Friday, January 06, 2023

Invaders from Mars, Restored

James Cameron's mega-expensive Avatar saga owes a debt of gratitude to William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 cult classic. Up to that point, science fiction had always been the cheapest of the B-movies. His film was the first alien invasion movie filmed in color and possibly the first science fiction film overall, depending on how you define science fiction and whether you allow far less vivid earlier color processes. The SuperCinecolor process became obsolete soon after it was produced, so it presented considerable restoration challenges, but it looks terrific in the new 4K-restored Invaders from Mars, which ships on BluRay this month from Ignite Films.

Little David MacLean wants to be a scientist like his indulgent father George, which is why he is constantly watching the sky late at night. This is how he happens to be the only Earthling who witnesses an unusual meteorite-like object crashing in the dunes behind his house. Through the same telescope, he sees his father sucked into the sand. The next morning, his father returns, but he is not nearly as cool as he used to be. Likewise, the two police officers investigating his reported disappearance return from the dunes behaving in a similarly cold, withdrawn, and contemptuous manner.

Before long, young MacLean finds other adults in town acting equally suspiciously, including the chief of police. (It is important to note
Invaders predates both Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Jack Finney novel it was based on.) However, Dr. Patricia Blake is at least willing to hear him out and they soon learn his pseudo mentor, astronomer Dr. Arthur Kelston, already harbored suspicions an invasion could be underway.

deserves a place in the holy quartet of alien invasion films, alongside Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, and the George Pal-produced War of the World, which Invaders beat into theaters by a few months. Each film has its own merits and its own unique spin on the alien menace.

Menzies keen visual sensibilities definitely sets this film apart from subsequent knock-offs. Perhaps most acclaimed for his art and production design work, Menzies took a rare double credit as director and production designer on
Invaders—and he put his stamp on nearly every scene. At times, he harkens back to the German Expressionists, with sequences like those in the police station, using scale sets built to accentuate a child’s perspective. Given how much consideration went into the look of the film, it is nice to be able to better appreciate it with the new restoration.

Invaders does not get the credit it deserves as a cultural trail-blazer. Beyond employing expensive color for formerly trashy sf, it depicts Dr. Blake as MacLean’s savior. She is a doctor, not a nurse. She is also sufficiently intuitive to recognize little David is absolutely terrified—and the adults around him are very strange. Helena Carter plays her with smarts and sensitivity, but her character was not presented as forcefully in the cheap-looking reshoots ordered a year later for the European market, without Menzies’ participation. (Ignite includes then as bonus content, but they add little to the viewing experience.)

Invaders from Mars
is particularly refreshing when seen today, because it presents the U.S. military in a favorable light (much like The Thing and War of the Worlds). Clearly, during his ordeal, Col. Fielding (playing with grit and fatherly concern by Morris Ankrum) becomes a reassuring authority figure to David. However, it is highly, highly unlikely that a sergeant would so cavalierly disregard the words of a Colonel, as poor Sgt. Rinaldi does, to his own detriment.

Invaders from Mars
might have been in color, but it still wasn’t Gone with the Wind (which Menzies also production designed). There are times when the film resorts to B-movie tactics to stretch its budget, but Menzies was such a skilled filmmaker, he pulls them off quite agilely. This is a classic film that is probably even better than many cult movie fans realize (partially due to the dismal prints that have been in circulation). Very highly recommended, Ignite’s restored BluRay edition of Invaders from Mars starts shipping soon (and it screens on 1/14 and 1/18, as part of MoMA’s annual To Save and Project film series).