Almost A Decade After Alien, Its Creator Made An Unmissable Sci-Fi Bomb
The 1986 Invaders From Mars isn’t a sci-fi classic. But maybe it should be.
In the 1980s, the small-town alien-invasion genre of the 1950s made a small comeback. Following the undeniable success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, there was a smattering of Earth-based alien-centric sci-fi flicks in the following decade. Some were outright horror cult classics like Critters (1986), while others were just straight-up horrible, like Killer Klowns From Outer Space. (1988). Of course, The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), and Lifeforce (1985), are still discussed with varying degrees of reverence and curiosity, forgotten in all of this is a strange ‘80s remake called Invaders From Mars.
Released in 1986, the same year as Aliens and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in retrospect, Invaders From Mars was always destined for obscurity. As a remake of the 1953 film of the same name, everything about the movie feels like it’s trying to ride a throwback wave, but with an overcommitment to the bit. Although the special effects were created by Star Wars innovator John Dykstra, and the monsters by creature-making legend Stan Winston, the actual result is exactly what the movie set out to do: create a colorized version of a black-and-white alien movie from the 1950s.
But what makes this movie so interesting, and ultimately, rewatchable, is that the co-screenwriter here is Dan O'Bannon. For most sci-fi aficionados, O'Bannon is the guy who worked for several years on the never-produced Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Dune, and, then, from that mess, wrote the screenplay that became Alien in 1979. And, although Alien is a fairly serious film, O’Bannon’s feature film — which he wrote and starred in — was the groundbreaking satirical 1974 film Dark Star. After Alien, O’Bannon wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead, and also adapted the novel The Space Vampires in the aforementioned horror sci-fi flick, Lifeforce. (Which curiously, starred Patrick Stewart in a very minor role as a doctor.) By the late ‘80s, he was working on the screenplay which became the 1990 film Total Recall.
The point is, most of the movies that Dan O’Bannon worked on are worth your time, and now-forgotten Invaders From Mars should be on that list. And the reason why is simple: The movie represents a forgotten genre, that had yet to reinvent itself within a decade obsessed with forgotten genres. Everything about Invaders From Mars should work, but doesn’t, only because the 1980s aesthetic clashes with the 1950s vibe.
Invaders From Mars isn’t an outright comedy or a spoof, but some of the performances approach a level of camp that is only there for the real connoisseur of camp. As directed by Tobe Hooper, the movie allows room for certain performances to take over the movie in the most campy way possible. The standout here is easily Louise Fletcher as Mrs. McKeltch, a local woman in town who is a Martian in disguise. She gets some amazing moments, which are worthy of a Doctor Who villain, like when she pretends to comfort 12-year-old David, saying, with evil irony, “You’re a lucky boy, David Gardner. Not everybody gets to meet the Supreme Martian Intelligence.”
It should also be noted that Invaders From Mars isn’t afraid to have a super-dark twist ending. Although the film feels like it’s going to end with the humans getting the better of the invading, secret Martians, things don’t really turn out the way you think. Although the film stars Hunter Carson as the young boy, David, this isn’t a kids’ movie. The ending is Twilight Zone-worthy, and in tone, seems to set the stage for what we got with Stranger Things. It’s a flawed film, that relies, perhaps, too much on the novelty of being a remake of a ‘50s alien movie. But, when rewatching Invaders From Mars, and thinking about The X-Files and, again, Stranger Things, you can’t help but think that it just came out at the wrong time.