Goofy in a way that's great and unique to the 1950s. The main character is a child. Its Martians are rubbish, but also everything you want them to be. It invents a classic genre archetype a few years before anyone had heard of it, then discards it and goes on jumping to ever more unexpected story beats.
It's a bit mad and it feels like a dream or a nightmare. This is appropriate since the original story treatment was inspired by a dream had by the treatment writer's wife. I loved it.
The movie starts with a small boy, played by child actor Jimmy Hunt. Hunt was thirteen at the time, looked younger and is one of my favourite things about this film. Normally it's annoying when the authorities in 1950s SF movies don't believe the hero's tales of spaceships, dinosaurs, etc. However when our hero is a child, it makes perfect sense. Of course the adults don't believe him! That's what adults do. That's why they're rubbish. Children are actually fantastic protagonists for a story like this, because they're so vulnerable even at the best of times to the whims of adults. The only problem is that this usually means: (a) child actors, (b) Children's Film Foundation storytelling. Here though we have a serious SF film that's playing for keeps, not kiddifying itself at all and yet at the same time doing all this to a likeable child protagonist.
I liked Hunt. He says "oh gee" and he adds personality to the movie. You get moments like someone tousling his hair which you wouldn't get with an adult protagonist.
Anyway, we're introduced to Hunt as an example of "scientists of all ages". This is cool. Hunt's set his alarm clock for 4 am for the sake of his amateur astronomy. He's got a telescope, he's impressively knowledgeable on the subject and he's got a scientist father (Leif Erickson) who comes through to tell him off for waking everyone up with that alarm clock but soon is stargazing with his son. Mum puts a stop to that. Anyway, this is a lovely little introduction to everyone, although the film's soon getting down to business when Hunt sees a flying saucer come down.
In the morning, Erickson goes out to investigate and doesn't come back. There's a field out there that eats people. Hunt is alarmed, but becomes even more so when Erickson returns, having become hostile, violent and obnoxious. Yup, it's Invasion of the Body Snatchers
, but released the year before Finney's original novel. This is a lot of fun, but furthermore after a while the story starts doing things that'll baffle anyone who thought they knew where this was going. What does an army mobilisation have to do with Invasion of the Body Snatchers
? The tanks in particular surprised me. Hunt convinces some adults and duly becomes less prominent as the story refuses to go down the expected path of "they're everywhere and there's nothing you can do against them!"
The Martians are still out there, obviously, but the downside of these slightly counter-intuitive plot twists is a big drop in creepiness and paranoia. Instead we have a surprisingly specific and mildly amusing plot goal for our invaders. You see, they're not invaders. They don't want to conquer the Earth. They're more like an interplanetary infiltration team, sent in for some pre-emptive retaliation against one particular target. This is refreshingly down-to-earth and much more plausible than the usual overblown "our planet is facing extinction", etc. It also means that the battle between humans and Martians is fairly even. They have superior technology, but we have numbers and home advantage. It's the Martians who get forced to come up with clever tricks to keep the plot alive, which is cool and keeps our heroes on their toes.
Then the final act goes somewhere different again. We meet the Martians, which is enough in itself to make the film a must-watch. I'm crazy for 1950s aliens. These come in two varieties:
(a) Green-bandaged zombies that are eight foot tall. These are called "Myooo-tants".
(b) An actor who's been painted gold/green, with a goldfish bowl on his head. THIS IS BRILLIANT. What's more, it's even better when the camera pulls back and you see he's actually a little mutant man in a bowl.
It ends with a muddy and slightly baffling action finale, followed by a conclusion so weird that the British distributor insisted on reshoots and re-edits to make it more normal. There is thus a British version of this film in which Jimmy Hunt in some scenes is taller and has shorter hair.
The actors I hadn't heard of, but they're fine. Helena Carter is the biggest name and this was incidentally her last movie before retiring young from the business. She gets her dress torn at the shoulder in the final act, which is risque for a 1950s movie. It's a good look for her. However the director (William Cameron Menzies) was an Oscar-winning film production designer and art director who'd been making movies since the silent era.
There's a 1986 Tobe Hooper remake
, incidentally, but be warned that it was nominated for two Razzies.
I really liked this film. It would have blown my mind as a child and it's still pretty good for me today. I think having a child protagonist in a non-kiddified alien infiltration movie is a fantastic idea that also happens to work well in practice, thanks to Hunt. It's got an innocence and charm, e.g. its apparent message that telescopes will save the world. I like its dreamlike feel, which is subtle but I think deliberate. It's imaginative and supple in an era when cinematic SF tended to be the opposite, while in addition it's full of personality both deliberate and accidental. Hunt makes the film unique just by being there, but so do the alien costumes. I'm delighted to have caught this one. Show it to children.
"You've got to hit them right in the puss with these grenades if you want to stop them, major." I misinterpreted this line.