The First Extra-Terrestrials: How the Amblin Era Was Born in the Shadow of Invaders from Mars

The First Extra-terrestrials
How the Amblin Era Was Born in the Shadow of Invaders from Mars

By A.A. Dowd  

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars occupies an unusual position in the canon of 1950s science fiction. So many of the iconic trappings of its genre are present and accounted for: the flying saucer of lore, prototypical in discal shape and movement; the invasion plot that can be read as an exploitation of Red Scare fears; the scientists spouting dry exposition; the bullish military mobilizing to combat the threat; the lurching extraterrestrial henchmen. Yet the film also possesses an uncommonly dreamlike atmosphere—a product of its sometimes haunting imagery, its otherworldly sound design, and an ending that frames the events through the lens of an overactive pre-adolescent imagination. All of which is to say, Invaders from Mars is at once a representative example of Hollywood’s midcentury alien boom and one of its strangest variations on the form. 

The film opened in the spring of 1953, at a time of great public interest in UFOs (a term that came into use only the previous year, and which was the subject of that January’s Robertson Panel, a classified meeting of scientists to discuss widespread flying saucer sightings). This was the same year as It Came From Outer Space and War of the Worlds, and it’s no accident that Invaders beat those liked-minded, costlier Hollywood productions to theaters: It was shot over just three weeks and change, on a modest budget, to more quickly capitalize on America’s growing obsession with watching the sky. 

Made with the economical means of an independent production (evident, occasionally, in its resourceful, uneven effects work), Invaders from Mars nonetheless boasts the kind of craft you’d expect from a team of dream-factory veterans. The movie’s most indelible image might be the one it keeps returning to ad nauseam: an establishing POV shot of the rolling ridge connecting the backyard of preteen stargazer David (Jimmy Hunt) and the sand dune where the vessel from outer space settles. There’s a painterly elegance to the landscape that recalls, of all movies, Gone with the Wind—and that’s no accident either, as Invaders from Mars was directed by William Cameron Menzies, who served as production designer on that seminal Hollywood epic, among the numerous projects he attached himself to from the silent era onward.

Menzies shot the movie in SuperCinecolor, and there’s a lush hyperreality to his footage, appropriate for a collision of civilizations (bask in the eerie light that blankets little David after he catches his first glimpse of the visitors) and a story teetering between premonition and fantasy. Invaders from Mars is said to be the first movie to depict alien lifeforms and spacecrafts in color. One wonders if its conception of humanoids from another planet actually influenced the future, stereotypical description of visitors as “little green men” (a turn of phrase coined three years later by a reporter taking some poetic license). Then again, the invaders of Invaders aren’t so little. As plainly played by actors in suits, they’re more like felt gorillas, bumbling through an underground lair.

Is bringing our collective fantasies of first contact out of black-and-white and into the full color spectrum the film’s primary legacy? It’s not so simple, identifying the imprint Invaders from Mars has made on the landscape of cinema and science fiction. The movie originated few of the tropes it indulges; there’s no tracing, say, the now-parodic image of a metallic disc cruising across the sky—the cliché Jordan Peele is playing with in his 2022 film Nope, for most recent example—to Menzies’s movie specifically. Its vision of alien invasion has been absorbed into a general iconography of retro convention, an atomic-age kitsch. (Though there’s one visual too memorably weird not to have influenced future creature features: the chromed alien leader, a bulbous head in a fishbowl played by Luce Potter, otherwise known for her role as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz).

Invaders is, of course, an early Hollywood play on an enduring sci-fi premise: extraterrestrials replacing our nearest and dearest with poker-faced pod people, which in the ’50s couldn’t help but double as a reflection of anxieties about a Soviet takeover. But it can’t necessarily be called the definitive treatment of that allegorical conceit—even if its script (reportedly finished in 1950 and inspired by an actual dream) technically predates the publishing of both Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers. Nor does Menzies’ depiction of an organized military response—accomplished through a heavy use of stock footage—offer anything like a ground-zero template for future variations like Roland Emmerich’s 1996 movie Independence Day. (Invaders may have beat the first War of the Worlds film to theaters by a few months, but H.G. Wells laid the groundwork for the latter and its imitators a full half century earlier.) 

It’s in the matter of perspective that Invaders from Mars makes its strongest claim to precedent. The film unfolds largely from the vantage point of David, the boy who first spots the alien ship and comes to the realization that its occupants are taking over the minds of his family and neighbors. At heart, it’s a thriller about the way adults diminish the fears and concerns of children; for a while, no one believes what David has seen and knows. And in his parents’ transformation into hostile, alien versions of themselves, one can see a warped reflection of the rude awakening of adolescence—that moment when every child is confronted with the reality that mother and father don’t necessarily know best. 

At a TCM festival screening in April, John Sayles introduced Invaders from Mars as “a movie that taught my generation not to trust our parents, or any other authority figures”. That generation would, of course, go on to make their own movies. Is it any wonder that the ’70s and ’80s gave us a rush of sci-fi and horror films with child protagonists? Don Coscarelli cited Invaders as a key influence on his Phantasm. Meanwhile, Sayles himself worked with Steven Spielberg on an alien invasion thriller that eventually became, after a significant rewrite, the gentler E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. And some of the ideas for that scrapped project made their way into Poltergeist, whose director, Tobe Hooper, would go on to outright remake Invaders from Mars a few years later. 

To that end, one could say the whole Amblin era sits in the shadow of that flying saucer, viewed on double bills throughout the ’50s and through frequent late-night television airings thereafter. Some contemporary reviews of Invaders dismissed it as strictly matinee fare, fit mostly for young audiences. But in speaking to America’s future blockbuster merchants and genre visionaries, the film has pulled off a stealth pop-culture invasion. What are the Amblin-biting nostalgia trips of J.J. Abrams and the Duffer brothers by a third-hand dose of that green glow that first catches David’s eye?

Still, the unusual power of Invaders from Mars hasn’t really been replicated. Its singularity comes down to how it presents its story as a bad dream from which you can’t awake. The nightmare vibe is everywhere: in that spooky choir-of-the-damned music cue, rising from the aliens’ sand trap like an invitation to hell; in the repeated shots of people walking the same path along that aforementioned ridge, as if compelled to their doom; and of course in the twist ending, where the relief of a return to reality curdles as the cycle begins anew. Plenty of kids in 1953 probably spent their own evenings with a telescope to one eye, excited and scared by the possibility that… something was out there, before dozing off into visions of what it might be. Invaders from Mars entertained their wildest suspicions. The real dream, it diabolically told them, was letting yourself believe that it’s all in your head. 

A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago