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Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars
(1986)

(SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

So pairing Hooper with Cannon was asking for trouble. A movie company whose presiding criterion was that everything they churned out should be at very least a bit shit, but preferably really shit. Cannon fare was generally cheap and cheesy, and even when it wasn’t cheap, it managed to feel like it was. For a couple of years during the mid-’80s, if you don’t count Michael Winner, Hooper managed to be their in-house “auteur”, delivering first expensive bomb Lifeforce, then this, and finally The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Menahem and Yoram Globus were none too happy with any of them, particularly the tendencies towards goofy humour in the latter two. And while one might argue Hooper was simply reflecting the house style, the only really polished movie in his catalogue is the one commonly cited as having been ghost-directed by Spielberg, spookfest blockbuster Poltergeist (and what a lot of grim stories there are relating to the sphere of and beyond that picture, should you wish to steel yourself to investigate further).

Invaders from Mars is no exception to the kind of slipshod approach you can find in the Hooper oeuvre, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre down (complete with queasy goofball humour). It’s also a reasonably good-looking movie in terms of production values, even as Hooper intermittently does his best to undercut such leanings. Dan O’Bannon adapted Richard Blake and John Tucker Battle’s 1953 screenplay (with Don Jakoby of, er, Death Wish III fame), while John Dykstra handled visual effects and Stan Winston (pulling double duties on Aliens) provided the creature effects. Production designer Leslie Dilley had previously worked as art director on the first two Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Eureka, Alien, Legend and Superman. The picture, most particularly during the opening stages, has an off-kilter, warped fairy-tale quality, aided by Hooper using distorting lens and low angles (the child protagonist’s view and paranoia).

Indeed, Invaders from Mars is pretty decent for the first thirty or forty minutes. It’s easy to forget, since Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets all the notices, that the original Invaders from Mars had the drop on it by three years. Perhaps because we follow a child’s POV in both original and remake, and because the plot runs out of gas, it’s easy to diminish its effectiveness, but the early scenes as David Gardner (Hunter Carson) discovers something is very wrong with formerly adoring dad George (Timothy Bottoms, really very good) and subsequently his mum too are potent stuff. Hooper’s enjoying himself here as dad knocks back coffee brimming with artificial sweeteners (the sure sign of an evil force possessing one) and then has David picked on at school by Louise Fletcher – no typecasting there – as strict teacher and clone Mrs McKeltch (Fletcher delivers the picture’s prize moment, swallowing a whole frog used for dissection purposes).

But the problems here are manifold. One is that, while there were numerous child protagonist movies in the 1980s, and a good number were quite popular and well performed, paging Elliott, Carson is lacking in anything but all-American blondeness. He has no character to speak of (now, cast The Goonies’ Chunk in the lead and you have a monster hit on your hands). He’s mostly paired with his actual mum Karen Black (playing the school nurse). Black manages to be quite forgettable, not really like her, required as she is to adopt the screamer role and be consoled by her wiser child.

Another issue is that O’Bannon fails to alter the plot sufficiently. So as per the original, the military are called in and from there, the proceedings head underground to confront the creatures. With lots of zapping. James Karen is fine as General Wilson, going against the grain in such matters by accepting David’s story, while Bud Cort shows up as a foolishly alien-friendly scientist (NASA are infiltrated, not that they aren’t anyway). Hooper retains the shock ending – it was all a dream, The Wizard of Oz style, but then David sees the same spaceship that arrived at the outset, runs to tell his parents and screams at the sight of…

One of the remake’s highlights is Winston’s work. One thing ’80s cinema had in abundance was great creature prosthetics – you know, back before CGI was the be all and end all of genre movies – and Invaders from Mars very much takes its place within a cinematic tapestry interweaving the likes of Explorers and Big Trouble in Little China. There are drone aliens – giant mouths on legs (one of which eventually swallows Fletcher) – and the diminutive Martian leader (an inspiration for O’Bannon’s Kato in Total Recall?) The biggest takeaway is pondering what someone less hit-and-miss than Hooper might have done with all this talent and visual potential.

The we-not-we element works effectively during the first half; I think, because of the movie’s child’s perspective, it doesn’t need to boost the societal-mores reading of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers iterations. This is, rather, something more endemic and generational. When Mrs McKeltch ranges at David, snarling “And I hope you need a tetanus shot!” the implication is that he won’t like receiving one (no one should like receiving their shots, particularly when they’re ultimately fatal). Because adults are in the habit of inflicting pain on children. Of course, Fletcher has received her shot, as have David’s parents: in the back of the neck. They are detached, remote, unfeeling, no longer connected with their core being; they’re now soulless, bereft of humanity. Just the standard side effect of getting your shots. In David’s dream version, his parents are restored at the end, but who knows if the real movie, beginning in the last scene, will pay off the same way…

Cannon made some considerably more expensive pictures during its prolific ’80s run – this wasn’t much bigger a flop than the similarly budgeted Indy rip off King Solomon’s Mines or the actually very good Runaway Train – the aforementioned Lifeforce, Over the Top and Masters of the Universe among them. Hooper delivered the studio the equivalent (not in quality, but you get the idea) of a Joe Dante movie when they expected a Steven Spielberg one. Which would have been fine if Invaders from Mars was also really good. I don’t think it would have taken much. A different director, a stronger third act and more sensitive casting. And not being made by Cannon.


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