Review: Invaders from Mars

Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Category: Sci-fi

The best thing Invaders from Mars has going for it is that, whether intentional or not, it looks and feels like an honest to goodness 1950's era science fiction film. And honestly, that's enough of a reason to enjoy this great homage to 50's sci-fi films.

Directed by Austin, TX's own Tobe Hooper, Invaders From Mars isn't on the top of anybody's favorite sci-fi films list or even anybody's favorite remakes list. While it is in fact a remake of a classic science fiction film from 1953 of the same name, you can almost say that a remake was almost unnecessary. Though not a perfect film, it's fun to watch and it's one of those I find myself throwing in my player at least maybe once a year. I don't know, i'm not sure if it's just nostalgia, but I do enjoy it quite a bit. Hooper's direction is inspired, and throw in John Dykstra's amazing special effects, Stan Winston's throwback to old school style makeup effects, Daniel Pearl's beautiful cinematography and the retro production design by Les Dilley (production designer on Star Wars) and you have a nice homage to a science fiction classic that while never really scary, thrilling or even exciting, still makes for a fun experience because of all the talent involved. The film looks beautiful and is a testament to old school style filmmaking that I really long for in these days of shaky-cam quick edit filmmaking.

Released in 1986, the same year as his Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the film I reviewed right before this one Hands of Steel (had to throw that in there), it was an immediate bomb. Budgeted at 12 million (chump change in today's film market, but big bucks for a Cannon Film), it only made back a paltry 4 million. Still not sure why either. Maybe nobody was really interested in a sci-fi remake? Remember, this was the mid 80's where remakes were coming out left and right. Or maybe people weren't too keen on the design of it all. I think it looks great. The alien designs that Stan Winston came up with were so weird, especially for an alien. But I think that was Winston's intent, going full on retro cheesy with these. But i'm not sure if he was going for cheesy on purpose as it was a remake of a pretty cheesy 50's era science fiction flick anyway or what? But you know what? It's a fun movie. The effects are outstanding here. I love the retro look of it all. Like when David looks out his bedroom window over Copper Hill and all he sees are those huge retro lights turning and blaring in different colors. It all looks so cool.

There is one problem I have with it though, actually a major problem and if there was anything that I would say I hated about it, it would be this. Hunter Carson, the kid who played the main character here Daniel Gardner just plain sucks. He sucks! I seriously cannot stand to watch him in this and it drives me nuts. How or why the filmmakers chose this kid out of the thousands that probably auditioned is beyond me, but it was such an epicly bad decision on there part and the film definitely suffers because of it. Might have something to do with the fact that he's in fact cult cinema queen Karen Black's (the nurse that he befriends and the only one who believes him) son in real life. There are some scenes that are so cringe inducing with him. I'm sorry, the kid can't act. The genes do not seem to run in this family. He definitely tries, I'll give him that. You can tell he takes it all very seriously, but he's just not any good. And while I'm bashing on the kid mood right now I'll also say that I've never seen a kid flail his arms when running or screaming more than this kid does in this movie. It's unbelievable. Any chance he gets he's flailing those arms through the air and i'm like, what's his problem?

All the other players are fine though. Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman (from SNL), cult cinema regular James Karen, Louise Fletcher and of course Karen Black all do solid work with there parts. But it's when that kid opens his mouth to deliver his lines or to run around screaming that really bring this sucker down.

But I still love it. Tobe Hooper's awesome directing more than anything. The guy was on a career high during the few years before this film and leading up to it. He's of course most famously known for writing and directing the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in 1974. He had done a few other directing gigs after that, most notably the Salems Lot TV movie, but it wasn't until 1982 where he started getting the big budget gigs, starting with Poltergeist. Now I know, that one's marginal and could start a serious debate. Most people who are familiar with the whole Poltergeist story know that Steven Spielberg came up with the story and also helped write the screenplay, oversee the production, edit it as well as product it. So the guy had his prints all over it and he was there throughout the whole production often leading to pretty big arguments between him and Tobe Hooper over control of the film. And to be quite honest, you can see Spielberg's hand all over Poltergeist. I think he even went to the Directors Guild to try and get a co-director's credit. Which begs the question, how much of Poltergeist belongs to Tobe Hooper and how much belongs to Steven Spielberg? But that's another story.
So after his horrible first experience in big budget filmmaking he waits 3 years before he does another, which is Lifeforce (a film I really love). I guess he just needed a much needed break from all the drama. But Lifeforce is so cool! And not just because it has Matilda May naked for most of it! The next year he does this and TCM 2 back to back. But then he sorta drops off the map and does pretty much nothing but television work for the rest of his career, with the exception of an occasional direct to video release like Spontaneous Combustion or The Mangler. Actually, I think The Mangler did in fact have a theatrical release, but I never saw it and neither did most people. He did do a horror remake back in 2004 called Toolbox Murders which I actually enjoyed quite a bit as it reminded me of an old school horror movie from the early 80's. But still, nothing like the spark of when he was making these films back to back like Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars and TCM2. He had a definitive visual style that impressed me more than anything, but it seems to be a magic that he is sorely missing these days. But we still have these 80's gems and Invaders From Mars represents the very best of Tobe Hooper visually.

Invaders From Mars is told from the perspective of the little boy David. He see's the spaceship actually land nearly in his back yard, but can't convince anybody about it. When he finally convinces his dad to at least go past the trail to Copper Hill where he saw the craft land, his dad returns acting strange. Then the dad tries convincing anybody he can, including his wife and Davids mother, to go to the hill. Whenever anybody comes back from the hill they return acting strange. These aliens are taking over the minds of anybody they come in contact with. With the help of his school nurse, the only one who believes him, he enlists the aid of the U.S. Marines. What we ultimately find out is that they're not really here to take over our planet. I mean, it's just one ship with only a handful of aliens on board. Rather, they're here to steal our copper. Silly I know, but whatever.

I think telling the story from the perspective of the little boy might have been a mistake, mainly due to the fact that kid actor is annoying as hell. But i'm guessing they were trying to recreate a classic feel to a classic genre, with a kid being the protagonist. I don't know, I guess it would have been fine had they just gotten a better actor for the kid and also worked on that ending. God what a horrible ending. You can tell they were trying to be clever in trying to do one of those twist endings that M. Night Shaymalan is so well known for in all of his movies. But it didn't come off so well here and just ended up looking stupid. Instead of having one of those "shock and awe" moments when you're left trying to figure out what just happened and if it really "did" happen you're left just scratching your head laughing and saying "oh come on!". Really stupid ending.

The late great Dan O'Bannon shared a screenplay credit on here along with 2 other writers, but i'm not sure how much of his stuff ended up on the screen. The guy is a brilliant science fiction writer who, as history shows, is the one who initiated and basically created the Alien franchise. He submitted the first draft for that first film, though it was extensively rewritten. But it was his story, ideas and specific scenes that he's responsible for including the famous "chest-bursting scene". Brilliant man. Without Dan O'Bannon we never would have had an Alien film or any of it's sequals.

In the end it's a fun movie, especially when the Marines get involved in the second half. Still not sure if I buy James Karen as a General though. All I could picture as I watched him here is as Frank from Return of the Living Dead or Ed from Return of the Living Dead 2. But he'll always be that idiot Frank to me.
It's got a retro sci-fi feel to it that is sorely missed in big budget science fiction films these days. Great design and special effects combined with Tobe Hooper's stunning visuals make for a good time if you can get past that annoying kid. I'm beating that subject to death aren't I? Oh, and that ridiculous ending.
It's definitely worth another look if you haven't seen this in a while, if anything then at least for the nostalgic look and feel it gives thanks to the tremendous talent behind the scenes. It's a fun film simply put.


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