It was just a few years after the end of World War II and color had only just arrived in the science fiction genre a few years earlier with the science-heavy Destination Moon (1950). Director and production genius William Cameron Menzies was engrossed by a short horror story he’d heard about a child waking up to find their parents were externally controlled robots. The early 50s was the first portion of the Cold War and the United States was already at war again, a conflict in far-off Korea, where US politicians were afraid of the domino effect of Korea falling and the resultant communist dominance of Asia.
Films about communism were problematic, however, with the House Un-American Activities Committee already active (though Senator McCarthy’s worst fearmongering was yet to come). Far easier to explore conformance and groupthink versus classic American independence through a genre like science fiction. Enter Invaders from Mars, first conceived in 1950 and released theatrically in Spring, 1953. The list of sci-fi films from the 50s that explore this theme is long, most notably including The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and most notably the chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
ABOUT “INVADERS FROM MARS”
At its heart a simple tale about aliens controlling people in a small American town, director Menzies wanted to do something far more visually inventive and fanciful; he’d already proven his cinematic eye with his work on The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Gone with the Wind (1939), and would later win an Academy Award for Around the World in 80 Days (1956), which he also directed.
For Invaders, he opted to tell the surreal tale from the perspective of a child whose parents are affected by the aliens: David (Jimmy Hunt) is a nerdy, astronomy-obsessed tween with a scientist father, George (Leif Erickson) and a loving mother Mary (Hillary Brooke). Until a spaceship crashes into the dunes behind their house and Dad starts to act… weird. He’s suddenly very short-tempered and in one notable scene slaps David to reinforce that he needs to shut up about these silly aliens.
David can’t convince anyone, and soon realizes that there’s a tell-tale sign that shows which people are now being controlled by the dastardly aliens. Mom? Alien controlled! The police chief? Under alien control! Even his best pal Kathy (Janine Perreau) isn’t who she was before that spaceship landed and started taking over everyone in town. When he’s tossed in jail, he then meets Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) and her friend Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz), who not only aren’t under alien control, but they believe him too. The stage is set and now it’s a race between the good guys and the military versus the assimilated humans and those “mu-tants” lurking in tunnels beneath the dunes.
As an early sci-fi film, Invaders from Mars is clearly in the b-movie category, but as one of the first color sci-fi films with a surreal overtone, it’s still an important part of cinematic history. Indeed, there are some very striking images and visuals, perhaps most notably the fascinatingly elongated police station, as shown in the still, above. Is it real, or is the entire story just in David’s wildly active, sci-fi loving brain?
In fact, my greatest criticism of the movie is that it concludes by suggesting it was all a bad dream, which always seemed like a cop-out to me. The restoration 4K UHD copy included a documentary explaining that there were two versions of the film released, however, and that it was the “European” cut that ended that way; the original, shorter, release had a much more ambiguous ending.
RESTORING THE SUPERCINECOLOR ORIGINAL
As an important film, it was entirely appropriate that Invaders from Mars get a full, 4K Hi-Def restoration, but that turned out to be extraordinarily difficult work for a number of reasons. The film was one of the very first to use SUPERcineCOLOR, a complex full color upgrade from Cinecolor, which itself was a convoluted way to record color films. The competitor was Technicolor, which offered far better results, but at a much higher price. As a result, the negatives for the film almost 70 years later were in pretty awful shape, as is explored in the excellent bonus features on the 4K disk. Here’s an example:
Unfamiliar with that shot in the film? It’s from the International release, not the original version of the film. That footage is easily differentiated because David (Hunt) has shorter hair and is wearing a sweater vest, which he didn’t wear in any of the original footage. The additional footage wasn’t seamlessly added to the original film, suffice to say.
Restoring a deteriorated film is quite complex and most people don’t realize that old film is stored on celluloid or other media that not only age, but age badly. A bright, vivid shot in the original can easily end up washed out, with color shifts, noise appearing in the darkest areas, audio artifacts, hairs, scratches, and much worse. Film restoration, therefore, is critically important to preserve older films before it’s too late. While the original Invaders from Mars is worth saving, it’s really the extraordinary library of “Bonus Features” that makes this 4K UHD release from Ignite Films so worthwhile for sci-fi buffs and cinephiles alike.
The Bonus Features include interviews with child star Jimmy Hunt and director William Menzie’s biographer James Curtis, a featurette where director John Landis talks about the impact of the film on his career, special effects artist Robert Skotak talks through some of the funnier behind-the-scenes details of the movie [they used condoms for what???], and restoration expert Scott MacQueen explains the process of bringing the washed out, damaged, and partially broken copies of Invaders from Mars were brought together – and digitally enhanced – to create this new 4K version. And that’s not all, there’s lots of other really interesting stuff too.
As it happens, I also watched a documentary about Cinerama and how its three-camera films were restored to their glory a few weeks prior to receiving this review 4K disk, so the timing was excellent. If you think that a pristine digital copy of your favorite movie from the 40s, 50s, or even 80s, is produced with a simple automated scan of the celluloid, I highly encourage you to check out this disk and its bonus features. Even if you’re not a big sci-fi fan, it’s both educational and informative.
Disclosure: Ignite Films sent me a copy of the 4K UHD release of Invaders from Mars for the purpose of this review and writeup. Thanks!