Invaders From Mars (1986) – Random Viewings With Ben and Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

Invaders From Mars (1986) – dir. Tobe Hooper

 

 

JOSH:   What would you do if you were a little kid, living in the suburbs, gazing up at the stars, and one night an honest to God alien ship landed in your backyard and started body snatching your family and teachers and the cops and pretty much everyone?  This is the dilemma facing intrepid youth David Gardner in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 Invaders from Mars.

The invasion is on almost right at the start of Hooper’s film. During a violent thunderstorm, David sees a mysterious object float down from the sky and settle just over the crest of a hill behind his house.  He runs to alert his parents, but by the time they get to his room the UFO has, of course, disappeared from sight. The next morning, David’s father goes out to investigate. He disappears over the hill and returns a changed man.  We’ve spent just enough time with him for the difference to be unmistakable. Before he was easygoing, friendly, kind. Now his speech is stilted, his manner stiff and remote, and he’s got a very suspicious gash on the back of his neck.

David is, naturally, aware of the change, and alarmed by it, and when dear dad tries to convince David to go with him over the hill to check things out for himself, David sensibly books it to his school bus.

But school is only a temporary refuge.  More and more people disappear over that hill and returned changed – a couple of cops, some scientists, David’s mother.  And when he goes to school on the second day of the invasion, he notices that a teacher has the same strange neck wound as his father.  And we notice it on the neck of one of his classmates. And everyone is suddenly veryyyyyy interested in young David Gardner…

Invaders from Mars is a remake of a 1953 film, and like a lot of Cold War-era sci-fi stories, the original steeped in the specific fears and paranoia of that era.  The boy (also named David) sees the invaders slowly infiltrating his town and enlists the help of a couple of scientists, who in turn enlist the help of the military.  This is ultimately a comforting film, of a secret invasion uncovered and repelled by that best, most stable patriotic American institutions, the US Army.

At first, I thought Hooper might go with a different approach.  Some other 50s Cold War sci-fi flicks had already been remade – Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, The Thing in ‘82 – and they very much reflect the degree to which filmmaking and society had shifted since the originals were made.  And here, we find David isolated from almost every major pillar of stable society – the cops, his family, the school – all corrupted. I thought maybe Hooper was building up a head of a steam for a wider satire of Reagan’s America, laced with a deeper skepticism about the institutions of American power that rode to the rescue in the first film.  It didn’t seem unintentional to me that David’s father, after being taken over by the aliens, acted like your stereotypical stern 1950s father figure.

But, um…  nope. What this actually becomes is your classic boy’s adventure film, a little weirder, a little more sharp-elbowed than your standard Amblin film from the era, but definitely in the same general ballpark, and definitely not skeptical about the kick-ass commie – er, alien – fighting power of the American military.  Here it is a kind nurse, not a scientist, who initially assists David. But eventually she gets him to the general in command of a local military base, who quickly believes David, and animates all the resources at his disposal – which are considerable – to take down the nefarious alien threat.

So it’s a strange movie just on those grounds, with its tentatively subversive first half turning out to be a head fake before a full-throated, rah-rah America Fuck Yeah second half.  And while that may sound like a criticism, I was pretty happy once it shifted into that sillier, more playful mode. The first half is something I’ve seen from other sci-fi remakes of the era.  What I haven’t seen? Louise Fletcher eating a frog. And Invaders from Mars gave me that gift. Ergo, Invaders from Mars is good.

Anyway, from that basic thematic weirdness, it gets weirder in more tangible terms too, as the film acquires the feeling not so much of a boys adventure but of a story a young boy would himself tell on the playground, or yell from the backseat of a car to a harried parent on the way to the grocery store.  Military leaders defer to David’s judgment, the general suddenly develops this bizarrely intense connection to a subordinate (his anguished screams of the subordinate’s name – “RINALDI!” – echo still in my soul!), scientists get zapped with ray guns. It gets pretty loopy.

But it’s fun.  It’s not the best of the cycle of 50s sci-fi remakes that proliferated through the 80s.  It may in fact even be the worst. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, because it’s not. I got a kick out of it from start to finish, and especially as it really went over the top and let its freak flag fly.  I’ll get into things more later (especially the ending, which is great and complicates some of what I wrote about above in interesting ways), but I think this is enough of an introduction to get things started.

So, Ben, I throw it to you.  Wanna make some good old-fashioned hamburgers and go have a picnic and talk things through?

 

BEN: Rinaldi, nooooo!

Sorry, I’m still recovering from my PTSD over Rinaldi’s tragic demise. Why do we both know Rinaldi’s name? Because this movie loves repeating names over and over again. I’m pretty sure 50% of the lines in the script are either “DAVID!” or “LINDA!”

You mentioned how this feels like an Amblin movie and you’re totally right on that one. Invaders from Mars feels like an 80s Stephen King movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The shot of the spaceship landing in David’s backyard feels like it was ripped right out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and David’s interactions with adults definitely have an ET vibe. But Invaders From Mars is those movies on acid. At one point there’s a very visible bag of M&Ms on David’s nightstand, reminding us of the Reese’s Pieces in ET. The lesson here is obvious. Don’t eat M&Ms before bed, kids. The aliens are way scarier.

Invaders from Mars is like an Amblin movie…but it’s not one. It’s a Cannon Group film, and that’s what gives this movie its edge, because Cannon don’t give a fuck. I’m pretty sure at some point someone tried to explain the concept of “Less is More” to the fine people at Cannon, but I imagine the conversation went something like, “But…more is more. I mean, it’s right there in the word. Why would less be more?” Why have a platoon of soldiers in your shot when you could put the entire army in the shot? That’s the Cannon way! There are so many soldiers in the martian tunnels in some shots that it looks like something out of Starship Troopers, but without the ironic wink. These guys just want to fuck up Martians. (“Don’t worry, Son! We Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!”) Both David and a scientist suggest talking to the Martians first, but they’re quickly brushed aside so the marines can shoot the Martians with all the firepower that they have available to them. It reminded me of the classic shot in another Cannon film with “invasion” in the title, Chuck Norris’ 1985 movie Invasion U.S.A, where they somehow managed to fit as many soldiers and tanks into a tiny back alley as they possibly could so that they can all comically shoot at the terrorists at the same time in an insanely extreme show of force. Invaders From Mars the kind of movie where you shoot the Martians a couple hundred times with M-16s, and then polish them off with a surface-to-air missile for good measure.

This movie is all about the small silly details and it couldn’t give a crap about the big picture. I’m still not entirely sure why the Martians invaded, because there’s no big exposition scene explaining why they’re there. If I had to guess, they’re trying to keep NASA from sending a rocket to Mars…maybe? Who cares? The movie doesn’t. Twenty-five percent of this movie is just David reaction shots, as if the editor wasn’t exactly sure when a scene was supposed to end. There are lots of shots of David amazed, or shocked, or horrified, or disgusted, or terrified, or…just staring off into space. There’s at least one shot where I half expected a stage mom to walk into frame with a juice box while the boom mike fell into frame and then you hear Tobe Hooper yelling “Cut!” in the background. Like, what is happening here? Is David actually reacting to something or is that just our goto shot for padding out the running time? Linda and General ‘Mad Dog’ Wilson also have some pretty great reaction shots too. Honorable mention should go to how hilarious David looks when he’s running. It’s like he’s trying to swim, poorly, while lazily swatting away flies. His arms flail around more than the inflatable man outside of a car dealership.

I pick on David, but he’s probably one of the best things about this movie. Here’s a kid who’s excited to collect pennies and drinks Dr. Pepper for breakfast. At one point, school nurse Linda, the first of several adults to rather quickly believe David’s story that his parents’ minds have been taken over by aliens, asks him, “David, you’re not just some crazy child, are you?” well after the time when she really should have been asking him that question. You’d think you’d put a little more thought into the situation before telling a small child to ditch school and go hide in your house (that he’s never been to before). And if that weren’t already a pretty horrible example of child endangerment, David then hides from the mean body-snatched teacher in a creepy van…that just happens to be filled with dead animals…and just happens to be owned by the mean body-snatched teacher he was trying to hide from. Come on, David!

There’s some good stuff to talk about with this movie too, like Tobe Hooper’s trademark crane shots, my favorite of which is when Linda and David go to where the spaceship is supposed to be parked, only to find a clearing with nothing in it. But before Linda can accuse David of making the whole story up, some scientists arrive. As they walk up the hill and down the embankment to the clearing the camera cranes up and over Linda and David, giving you their perspective as they try to hide out of view of the scientists, who ultimately end up getting eaten up by a hole in the ground.

But the good stuff isn’t as much fun to talk about, so before I go blabbing about all the other crazy things that happen in this movie I’ll flip it back to you, Josh. Which insane plot points stood out in your mind?

 

JOSH: I think I’ll answer that question by getting at one of my favorite performances in the film, which lead to some of my favorite moments. Louise Fletcher, an Oscar-winning actress who is seriously slumming here but still gives it her all – because she’s a professional dammit – plays Mrs. McKeltch, who we’ve mentioned a couple times now.  She’s the teacher who gets body snatched right away, and in whose dead animal filled van David hides. She’s the one, as I also mentioned, who eats the dead frog. Which, you have to admit, as dead giveaways go, is a good one.

There are two additional moments involving Fletcher that I got a huge kick out of.  The first is when Mrs. McKultch, who has been chasing after David for a while now, finds him hiding in Linda the nurse’s car at a gas station.  Linda is attempting to call for help. Mrs. McKultch pulls up to the gas station in a school bus, spots David, and drags him out of the car. He escapes before she can get him into the van, and starts running – if you want to call it that, you’re right that David has a goofy as hell run – down the street.  Mrs. McKultch chases after him, Louise Fletcher is not what you’d call an Olympic sprinter either. Linda sees David running, hops in her car, rescues him, and they drive off.

The reason this is such a great moment is because, once she realizes David is once again firmly out of reach, Mrs. McKultch stops running, shakes her fist in the air, and yells, “I’LL GET YOU, DAVID GARDNER!”  Which would be good enough, but then she pauses for a second, and says, “Damn,” in the most half-hearted way. Describing this moment doesn’t really do it justice, but in the moment is simply sublime.

The second might be my favorite scene in the whole movie, and it’s toward the end, so readers should consider this a spoiler warning (though, really, it’s a little late for that).

Toward the end of the movie, David is brought before the Supreme Martian Intelligence, the leader of the Martians, who looks like a slimy brain with a face on it, and speaks mostly in guttural moans.  He’s kind of creepy, but mostly silly, like all the aliens in Invaders from Mars.

This is where the film most resembles the school-yard tall tale I mentioned above, because David spends a good amount of this scene trying to reason with the Supreme Intelligence to return his parents, and Linda, and maybe a couple other people.

Fletcher is on hand because…  why not. She interrupts David several times as he’s trying to reason with the Supreme Intelligence.  The first time he’s interrupted, David yells, “SHUT UP! I’m talking to him!” When she persists, David says, “I’ll stay after school for the rest of my life if you’ll just shut up for a second!”  To which Fletcher responds with cackling laughter. She also hugs one of the Martian soldier thingys at one point – again, just because.

A few seconds later, David whacks her in the head with a sack of coins, and she gets eaten by two of the alien foot soldiers.  Including the one she was just hugging! So sad.

But before that happens, David gets fed up with the Supreme Martian Intelligence and calls him, and I quote, “DICK BRAIN!”

Anyway, at this point it should go without saying that this is a great scene.

A couple other lines that really cracked me up:

1)  Just before SETI scientist Bud Cort gets zapped to death by an alien, he’s trying to communicate with them.  He says something like, “Hey boys.” Hooper cuts to two soldiers. One of them goes, “How does he know they’re boys?” and the other hisses, “SHUT UP!”

2)  Shortly after calling the Supreme Intelligence a dick brain, David escapes and meets up with the general and his soldiers.  David tells them that Linda is in danger, the general snarls out an order, everyone runs off… except for one soldier. Hooper pushes in on the soldier, who has the most wonderfully bewildered, lost look on his face.  And the soldier just kind of shakes his head and mutters, “I wasn’t trained for this.” And then Hooper cuts away and it’s back to the action. Just this little wistful, existential moment of reflection amid the chaos.

These little moments make the movie.

Anyway, I want to conclude by giving a shout out to the late great Karen Black, who doesn’t have anything really crazy to do, but is nevertheless a welcome presence.  She plays Linda and is really just called upon to be stable and kind-hearted, and she does that very well. She also has a really good scream, which she deploys with regularity.  Her career was well on the downswing by the mid-80s, and it’s a damn shame because she does very nice work here and clearly could have continued doing so for decades.

All right, back to you Ben.  Any other performances or moments you want to mention?  We haven’t even talked about the creature effects, courtesy of Stan Winston!  How crazy is that?

 

BEN: Yeah, I definitely wanted to talk about the creatures, because I feel like someone owes Stan Winston some money. I would be shocked if no one at ID Software, makers of the video game Doom, had seen this movie before making their iconic game. The main Martians look like a combination of the “Pinky” demon and a Cocademon while the head martian kind of looks like a Spiderdemon whose head comes out of the wall like the Alien Queen in Aliens. On top of all that, their spaceship looks like pretty much every alien spaceship I’ve seen in a 3D shooter game this side of Halo. Doom even takes place on Mars! Coincidence? Even the soundtrack has parts that sound like Terminator crossed with Doom.

In no way, shape or form do these Martians look like a friendly ET. It’s pretty obvious looking at them that they’re here to kill humans, which only makes the scenes where the scientist or David try to reason with them more unintentionally hilarious. Imagine trying to negotiate with a spider the size of a horse that it should give your parents back, only to call it a “dick brain”, and somehow not get murdered instantly. I guess if you were a special effects nerd in the 80s you might find their dopey guy-in-a-suit practical effects charming because they’re really well done, but for everyone else, dear god are they disturbing to look at.

Some fun random moments: All the pennies stuff. David collects pennies, which is going to become a huge plot point in the movie. There’s one scene early on after the dad becomes pod-personed where he creeps up on David, scary music playing in the background, and you think he’s going to strangle David, but instead, he just wants his pennies. The reason for this obsession with pennies is that the Martians apparently need copper to power their weapons. Towards the end of the movie the soldiers try to use one of the Martian weapons to blow a hole to safety, but they’re out of ammo. What follows is this hilarious bit of dialogue between a general and his soldiers:

“Great Scott, hasn’t anybody got a penny?”

“You don’t carry loose change into a combat zone, sir!”

We’ve been subtly hinting at Invaders From Mars’ twist ending throughout this whole review, and it might as well be time to spoil it, because it’s frustrating, confusing and yet it also puts a lot of things in perspective and actually helps the movie make a lot more sense, all at the same time. After escaping the Martian ship and saving his parents it’s revealed that almost the entire movie has actually been David’s dream. He probably had too much Dr. Pepper and M&Ms before bed and the thunderstorm raging outside (the same one that we saw at the beginning of the film when the Martian ship first landed) gave him some crazy dreams. He rushes into his parents’ bedroom to tell them of his nightmare and they assure him that no, Martians didn’t show up and take over the town. Then the movie throws in one more stinger right at the end implying that the Martians are actually landing NOW, and at that point I almost threw my remote at the TV.

Once you get over the initial disappointment of realizing that you just wasted the last two hours on a dream sequence the rest of the movie actually starts to make a heck of a lot more sense. We’ve both already mentioned so many insane sequences in the movie that most people would say help make it a “bad” movie, but when you take into account that this is all springing from the overactive imagination of a small child, those narrative decisions make a heck of a lot more sense. If you had a boy like David describe his nightmare about Martians invading earth this is EXACTLY how they would tell the story. Now it makes sense why adults like an army general (whom David had met at a class field trip earlier that day) and school nurse Linda would believe everything David said without much evidence to back up his claims, and it would also explain why the main bad guys trying to get David are his mean teacher and the girl in class who picks on him. The entire film is a young boy’s wish fulfillment, make-believe adventures sprung straight out of his daily life. Suddenly narrative incongruities and leaps of illogic aren’t examples of bad filmmaking, they’re smart creative decisions.

Well, maybe. It’s still a pretty dumb movie. But it’s a really fun dumb movie, well worth checking out if it sounds like your cup of Dr. Pepper.  


Well, are you glad we’re back? I hope so, because we’ll be back again soon with a quick review of Microwave Massacre (1983) – dir. Wayne Berwick. Is cooking and eating your wife with an industrial size microwave normal? No, and neither is this movie.

 

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