“He’s been reading those trashy science fiction magazines.”
It is probably impossible to overstate the impact that Invaders from Mars had on the imaginations of a generation of monster kids and baby boomers who saw it at an impressionable age when it was new. The booklet accompanying the new 4K restoration from Ignite Films quotes none other than Steven Spielberg, who supposedly saw the film some five times when he was ten years old. Then, more than 30 years after its initial release, it was remade in 1986 with Tobe Hooper behind the camera – a version that most people around my age are probably more familiar with than the 1953 original.
Normally, in a review like this, even of a new Blu-ray or 4K restoration, I would talk more about the film itself than its presentation, because that’s what I know and understand, while the technicalities of film restoration are mostly all Greek to me. However, in this case, it’s basically impossible not to discuss the restoration itself, at least a bit. After all, the entire booklet that accompanies the disc from relative newcomer Ignite Films (this is their first home video release, though they’ve been restoring films for decades) is dedicated to describing and contextualizing the meticulous restoration process, and the restoration team gets credited before the movie’s titles even roll.
And they’re right to be proud of their work. While, for various reasons which are addressed in the booklet, Invaders from Mars is never going to look as sharp as similarly loving restorations of some of its predecessors and contemporaries, Ignite and their team have produced a dynamite-looking 4K out of a film that most people probably underestimate quite a bit.
For the most part, images of Invaders from Mars are often reserved for the frankly rather disappointing Mu-Tants in their velour pajamas or the only somewhat more impressive Martian Intelligence in his glass globe, played with little more than eye movements by Luce Potter. Around these somewhat shaky effects, however, the film is a minor masterpiece of stylized set design and unusual camera framing. “They were built with perspective,” the booklet quotes actor Leif Erickson, describing the sets, “everything was out of kilter in the perspective sense. It was like a kid’s view…”
Perhaps the most impressive and dramatic of these sets is the one of the path leading up to the sand pits right outside our young protagonist’s window. The film spends a lot of time here, and it serves every shot well, especially once the army sets up spotlights to scan the area. This bravura production design is no surprise, given that the film was directed by William Cameron Menzies, the man who originated the term “production designer” and who worked in that capacity on such classics as Gone with the Wind, and collaborated on many others.
Invaders from Mars was also rushed through production to become the first film to show alien invaders in full color, beating George Pal’s (admittedly much better) War of the Worlds to screens by mere months. What of the booklet isn’t given over to the restoration of the picture is a detailed explanation of how it was shot – less the usual behind-the-scenes stories than literal descriptions of the film stock itself, and the history of how it came to be used.
This new restoration is here to mark the film’s 70th anniversary, and the back of the packaging ballyhoos the picture’s influence on directors such as Brad Bird, Don Coscarelli, and John Carpenter. While Invaders from Mars looks surprisingly good on this new 4K disc, however, the plot is exceedingly familiar, at least for anyone who has seen the 1986 remake – or any number of other, similar films.
Part of what makes the original Invaders from Mars stand out, however, is how it uses its “child’s nightmare” framing device to recontextualize the attendant absurdities endemic in so many alien invasion and atomic panic movies of the 1950s. In a straight-faced film, these elements often feel dated or outright laughable to us today. However, in a child’s nightmare, they make perfect sense.
Equally surprising is how little time is actually spent on the “no one believes him” subplot, especially when compared to other movies that have trod this same ground. In short order, we have gone from our pint-size protagonist being the only one who has any inkling of the danger to the full might of the army (or at least its stock footage) being called out, bringing along their shovels and hand grenades.
The net result may be more interesting artifact than genuine classic, but there’s no denying its unique visual sensibility, or its place in the annals of sci-fi movie history. And when it comes to painstaking restorations, it’s clear that Ignite Films has planted their flag as a company to watch for what their own logline calls “classics for the future.”