It's the Tobe Hooper remake of the 1953 original
, which I'd thought was great. This on the other hand was Razzie-nominated and failed at the box office. I loved it.
Firstly, I think Tobe Hooper is underrated. I've seen it implied that he's a hack who got lucky with the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacres, with everyone giving Spielberg the credit for Poltergeist
. Admittedly there's also Hooper's TV mini-series of Salem's Lot, but apart from that he doesn't have many defenders and the majority of his movies aren't widely loved.
Invaders from Mars was part of his 1985-86 three-picture contract with Cannon, which did his commercial reputation no good at all. Personally though I have a lot of time for those three films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
is wonderful, clearly on a par with his original despite the tonal shift that threw contemporary horror geeks for a loop. As for the other two, Lifeforce
and Invaders from Mars, those are old-school SF with a good deal of unsophisticated charm. Lifeforce
is like a Pertwee-era UNIT story with Matilda May walking around naked. What's not to like? It should also be noted that both Hooper and Colin Wilson, the author of the original novel, are vocal in their dislike of the studio's decision to cut fifteen minutes of build-up from the film's first act for its domestic release.
This film though is even better than Lifeforce
, despite the lack of nudity. It's taking one of my favourite examples of loopy 1950s SF, full of its era's sincerity, and preserving that loopiness with love and every bit as much sincerity. It's kind of retro, in fact. If you're looking for self-aware irony and "I'm better than this" detachment, Hooper isn't doing any of that. On the contrary, he thinks all this stuff is really cool... and he's right.
We begin with cool schlocky titles that feel like Superman, then the story begins. Hunter Carson is a small boy who's stargazing late at night with his father (Timothy Bottoms) in a scene with more swearing than its 1953 equivalent, but it's still charming anyway. A few minutes later, Carson is the only person to see the mother of all UFOs come down behind a nearby hill. Seriously, it's an amazing spaceship. It's like Ariel's castle from The Little Mermaid. He runs off to tell his parents... and basically the same story unfolds, which is good because I loved it last time. There are a few changes, naturally, but I'd defend some of them as improvements. For starters, I like the ambiguity. The 1953 film was obsessive in how it dotted all the 'I's and crossed all the 'T's, never leaving us in any doubt as to what was happening. Hardly anyone became an alien without us seeing them go out to the field to be pulled underground. The alternative, as with the hero's father, was to have them come back with such a violently different (and vicious) personality that they might as well have "I'm An Alien Doppelganger" tattooed on their forehead.
All that I enjoyed a lot and it gave the film a kind of nursery-rhyme horror, but I enjoyed the 1986 approach too. It's subtler. The possessed people seem reasonable enough on first glance, while we're a long, long way into the movie before we see what's happening to those people over the hill. They just go over and... what next? We've no idea. This makes it scarier when Carson goes to investigate for himself, since our imaginations have been given no boundaries.
There's a bit of plot reshuffling, which again I approve of. We meet the aliens earlier and the army later, which is good because there's something weird in the original about seeing the authorities taking control so quickly. It's still fun here when the army eventually mobilises, but I approve of having to wait longer for them. Similarly the aliens' motivations are more ambiguous (and hence less silly), while Carson seems more intelligent than his 1953 predecessor, being sharp on the issue of whether he's likely to be believed and more rigorous about checking people's necks before talking to them.
The only thing I regretted was the occasional stupidity. Carson not only goes over the hill to investigate in person, but then goes back to drag along Karen Black too! Is he crazy? Is he a double agent for the Martians? That had me boggling, but maybe I was only thinking that because I'd seen the original film and so was making assumptions that didn't hold in this one. However other scenes later would surely seem corny and silly to anyone, e.g. what interrupts the police, the jumping of the orange-suited guys in the general's office and most catastrophically the scientist's plea for peace and understanding. Between this and Lifeforce
, you'd swear Tobe Hooper had to be a Doctor Who fan. I could imagine any of the Doctors doing that "talk to the aliens" scene and making it work, but the difference is that this film's idealistic scientist is the world's biggest loser and so lacking in common sense that it's a wonder he can get up in the morning. On the page, the scene's defensible. As shot by Hooper, you'll want to punch someone.
Nevertheless, paradoxically, I love the scene for what it says about the movie. The filmmakers aren't embarrassed of their chosen genre, but instead are embracing it. Their hearts are in the right place. Besides, I'll forgive a lot for the moment where Carson tells off the Master Intelligence. "Don't you understand? You can't do this to people!"
Then we have the visuals. Wow, oh wow. One of this film's two Razzie nominations was for Worst Visual Effects from John Dykstra (special visual effects) and Stan Winston (creatures design). Philistines. This film is a joy to behold. It's as awesome as the original 1953 Martians, which is so much awesome that you could ride them to the moon. Crap 1950s aliens are one of the purest joys of cinema, but here we have Stan Winston creature designs that capture a similar level of camp while at the same time looking like a million dollars. The original's bland zombies now look like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, except walking on impossibly jointed legs and made of meatballs. The Master Intelligence is wonderful. These are effects that capture the spirit of the movie, giving it a retro spirit that's faithful to the original's goofy naive joy while at the same time being up-to-date and 1980s. Note the way it's specifically organic technology, for instance.
The acting is sort of okay. Carson is good in his quieter moments and at times I was even impressed, but he's rubbish when scared or excited. I nearly laughed at his unintentional chimp impression. What's cool though is that he's acting opposite his real-life mother, Karen Black, who's quite a big name and doesn't quite live up to it. There's also Laraine Newman from Saturday Night Live, Louise Fletcher (Oscar-winner from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, being odd) and most amusingly of all Jimmy Hunt from the original 1953 film! Jimmy Hunt was Hunter Carson's predecessor. Hunt + Hunter. Heh. Anyway, it's a small role, but look out for the bit where he says, "Gee, I haven't been up here since I was a kid." He sure hasn't... and I also liked him saying "gee".
I really liked this. I'm not merely mounting a rearguard action for something that's not as bad as people say, but instead saying I thought this was great. Occasionally it's annoying, but it's staying so close to the spirit of the original that it's even maintained dreamlike touches, especially in the ending. It's faithful, but also so vigorously updated to be wholeheartedly of its own era too. Sometimes it's disturbing. Sometimes it's silly. Sometimes it's both at once, e.g. the food. However it's also got stuff that's genuinely nifty, e.g. the cool sand ripple effect, and it's a film for which I have enormous affection. It hasn't a cynical bone in its body. It loves the disorientating, goofy story it's telling and I love it for that. Big thumbs up.
"Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!"