical effects unit surely handled the demolition of the giant rocket being guarded by James Karen's general, an impressive sight filmed from one static angle. The original's sand pit hill with the fence is duplicated in a literal sense but with none of its eerie magic. The sand pit has a full-sized functioning turntable suction device -- hire the guy who engineered that! -- yet is curiously less effective than the tiny cutaway insert in the original.
The foam latex monsters fare a little bit better. The alien intelligence, so primitive-scary in the first film, uses clever mechanics that make it emerge from the wall like an unfolding tongue. It was later lampooned in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. I'm a fan of the pleasingly goofy Martian drones, which are clever, even if anatomically unlikely. Stan Winston and his monster makers came up with ingenious bulbous critters with huge toothy grins by brainstorming ways to disguise the fact that they're men in suits. The disc docu goes into them in full detail. When one of these drones gobbles up the nasty schoolteacher, things are momentary awkward because Louise Fletcher must bend over to cooperate with the process. For a second we're reminded of Bela Lugosi being eaten by an octopus in that old Ed Wood movie, screaming while wrapping tentacles around himself. But we like the idea of a woman who ate frogs becoming a snack for a frog-like monster. 2
Other '80s and '90s movies tried to revive the vibe of '50s pulp Sci-fi, with mixed results. Michael Laughlin's Strange Invaders tells its story straight (and in period, even) and very little of it works. Starship Troopers celebrates the classic sci-fi tradition but is really a sophisticated, corrosive satire that could be titled "Archie and the NeoCon Nazis Conquer the Universe." Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! is a beautifully designed and executed wacky cartoon, that has its own giddy invasion agenda. Invaders from Mars '86 loves its source, but that's never enough. It just wants to do the original again, but doesn't seem to realize that Menzies' CineColor gem had a lot more going for it than flying saucers and Martians. Its psychologically twisted 'dangerous' concepts play like the work of a wicked Dr. Seuss, one who knows just how to scare children. Hooper's expensive effects could easily be just as effective, were there anything backing them up.
Shout! Factory/Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Invaders from Mars is a gorgeous scan encoding of this sharply photographed J-D-C Scope production. Viewers that have only seen it on old cable TV presentations, or even the so-so earlier DVDs, will flip at this improved picture. The audio is fine as well, even with the film's thin music score, which barely registers on the soundtrack. I'm told that the transfer came from Paramount. The Cannon Group made an outlandish deal with Viacom, selling off TV rights to much of their library for a very long time.
The extras include trailers, storyboards, TV spots and a nice production illustration featurette with a welcome commentary from artist William Stout. Tobe Hooper's feature commentary shows him to be proud of his movie, which is certainly an impressive show from a production perspective. Scream Factory's docu featurette on the making of the film interviews most of the principal talent but no actors. There's an awful lot of mutual congratulation among the effects men, and kowtowing to the big names of the '80s whose latex foam monsters dominated the industry for at least twenty years thereafter. I'd like to hear the composer Christopher Young's rejected Martian themes; a soundtrack CD is OOP. When I worked at Cannon the music fans in the trailer department despaired over the ten-cent synthesized music scores that dominated the company's product. The good-looking featurette ends with wishful thinking about how the movie is making a well-earned comeback. But I have to say that I found the BTS explanations of some of the mechanical effects, especially those Pac-Man like walking drones, to be really interesting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Invaders from Mars Blu-ray
Supplements: Director commentary, new featurette making of docu, TV spots, trailer, storyboards, stills, production illustrations with William Stout commentary.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 11, 2015
1. (All Spoilers:) Invaders '53 tells the story of young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), who from his bedroom window witnesses the 4 a.m. landing of a flying saucer. Hidden in a sand pit, the Martians trap David's kindly father George (Leif Erickson) and plant a radio-activated control device in his neck. Now a zombie-agent, George MacLean spreads the Martians' influence by luring others into the pit: David's mother Mary (Hillary Brooke), army General Mayberry. The Martians are soon in control of the local police as well.
Finding his parents transformed into inhuman automatons, young David responds to the trauma by confiding in his local astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz). With the help of attractive public health nurse Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) they determine that the Martian invaders plan to use their radio-controlled human operatives to sabotage the atomic rocket being developed at Coral Bluffs, a secret government base nearby. Kelston informs the Army, which surrounds the sand pit. David and Pat are captured, and discover that the buried Martian saucer contains only one real Martian, a disembodied, tentacled head in a glass globe. It is in telepathic command of a crew of giant, bug-eyed, green Mutant slaves. Hard-bitten Army Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) launches a desperate rescue mission into the maze of Martian tunnels. Can David and Pat be freed in time?
2. Of course, much of the effects work in the original is no longer considered 'acceptable' in quality. But like the '33 King Kong or the '40 Thief of Bagdad, modern audiences EAT UP the original's weird vibe and dreamlike delirium. New fans love it. The picture's psychological power hasn't diminished -- it's still not best to show it to very small kids. Hallelujah.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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