Invaders From Mars (1986) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Do you believe your own eyes?

This remake of the 1953 film Invaders From Mars presents an updated adaptation that elevates the story from a B-movie plot to a modern special effects laden film. It doesn’t cut as deep as the original but offers up more horror elements in place of its lost thematic ones.

First Impressions

The trailer for this version of Invaders From Mars looks very much like its 1953 predecessor. A young boy thinks he sees a UFO landing over the hill. His father investigates and returns as some kind of a zombie as do others. The boy makes his way inside the spaceship and attempts to find a way to stop the monsters that are invading his town. The trailer also is sure to call out director Tobe Hooper, who is known for his horror films. How well does this version stand up to the original? Let’s find out.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Young David Gardiner (Hunter Carson) enjoys stargazing with his father George (Timothy Bottoms) and all things about space. One night after watching a meteor shower with his father, David is awakened by a clap of thunder and witnesses a UFO landing just over the rise of Copper Hill. His screams awaken his parents who don’t believe him, but his father decides to investigate. The next morning George wanders back into the house missing a slipper, acting strange, and with a strange mark on the back of his neck.

George doesn’t return home from his job at the local Marine base late which worries his wife Ellen (Laraine Newman) so she calls the police to investigate. After investigating Copper Hill they too begin acting strange. George shows up suddenly and takes her over the hill as well, changing her somehow. David becomes immensely concerned about what may be happening to them. At school, David walks in on the mean science teacher Mrs. McKeltch (Louise Fletcher) eating a live frog. He runs to the school nurse Linda Magnusson (Karen Black) for help, after confirming the back of her neck is fine.

Linda believes David that strange things are happening after talking to Mrs. McKeltch herself. David attempts to escape the school before he can be captured and is forced to hide in the teacher’s car. She drives to the sand pit at Copper Hill where David sees her enter an underground tunnel and report to some aliens in a ship. A small brain-looking Martian controls Mrs. McKeltch and two other large drones provide security as David escapes to warn Linda that aliens have control over his parents.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Two policemen are some of the first to be mind controlled. The Chief (right) is played by Jimmy Hunt, the child-star lead from the original 1953 version.

To avoid being found, Linda and David hide in the school’s boiler room. But when the two mind-controlled police officers arrive they are forced to flee. David is more concerned about the safety of his parents than leaving town. He asks Linda to take them to the Marine Base where David can talk to his Dad’s boss, General Wilson (James Karen). After confirming that the General and his aide Sgt. Major Rinaldi (Eric Pierpoint) are unaffected, David explains the problem.

The Martians use two of their brainwashed humans to blow up the rocket that is about to be launched at Mars. General Wilson mobilizes his troops to Copper Hill to kill the Martians before they can do more damage. At the sand pit Rinaldi falls into a hole and is taken by the aliens. David, still fretting about saving his parents, runs for one of the Martian tunnels. Linda tries to stop him and they are both captured. David pleads with the Martian leader to let his parents go. Mrs. McKeltch is eaten by one of the large drone Martians, as Linda is placed on a table to have the device implanted in her neck.

The General and his marines show up to save Linda and rescue David, setting bombs to destroy the ship. The still hypnotized George and Ellen chase after the group as they escape. The ship takes off but explodes before it can leave the area which shorts out the probes in David’s parents’ necks. David suddenly awakens from a dream by a clap of thunder. He  witnesses a UFO landing just over the rise of Copper Hill and he enters his parents room screaming.

Don’t worry, Son! We Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!” – General Wilson

Invaders from Mars (1986)

This image of Mrs. McKeltch eating a live frog is probably one of the most iconic scenes from this remake.

History in the Making

Invaders From Mars is a remake of the 1953 film of the same name. The original film was directed by production designer turned director William Cameron Menzies, while this remake was directed by master of horror Tobe Hooper. This was one of several films from the late 70s and early 80s that was a remake of a 1950s sci-fi film, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly and The Thing. However unlike these other titles, the revised Invaders From Mars only offers updated special effects and a modern incarnation of the story, rather than a reimagining of the original source material.

The film feels very much like the original version (reviewed here) but without much of the surrealism that I discussed in that article. Hooper’s version still is told from David’s standpoint, but it doesn’t feel as dreamlike.The moments come off a little more awkwardly as audiences wonder why this young boy is giving orders to a General, or being taken so seriously by the adults. Hooper does bring some of his horror background to bear on the film, having directed such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Funhouse, Poltergeist and Lifeforce. His ability to add some true scares and uneasy tension into the film makes a fun little upgrade to the original. But the lack of any new take on the subject matter makes Invaders From Mars seem a little more like a cheap imitation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film does have some nice homages to the original film, but the target audience for this film, at least during release, probably never knew there was an older version of the film at all.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

The officers shine their flashlight on a school prop, which also happens to be a model of the original Martian leader from the 1953 film.


As with some other early 80s films, like Strange Invaders or even to some extent The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Invaders From Mars harkens back to a different quality of motion picture. Since it is a remake of a 1953 film, it adheres to some of those original ideas of what a sci-fi film should be. In this case aliens, UFOs and ray guns (to an extent). The original version of the film was most certainly a B-movie. The aliens were men in unitards with greasepaint smeared on their faces and half a ping pong ball for eyes. This version had interesting new Martians that did not look like people in costumes, designed by Stan Winston, the special effects designer responsible for The Terminator and Starman, as well as the upcoming Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park and The Monster Squad. His designs incorporated people into costumes in a way that didn’t look like people in costumes. The large turkey looking Martian drones featured an actor facing backwards with a smaller actor strapped to their back to articulate the hands and mouth of the creature. And no longer was the main Martian a head with appliances glued on around it. Now it was a sculpted brain-like puppet-entity with fully articulated mouth and eyes.

Invaders From Mars makes the reason for the Martians invasion rather simple and trivial. They’re trying to stop a rocket from travelling to their home planet, staving off what they see as an invasion by Earth. Of course, one Martian ship hardly makes for an invasion, but with a cadre of possessed humans to carry out their schemes for them it gives them a little more menace. This alien possession is also a staple of retro sci-fi films, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers being the one that most people gravitate towards. While stories of humans that have been taken over by alien entities may have played on social anxieties of the era in which they were created, here it loses that dual sense of menace and works only as a horror element in which the protagonists cannot trust anyone that they meet.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

General Wilson and the two scientists from SETI listen to David and Linda, who bring them strange tales of Martian invasions.

Societal Commentary

What Invaders From Mars does communicate, that the original film intended as well, is to depict the fears and anxieties of childhood. This was probably an exciting and unsettling film for tweens and teens watching at the time. David’s plight as the protagonist speaks to fears that many children have of losing their parents. While those fears may not be rooted in Martian abduction, they still can cause sleepless nights and anxiety about never seeing them again. But the film also empowers those same children as it does David. He creates a plan and gets adults to listen to him. He is clever and leads a suitable force back to the Martian ship in order to destroy the invaders, and rescue his parents. He is not shown as weak, but willing to move on at any time. The character of Linda is the one that admits she’s scared, but not David. He is strong and charges into certain danger to rescue his parents. It’s through these scenes that Hooper wins over the younger viewers with an almost wish-fulfillment type of storyline, empowering this young boy to do amazing things. That is until in the final moments, the director pulls the rug out from under the audience by revealing the film was all a dream. And that dream is happening again outside in a very real way. David now has to live through the agony he’s already experienced again, and screams out in horror as the film freeze frames on his shocked face.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

The young scientist (Bud Cort) attempts to communicate with a Martian drone.

The Science in The Fiction

The Martians of the 1986 version are suitably more advanced than their 1953 counterparts, especially with the control rods they implant in the humans. These hat pin like devices, implanted in the necks of the humans allow the Martians to know things about the people and presumably control them like puppets. That would be the only reason that seems to make sense for some of the strange behavior that the people exhibit. George consumes burnt-black pieces of bacon and drinks scalding hot coffee, while Mrs. McKeltch eats a live frog. No other explanation other than Martians controlling these people and doing the things that Martians normally do makes sense for these actions.

This version also includes real-world groups such as NASA and SETI. While no real reason is given for the rocket launch to the red planet, the film depicts NASA working in conjunction with the Marines at their local base. A SETI scientist is one of the first humans to come face to face with one of the Martian drones. He is amazed at the chance for meeting extraterrestrial life, just before he is vaporized by a Martian laser weapon. While slightly humorous, it’s still a frightening realization that first contact might not be like it was in E.T. The use of these real-world organizations helps add a little more realism to the already strained reality of the film. Of course, NASA would be preparing a rocket launch. It makes sense for the 1980s to include these details. It also helps to play towards the idea that this may all be a dream, since the brightest minds on the planet are all overshadowed by a 10 year old boy.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

David is shocked by what he sees aboard the alien spacecraft.

The Final Frontier

Invaders From Mars pays homage to the original film in several subtle ways. Ways that don’t overtly announce that this film was a remake or anything, as none of them are super-obvious, except to the most ardent fan of the 1953 film. The police chief that comes to investigate George’s disappearance, and gets mind controlled to hunt for David, is played by Jimmy Hunt who played young David MacLean in the original film. This is a clever use of an actor from the original film in a role that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. When the Chief is looking for David and Linda in the school, the flashlight shines on a strange prop. It’s a model of the original lead Martian from the 1953 film, which is basically a head with some tentacles on it. Finally the name of the Elementary School is W.C. Menzies, named after the director of the 1953 version.

This version also features a real-life mother and son pairing with Karen Black and Hunter Carson. Their on-screen chemistry is probably a little different than reality as David is the character that appears more in control while Linda is often fearful and wanting to run away. All in all this remake stands on its own quite well. At the time I was unaware that it was based on a previous film. It presents an interesting tale that feels modern, with great, believable special effects that in no way feels like a 1950s sci-fi film. Tobe Hooper uses some of the horror elements that he has refined over the previous decade to make a not-too scary film that is probably more geared to entertaining middle school kids than captivating adults.

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