Invaders from Mars (1953) ***1/2
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Runtime: 1h 23m
Being buffeted about by forces beyond your control is all part of the human condition, but it is never more apparent than when you are a small child. Children naturally have less control of their lives than adults, being eternally at the mercy of the grown-ups in their lives, be they parents, teachers or more conventional authority figure like the police. Generally, these figures are looking out for them and their well-being, but when they’re not they are in the position to inflict unimaginable harm on their young charges. Naturally, 1950s sci-fi seldom deals with this topic directly, given the fact that child abuse is almost never addressed anywhere in pop culture from the time period, but it’s surprising how often it comes up covertly.
The most famous example is a fleeting scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), where we see a young boy, Jimmy Grimaldi, runs away from his parents who have been replaced by the alien pods. The boy can tell something is wrong, but nobody will believe him because he’s just a kid. Even if he knew exactly what was going on and could articulate it, everybody who listen to him would just assume he’s read too many comic books. His only course of action is to run and hope the doppelgängers can’t catch him. Later in the film, the protagonist, Dr. Miles Bennell, recalls the young boy’s headlong flight when he finds himself in a similar predicament. As effective as this sequence is in the context of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), those familiar with today’s film will recognize that it is not altogether original. Three years before, the neglected classic Invaders of Mars painted an even more chilling and effective picture of a child dealing with an invasion of alien replicates. Well, at least for the first act, as the rest of the film quickly falls apart once the alien menace is unmasked. Indeed, it makes a misguided leap from childhood terror to childhood wish fulfillment.
Our story begins late one summer night (I’m guessing at the season, but it seems reasonable as no child in the film ever seems to be under any obligation to attend school). David MacLean accidentally wakes up his entire family when he sets his alarm clock for 4:00 AM to witness a rare celestial phenomenon. His father, George MacLean, being a man of science himself is just as exciting about the heavens as his son, but David’s mom Mary insists that the stars can wait and sends everyone back to bed. As you can see, the film wastes no time in establishing a pleasant family dynamic. George is in many ways a child himself, as demonstrated by the fact that he becomes caught up in the excitement of star watching nearly as readily as his ten-year old son. Mary is the more mature and responsible member of the household, accustom to lovingly pushing her husband and son into doing the right thing. Indeed, it’s family units just like this that would populate American TV sit-coms throughout the decade. There were occasions when it was the wives, not the husbands, who were he more wacky ones who had to be pulled back in (I Love Lucy), but for the most part the family dynamic here was the one being presented as an ideal on the small screen. I harp so much on the family structure and its implications, because in short order it’s going to get blown to hell.
David obediently goes back to bed, only to be awakened by a loud crash and a flash of light as an alien spaceship touches down in the sand pit behind his house. He wakes up his parents again with this wild story. David is a fairly serious kid, not one prone to making up tales for attention, so George goes off to investigate in bathrobe and slippers. Come morning he still hasn’t returned. Mary is getting nervous, but she keeps her cool in front of David not wanting the boy to worry unduly. She calls the cops and tells them that her husband has disappeared, but just after they’ve gone out looking, George returns. Only thing is that George has changed. He’s become a short-tempered, mean-spirited bully. When David starts asking him questions about the odd mark on the back of his neck, rather than patiently answer them like the Father Knows Best dad he was last night, he hits the boy. Seeing George glower at his family behind the morning newspaper, while both Mary and David try desperately not to offend his newfound touchy sensibilities is a genuinely terrifying sequence. The audience is forced to see just how much power George has as the head of the household, and how little recourse Mary and David have against his abuse. The novelist Robert McCammon astutely demonstrates how the movie captures the feel of living as the child of an abusive alcoholic in his semi-autobiographical novel Boy’s Life. The suddenness and completeness of George’s transformation from loving parent to domestic tyrant works eerily well as a metaphor here. So much so that I’m forced to wonder about the childhoods of director William Carlos Menzies and screenwriter John Tucker Battle.
However, this is a movie about alien invaders, not the horrors of addiction and the aliens have not given the body snatcher treatment to George just to ruin David’s childhood. George was possessed because he’s a high-ranking engineer at a nearby factory that is working on a new rocket propulsion engine. All across town similar specialists as well as authority figures are being captured by the aliens and turned into their slaves through a small implant embedded in the base of their neck. The only way to tell a controlled human from a normal one is to check the back of their neck and see if they have a strange mark there. David realizes what’s going on soon enough, but there is very little he can do. Any adult that he tells the story to will just assume that he’s read too many sci-fi stories and dismiss him out of hand, and if he makes a mistake about who to trust and lets the aliens realize that he’s onto him the invaders will cart him off to the spaceship to get a similar treatment. In desperation he heads to the police stations where he plans to inform the chief of police about the invasion, only trouble is the aliens have already gotten to him. The chief orders the boy put in a detention cell until his parents can pick him up. The desk sergeant (who is not being mind-controlled as of yet) sees the boy is clearly suffering from some kind of disturbance or abuse, and calls Dr. Pat Blake to come and have a look at him.
Against all odds Dr. Blake believes the boy, and even concocts a phony story about him having polio to keep him out of his parents clutches. It’s here that Invaders from Mars makes a disastrous tonal shift from nightmarish fantasy, into child wish-fulfillment movie. Dr. Blake takes David to her boyfriend Dr. Stuart Kelson, who also believes the boy and comes up with a complicated theory about Martian invaders to explain these strange goings on. From there it really gets absurd, the army is called in to contain the alien threat without so much as a question from the rank and file. There’s even a scene where experts and military commanders are interviewing David as if the ten year old is the most qualified to coordinate their defenses. Such an extreme shift in tone could be pulled off effectively, and could even be entertaining but at the same time it makes the shift Invaders from Mars also loses much of its energy. The film becomes much more boring, as untold minutes get eaten up by stock footage of tank battalions an infantry divisions.
This is not to say that the latter half of Invaders from Mars is totally un-enjoyable. There are some incredibly goofy-looking aliens, some wild sets, and pretty impressive production values on display. Everything is shot in glorious Technicolor, a rarity for independently financed genre films of the era, which mostly were filmed in black and white. There’s even some great tension about the fate of David’s parents once its revealed that the Martians have the ability to remotely detonate their mind control devices, killing their human collaborators in the process. However this tension is undercut by the fact that the movie has already started pulling so many punches with regard to its young lead that it seems impossible they will do something as downright nasty as kill off his sympathetic parents. It remains a rather fun movie throughout, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the movie’s mediocrity in the second and third acts given how spectacular its opening was.
The twist ending (It was all a dream) goes some way towards explaining the rapid tonal shift, but Invaders from Mars is just not a surreal enough movie to get away with that excuse. It would have been much better had the filmmakers realized that they were making a horror film and then committed to it. Still, the first act of Invaders from Mars is an incredible work of art, probably among the scariest things committed to celluloid in the entire decade. I’m always fond of allegory that doesn’t clash with what the film is ostensibly about, and Invaders from Mars pulls off the stunt almost seamlessly until it forgets what it is suppose to be about.