Invaders From Mars: The Sci-Fi Classic That Inspired The Spielberg Generation

A newly restored sci-fi B-movie, Invaders from Mars, is the little seen masterpiece that influenced many of today’s filmmaking giants.

Invaders from Mars
Photo: Ignite Films

Invaders from Mars may have appeared at first glance to be just another cheesy, cheap sci-fi B-movie made during the 1950s. It was, after all, a time when the genre was booming and both major studios and independent film producers started churning out shockers about alien invasions and giant insects at an alarming rate. But thanks to a dedicated cult following and some dogged technical detective work, a brand new 4K Ultra HD restoration of 1953’s Invaders from Mars has finally surfaced to re-introduce us to a surreal classic that had a profound effect on a generation of filmmakers who later gave us little films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gremlins, and Star Wars, among many others.

“It really turned my world around,” says Steven Spielberg in the booklet accompanying the new 4K Blu-ray release of the movie from Ignite Films. “It certainly touched a nerve in all the kids like myself who saw the film at a very young age.”

Spielberg saw Invaders from Mars five times in the theater, and it definitely seemed to have a profound effect on him: one of his early attempts at a full-length feature film, Firelight (made on 8mm when he was just 17), was all about an alien invasion. More importantly, two of his most iconic movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, dealt with alien contact and featured little boys as major characters—perhaps a direct nod to the narrative of Invaders from Mars.

So what exactly is this movie, and how and why did it have such an impact on some of the most important motion picture pioneers of their generation?

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A Visionary Director

Invaders from Mars originated with a script by a writer named John Tucker Battle (who ended up taking his name off the film), but it’s really the vision of one man: director and production designer William Cameron Menzies, who worked in Hollywood and is credited as both on this film.

Menzies was the first person to ever receive the title of production designer on a film (the position was previously known as art director) and he got it on no less than Gone with the Wind (1939), one of many movies for which he served in that capacity. He also directed a number of films on his own, and was reportedly an uncredited co-director on others, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad (both 1940).

Before Invaders from Mars, his chief contribution to science fiction cinema was 1936’s Things to Come, an ambitious film based on the book The Shape of Things to Come by groundbreaking sci-fi writer H.G. Wells, who actually worked on the screenplay. Although dated now, this epic future history, in which human civilization is destroyed by war and reborn through peaceful technology, had a scope matched in the genre at that time perhaps only by Metropolis (1927).

By the time Invaders from Mars came along, Menzies’ career was largely past its prime; the film was made independently for a modest $290,000 and picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox. But this tiny 77-minute programmer had a far-reaching influence that no one could have anticipated.

A Child’s-Eye View

Invaders from Mars is a very Lewis Carroll, child’s eye view of a science fiction story,” explains Joe Dante, director of Gremlins and The Howling, in a retrospective featurette included with the new Blu-ray of the film. A fellow aficionado, An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, adds in the same featurette, “My great affection for it is partially because I saw it at the right age and was very frightened by it.”

Invaders from Mars is told from the viewpoint of David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), a 10-year-old boy and fledgling astronomer who sees some kind of spacecraft land in the vast sandpit behind his house during a fierce thunderstorm one night.

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His scientist father (Leif Erickson) goes out to investigate and comes back not only with a completely altered demeanor, but he’s now hostile to both his wife (Hillary Brooke) and Jimmy, and even physically abusive to the latter. There’s also now a strange red puncture wound on the back of his neck.

As others fall prey to the same changes when they venture into the sandpit, including a little girl, two police officers, and finally David’s mother, the boy manages to convince a doctor named Patricia Blake (Helena Carter) and astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) that some kind of alien force from Mars has hidden itself in the sandpit and is possessing the townspeople.

As the Army is called in to battle the aliens, David, Dr. Blake, and Dr. Kelston find themselves taken prisoner inside the spacecraft where the Martian ruler’s disembodied head directs a legion of mindless mutant drones. Just as the Martians are defeated, David wakes up; it was apparently all a nightmare—but then he looks out his window and sees the same Martian spacecraft landing in the pit.

Is he still dreaming? Is he caught in a time loop? The movie’s ending is ambiguous. But the film is the first of its genre to be told entirely from a child’s point of view. “The idea in which his parents are no longer his parents, and are taken over, was genuinely upsetting,” says Dante. “I think one of the reasons that the picture has survived this long is that [Menzies] designed the movie to be a child’s nightmare.”

The First Alien Invasion Brought to You in Color

Invaders from Mars was a first in several ways: it was the first sci-fi film in which aliens take over human hosts (through mind control, in this case), and it was also the first alien invasion film released in color (it was rushed into production to beat George Pal’s production of The War of the Worlds to theaters).

But it wasn’t just released in any old color format. Shot in Eastmancolor, it was initially released in a process called SuperCinecolor, which produced an incredible range of strikingly vivid shades that made the image pop and look almost hyperreal, adding to the dreamlike quality of the film (the look has been restored for the new Blu-ray after years of much drearier DVD releases).

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Menzies’ other notable contribution to the film was designing the sets so that they looked overly large and somewhat distorted—the way a child might view them from a much lower vantage point. The best example of this is the police station, which consists of an unusually tall desk situated at the end of a long, white hallway.

The walls are stark, unadorned, and higher than normal, adding to the sense of dislocation that little David feels as he approaches the desk (Menzies also used a lot of low camera angles, again to replicate the POV of a child). Other sets fashioned in this way were the inside of the alien spacecraft and the observatory where David meets with Drs. Blake and Kelston. Of course some of the minimalism of the sets (along with the obvious stock footage of army units on the move) was due to the tight budget, but they added to the surreal nature of the film.

“Look at some of the sets, like the police department or the way he does the house,” Landis says on the Blu-ray. “You never see the back of the house, really, you just see the window frame, and the wall around it a little… He just really knew to build what he shot and he could tell the story emotionally through the art direction.”

The genius of Menzies in making the film “all a dream”—and designing it to look, feel, and sound that way—not only excuses things like the zippers up the backs of the alien costumes but adds a whole new layer of meaning to the narrative, especially as David sees nearly every adult authority figure in his life turn into a menacing monster in human form (a British cut exists in which the “dream” ending is taken out, making the movie much less interesting).

Invaders from Mars is a subversive movie in the sense that it does teach kids to question authority,” Dante says. “Which is one of the reasons that we had a hippie generation, because they started watching movies like this, science fiction movies particularly, [that] question authority all the time… it was food for thought, and it made its impact.”

In a definitive essay on the film posted some years back at DVDTalk, film historian Glenn Erickson wrote, “The brilliance of Invaders from Mars is that all the ‘weirdness’ does make sophisticated visual and thematic sense… [the film’s] weird fantasy is practically a psychological study of the new post-war American kid, bombarded on all sides by a world filled with new technological terrors.”

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The ‘Invaders From Mars’ Kids

Among those post-war American kids who saw Invaders from Mars at the right age (more or less the same age as David himself) were, as mentioned, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, and Joe Dante. Its influence on Spielberg’s work – not just the films he’s directed, but many others he’s produced – can clearly be seen, while almost all of Dante’s directorial career, including films like Gremlins, Matinee, and Explorers, pays homage to the B-movies of the past (Dante and Landis also both directed portions of a B-movie satirical sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon).

Another genre filmmaker possibly influenced by Invaders is Robert Zemeckis. He produced the 2011 animated feature (and box office bomb) Mars Needs Moms about a boy who must rescue his mother after she’s abducted by inhabitants of the red planet. Meanwhile Bill Warren notes in his book Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties that Brad Bird’s 1999 animated masterpiece, The Iron Giant, also paid homage to this movie and others of the 1950s sci-fi boom.

Writer-director Don Coscarelli was similarly inspired by the film when he made the cult horror classic Phantasm. Coscarelli told the New York Times, “There was this film on TV called Invaders From Mars. It’s what I emulated in Phantasm in some ways. It’s about a young boy dealing with some strange things, and no one believes him. Maybe nobody believed me when I was a kid.”

And no less an authority on film history than legendary director Martin Scorsese named Invaders from Mars on a list of the 10 best films (via Indiewire) to use light and color, placing it alongside cinematic landmarks like Vertigo, The Red Shoes, The Searchers, and Singin’ in the Rain. Scorsese also founded the Film Foundation—whose board also includes Spielberg and Spike Lee, among others—which gives grants to film restoration projects at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Among the many movies restored by MoMA was Invaders from Mars, according to the New York Times.

Then of course there’s George Lucas. His fascination with the presence of aliens on Earth manifested not in the Star Wars saga but instead in the Indiana Jones franchise. While the ultimate result of his obsession was 2008’s deeply flawed (to say the least) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, aliens were part of the development of the fourth Indiana Jones film all the way through its nearly two decades of gestation, including an early script called Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.

Lucas reportedly wanted the script (penned by Jeb Stuart) to put Indy right in the middle of the Atomic Age in the 1950s and play off films of that era, including The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. One sequence, in a nod to Invaders from Mars, apparently took place in a remote desert town that has been taken over by oversized, spider-like extra-terrestrials. Even the stark white settings in Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, could well have been influenced by the police station in Invaders.

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Unique Then and Now

Inevitably, a remake surfaced in 1986. It was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Lifeforce) and starred Karen Black, her son Hunter Carson as David, Louise Fletcher, and Bud Cort. But despite a number of homages to the original and better overall acting and production values, Hooper’s version failed to replicate the surreal tone of the 1953 film and Menzies’ use of color and camera angles.

In some ways, the original Invaders from Mars was very much aligned with the other (and better) sci-fi films of its time. It reflected fears about atomic power, paranoia about the Communist menace, and growing distrust of authority among a fledgling youth culture. But by using its shoestring resources to make the entire story the dream of a 10-year-old boy, it transcended its B-movie roots, and it sparked the imagination of a select group of young fans who went on to change the course of film history in ways that William Cameron Menzies probably never dared to dream himself.

Invaders from Mars is out now on 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray.