The Sleeper Must Awaken: Invaders From Mars As Sci-Fi Dreaming

By Roderick Heath

Yeah, look, we all hate it when a movie or TV show reveals it was all a dream, or something of the like. Why did we just sit through a story, experience its twists and turns, its lush and deceitful temptations, just to have them turn out to be phony? That might go double for all the post-modern variations on this sort of thing. The unreliable narrators, the choose-our-own-adventure endings. We’ve all groaned at some of those.

The irony of course is that all movies are impersonating dreams in some form or another. Dreams we agree to surrender for as long as they last, or maybe a bit less. Some of them play more intricate games with us. We tend to be more forgiving towards movies in the fantastic film genres that indulge this, because those kinds of movies already inhabit an aesthetic that taps the dreamlike. That’s most obviously true of horror movies. The twisted, expressionist environs used to describe the fantasy world of psychosis in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), or the more deceptively realistic approach shading into oneiric freakery of Repulsion (1965). The infamous, highly influential twist of Dead of Night (1945) sees the film begin with a man awakening from an ominous dream, and setting about his day’s business. This brings him full circle to awakening from the dream and setting out yet again, in what seems a perpetually closed loop, with particularly nightmarish anxiety encoded in its inferences, as if the film has reconnoitered what it feels to go insane.

Science fiction also often visits this territory. Georges Méliès, in one of the first cinematic sci-fi stories, An Astronomer’s Dream (1899), depicted a medieval astronomer falling asleep and conjuring visions of menace and tantalizing beauty in the stars. The ending of Inception (2010) hints at a similar, perpetual entrapment within layers of dreaming to Dead of Night, reality lost for its heroes who compensate for the agonies of life by constructing their own. In sci-fi the idea of dreaming is often inverted in meaning, offering a state of illusion or false safety we must, sooner or later, emerge from. Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) begin with characters awakening from the profound amniosis of suspended animation, delivered into terrifying situations, and the safety of sleep must be bought by clearing away all the monsters circling the campfires. A motif turned back on itself in the most vicious humor in Alien: Covenant (2017) when the nominal heroine is locked in her hypersleep tube and anaesthetized into oblivion by a malevolent cyborg. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 murders three astronauts in cryogenic sleep, exploiting our fear of helplessness in dormancy. 

Blade Runner (1982) enfolds the viewer within a way of seeing and feeling that seems very like a dream with its mix of plaintive nostalgia and future shock. Hero Rick Deckard is repeatedly caught in the sonorous space between sleeping and waking, seeking refuge from a present that’s a maddening jumble of the inhumanly modern and the decaying past, and finding even salving memories might be illusory. The soothsaying telepaths of Minority Report (2002) only snap out of their sleep, which they subsist in because it’s too awful for them to be awake, long enough to gasp out the word “Murder!” Neo and the other heroes of The Matrix films must hack their way, literally and figuratively, out of their perpetual dream state to obtain the necessary but cold and cheerless truth of their existence. Paul Atreides’ ascension to becoming the Kwisatz Haderach in David Lynch’s Dune is foreshadowed by his father’s sage axiom, “The sleeper must awaken.” He’s talking about the need for travel, for movement, to stir new capacities in us, but also anticipating his son bursting out of the merely physical shell to engage the universe on its subliminal wavelengths. The craggy alien landscapes of Star Trek and Doctor Who and monumental spaces and machines of Star Wars, all graze the feel of places glimpsed deep in some Jungian space in the roots of our consciousness.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars offers a singular variation on the tradition of sci-fi dream vision. It’s a more literal take on the idea than some above, closer indeed to a horror movie in its approach. At least, if you’ve watched the right version. The film’s alternative British cut excised the original ending, which saw Menzies offer his own tip of the hat to Dead of Night’s haunting sting. Menzies’ protagonist, young David (Jimmy Hunt), awakens during a thunderstorm in the early hours of the morning, and sees an eerily glowing flying saucer descend from the flashing night sky. The craft itself in a sandpit close to his house, kicking off a strange and troubling adventure. At the end, David awakens, seemingly delivered from the awful events he’s conjured, only to once again see the saucer making its descent. Menzies more or less couches this as a joke – David murmurs, by way of an anxious punch-line, “Gee whiz!” – but the implications ripple wide. Did David have a premonition of the craft’s arrival? Will it herald a repeat of the events experienced? Can he head off the events he’s dreamed of? Or will something else entirely transpire?  Tobe Hooper would carry this over, with a darker, more threatening and abrupt take, in his 1986 remake.

The drama in between these two visitations presents a metaphorically loaded exploration of a child’s impressions of the world, and the anxieties that spring from them. All that happens after the UFO’s landing reflects David’s world back to him in distorted and fractured shapes, littered with threats and transformed iconography, including people. When he glimpses the saucer, David alerts his cheerful, encouraging scientist father George MacLean (Leif Erickson). George goes up to inspect the sandpit, and returns in the morning markedly changed. He’s now cold, brutal, and tyrannical, slapping his son in the face as punishment for his transgressions. Soon his mother (Hillary Brooke) is suborned to the strange influence too, as are policemen and neighbors in their town, which adjoins a rocketry research facility. Another child, Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau), becomes a blankly malevolent arsonist. David knows the mark that gives away the possessed, the x-shaped scar on the back of the neck, stigmata for an insidious influence. 

His initial act of witnessing, glimpsing a phenomenon that ruptures the shape of his reality, commences David’s ordeal. That ordeal is illustrated in visual language that often hints at the surreal, whilst identifying that surrealism with the incongruity of being a child in an adult’s world. The environs of a police station are subtly outsized and distorted, touched with hints of bygone expressionist style, a place of nominal refuge turned alienating and intimidating. David’s parents, controlled by the aliens, become stern and hostile, all hint of love and rapport replaced by a harsh and domineering evasiveness. Authority figures conspire to silence and intimidate. When the thralls of the alien influence have served their purpose, they drop dead, from what proves to be a tiny explosive attached to the control devices planted in their necks. The boy is faced with the conspiracy of a world that has no reason to believe what he says and many motives not to, until a pure, unpredictable act of intuition tells someone attentive that he’s not lying. 

David’s nemesis, much more than the aliens, is this incredulity. Despite being called even at his age the “pretty realistic fella” rather than just any old imaginative brat, David still finds himself up against the adult tendency to dismiss what kids say as the result of reckless invention. That tendency often reveals the insecurity and transgressions of the adults themselves, so often frustrated by the intransigence and awareness of kids. Settings and sights are charged with totemic meaning and instability redolent of intense childish imagination applied to mundane things, particularly the fringe of the sandpit with the buckled, broken fencing that’s the scene of disappearances, where people are pulled down into the earth amidst whirlpools of sand and shimmering chorales. Like Méliès’ dreaming astronomer David draws down from the skies the essence of his interior fantasizing, as a kid fascinated by the motions of the stars. The landscape of his yearnings, in a generational refrain common in 1950s movie sci-fi, is already tilted skywards. 

David’s experience bears a multiplicity of interpretation. He’s every child who lay in bed at night after listening to news reports about nuclear war and UFOs, jets and rockets and city-leveling bombs, the paraphernalia of the post-war age, and felt the alarm and thrill of such strangeness and being born as a citizen of that protean time. He’s an abused child, desperately seeking attention and belief. In the dream space, at least, he isn’t defenseless. The gone-bad parents are quickly replaced by two idealised reflections, in the form of psychologist Dr Patricia Blake (Helena Carter) and the astronomer Dr Stuart Kelson (Arthur Franz), who could represent a child’s fascination for who their parents were when they were younger. Both also, quickly vote David their faith and backing. Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) presents a grandfatherly mixture of indulgence and gravitas as he brings the ultimate form of paternal authority, the United States army, to bear on the alien trespassers.

David’s personal fears connect with communal dreads. The invaders can be seen as a purposefully naïve transmutation of the Red scare of the early 1950s, mixed with the formless angst of the atomic age. The invaders honeycomb the earth, launch conspiracies, develop an army of minions, saboteurs, and sentinels, and try to destroy the American space mission before it can get off the ground. Another Red Scare epic of 1953, Invasion USA, delivered a very similar it-was-all-a-dream kicker, as a fairground magician mesmerizes a gang of indolent barflies into contemplating what will happen to them if “the enemy” comes swarming in. The grown-ups’ version of the same story. Fear of invading Commies itself is only a vessel for another, even larger fear, of modernity itself, of living amidst the punch-drunk mood of a world staring down the barrel of its own genius. Ascension to the stars and atomic apocalypse both loom as immediate possibilities. Only the most essential human structures from the family unit up present any form of bulwark to such insecurity, and those are the ones “the enemy” will target first. 

Fortunately David and his younger, better-looking parental stand-ins manage to call in the cavalry, in the form of stock footage tanks rolling out relentlessly, as if about to re-invade Tarawa, big daddy authority at its most cheerfully potent. Once penetrated by the soldiers, the interiors of the Martian spaceship prove a senseless cortex of curving, polished surfaces, perversely placed portals, and corkscrewing, body-penetrating devices descending on the comely female. All is captained by a bulbous head with tentacles housed in a glass ball, “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence,” human without humanity. Immobile, emotionless, surrounded by baggy-suited mutants and controlled humans, the Martian controller is the malevolent core of David’s dream and also his antithesis in the fantasy he animates. As the heroes flee the spaceship having rigged up explosives on a timer to blow the ship to pieces, David experiences time itself stretching and reversing. Menzies fixes on David’s face as he runs, runs, runs but doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Events of the film reel through his mind, some run in reverse, other joined by oblique association. All the while the clock on the explosives ticks down ever more slowly and the spaceship slowly breaches the ground, its greenish glow declaring the emergence of something unearthly. 

Menzies here captures exactly the churning, frustrating, panicky feeling of trying to escape something in a dream, pushing against an invisible force that won’t let go. The explosion of the spaceship finally allows David to awaken, released from his fantasy, the claps of thunder outside blending with the blasts of shells and the destruction of the alien craft. All’s right with the world – his parents are his parents again, in bed, laughing at his story. Only for that glowing machine to come down from the sky again and sink once more into the sandpit. David’s first discovery of imminent maturity is that some things are never quite defeated, the things that scare you never entirely quelled. But perhaps next time around you’re different. A little older, a little more ready. Which ultimately returns Invaders From Mars more squarely to the realm of sci-fi, where dreams are the rough draft of the future.