It’s not only the invaders that are strange.
Strange Invaders is an apparent attempt to be a throwback to the alien invasion genre of sci-fi films from the 1950s, but told using modern special effects. What results is a bizarre mishmash of possibilities for a bunch of characters that the audience doesn’t really care about.
The trailer tells of “strange invaders” that arrived 25 years ago in a small Illinois town, and are now ready to return home. It has the vibes of a 1950s sci-fi film, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. How scary or exciting is this film? Hard to tell from the trailer, but there is some creepiness in certain characters. Let’s open the vault to take a look at this one.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film opens in Centerville, Illinois, 1958, where the only things to fear were communism and rock and roll (so says the opening crawl). An alien spacecraft is shown flying above the town. A boy and a girl that were out “necking” are abducted. Cut to 25 years later at Columbia University in New York City, where Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) is teaching his entomology class. His ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) drops off their young daughter Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert), saying she has to return home suddenly to Centerville, Ill. When Charles can’t reach Margaret for several days, he leaves Elizabeth with his mother (June Lockhart) and drives to Centerville himself.
Charles checks into a boarding house and looks around the apparently deserted town. The manager, Mr. Newman (Ken Tobey), does something to Charles’ dog, which Charles can somehow hear from blocks away. He leaves the church he’s looking at (with a mysterious blue light inside), and drives around looking for his dog when his car gives out. He has some coffee in a diner while it is getting repaired, but suddenly it explodes so he steals another vehicle to escape town. His replacement car is struck by some sort of lightning emitted by an alien on the side of the road, causing parts of the car to fly off. He is stopped by a cop down the road.
A number of the stiff and 1950s looking townsfolk arrive in New York, checking into the Hilton. A female visitor (Fiona Lewis) uses a mind power to open the hotel room door, but another man shows her how to use the key. He orders room service, and then steps into the bathroom to peel his skin off, revealing a bug-eyed alien. He surprises a maid, who happens to have barged in with the waiter, and she screams at the alien confronting her. Charles flies home to find his apartment trashed, and visits with a colleague, Dr. Hollister (Charles Lane), who provides the number for a woman he knows that takes reports of UFOs. Charles meets with Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher), who teases him a bit about what he thinks he saw.
On the way home he sees a tabloid newspaper with a picture of the same alien he encountered. He meets with the writer, Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), who informs him she made it all up using a file photo they had received at one point with a letter. The female visitor, seen earlier, visits Betty’s apartment but kills her superintendent Earl (Wallace Shawn) instead. Charles returns to the paper that evening, which Betty has also returned to, and the pair go out for drinks, dinner, and kissing. Margaret finds them in Charles’ apartment and obliquely confesses that she is also an alien and he must protect Elizabeth until 9pm Sunday.
The female visitor comes for Betty, who she shoots with her gun. Charles and Betty escape another group of visitors by fleeing with Mrs. Benjamin, who explains that she works with the government and has made arrangements with the visitors in exchange for “certain advantages.” A group of men steal Elizabeth from her grandmother’s house, so Charles and Betty follow them to Illinois by train. Betty has found the letter that came with the photos and that leads them to a mental asylum, and Willie Collins (Michael Lerner) recounts how his family were killed (or at least turned into glowing blue balls of light) by the aliens.
Charles and Betty sneak into town and try to get Elizabeth back, but are captured. They are taken under the church into some secret tunnels where the alien leader informs the townsfolk by hologram that they will have a guest returning with them. Betty escapes with Elizabeth, but is killed along with Willie by Mr. Newman. The townsfolk all board the flying saucer that has returned. Margaret can’t stand to see her daughter taken by these creatures, so she lashes out with her lightning powers and instructs Elizabeth to do the same. Charles and Elizabeth escape as the ship departs. The blue orbs containing everyone “killed” flow out of the church and reconstitute everyone, including Betty and Charles’ dog. They walk off into the night.
“Aliens are passé” – Betty Walker
History in the Making
Regardless of the quote above, which is probably meant to be ironic even at the time, aliens and science-fiction was at an all time high in 1983. Strange Invaders fits into that trend in a weird way. It starts in the mid-50s in a small midwestern town, evoking the historic Americana of yesteryear. Suddenly two spaceships appear in the sky creating a scene out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but 25 years in the past. What appears to be an alien invasion film created as a period piece suddenly jumps into the present day destroying the potential for what could have been a much more clever picture.
It seems like an interesting premise on the surface. Aliens invade a small town in the past, taking it over, only to be found out in the present while needing to return to their planet. There could have been many other things that the story could have explored in order to make an interesting mystery, or tie the aliens into some deeper mystery. But instead, Strange Invaders feels like a lazy sleepwalk through a muddled story, rather than a chilling alien horror film that it was obviously trying to reference. The filmmakers somehow create boring characters that don’t really seem interested in the mystery of what is happening in Centerville. They are only moving through the paces, being dragged from plot point to plot point by the gaze of the camera. Their disinterest or lack of surprise in the face of aliens being among them, or disappearing townspeople, translates to disinterest to the audience, which is a shame. There was much potential to tell an engaging, modern version of a 1950s sci-fi film.
Strange Invaders seems to want to reference some of the more notable alien sci-fi films from past decades. Opening the movie in 1958 helps to set that tone, but also aliens coming to a small town for nefarious purposes was a common trope among 1950s alien films. The film seems to reference two distinctly different films from the era in its portrayal of the town and the aliens. First is It Came from Outer Space (1953) about a race of aliens that crash outside a small Arizona town and use their abilities to replace and transform into the townsfolk as to remain undiscovered, but it doesn’t go completely unnoticed. The aliens behavior doesn’t come out quite exact, and suspicions are aroused. The other film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) which also deals with aliens landing outside a small town, this one in California, but their mission is to replace the humans with cloned doubles, made from alien seed pods, as part of their invasion strategy.
The aliens of Strange Invaders definitely seem to be more like the It Came From Outer Space aliens (at least in the end), as they eventually leave without harm befalling any of the humans. But until that end, they do seem to come off as more of a Body Snatcher-type alien, transforming the humans into glowing, blue spheres of energy. The difference between those films and Strange Invaders lies partially with the lack of sub-text prescribed to the aliens, and the overall way that the “invasion” is handled. An important theme from many of the better 50s sci-fi films was how humans could deal with the adversity of an alien invasion. Sometimes, it was a benign visitation and the characters learn to deal with meeting people different from themselves. Other times, the aliens come belligerently to conquer or enslave, and the humans must learn to put aside their petty differences and work together. Strange Invaders does neither of those things.
The film seems concerned with setting up a mystery, creating the threat of an alien invasion, but fumbles the explanation in the third act. Why did these aliens come and take over the town? They don’t seem to replace townsfolk. Instead they put them into storage and adopt a shape (or wear a human skin) to live as a human. The audience is told the aliens were here to “study…this planet and its people,” except that any person they seemed to come into contact with, they vaporized. Margaret’s character drifts from the program as she gets intimately involved with Charles (see also, I Married a Monster from Outer Space from 1958) and then is forced to return home with her hybrid daughter. The motivations, as little are they are, are weak and flimsy, falling apart at the slightest examination.
Since Strange Invaders attempts to invoke the nostalgia of the 50s alien invasion film, it would seem likely that they would also try to attempt to update some of its more subtle themes. From the context of the 1980s it would seem like an interesting opportunity to rework the themes of paranoia and fear that the original films did so well. Both It Came From Outer Space and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers dealt with themes of infiltration and paranoia that things were not what they seemed. Characters recognized that something was off-kilter, but the authorities would never believe them, until it was too late. These films also both dealt with the subtext of Communism, blacklisting, and a threat on the dissolution of the American way of life. Strange Invaders, strangely, doesn’t provide any of this. It does get a few points for invoking the government dealing with the invasion in secret, but in this case the government is in cahoots with the aliens in order to get, presumably, technology–continuing the threat of big government or corporations in the sci-fi films of the 80s.
There is an attempt at the paranoia aspect, as Paul LeMat’s character tries to explain to Nancy Allen that aliens have taken over a small town. She mocks him, calls in her editor and makes Charles repeat the wild accusation. But instead of this coming off as concerning and urgent, as with Kevin McCarthy’s portrayal in Body Snatchers, LeMat seems almost nonchalant about whether he is believed or not. It seems as if the filmmakers might have been going for a satire at this point, but it’s hard to tell. If it is, they didn’t go far enough. There’s certainly no deeper thematic undertones to the story of the alien visitation. No reflection on the human condition from an outsider’s perspective, unless you count the hysterical mother trying to protect her child (who, coincidentally has powers that are untold, and used as a deus ex machina moment to save everyone). Coincidentally, this is the second sci-fi property of the early 80s where a human/alien hybrid, named Elizabeth uses her powers to repel alien invaders, after V: The final Battle.
If Strange Invaders is not a satirical 80s look back at the simplistic notions of alien invasions from the 50s, then perhaps it is more of an homage; a respectful tribute to the days gone by. But that doesn’t seem to be the case either. The film seems to subvert the classic tropes of those films as soon as they appear. When Nancy Allen’s character thinks she’s in trouble, after noticing some strange people hanging around watching her, she runs. A classic trope of woman in trouble. But being an 80s film (and being she lives in New York City) she has a gun, and kills the alien chasing her. An interesting opportunity for further exploration, but instead, she now becomes a believer in the stories Charles has been spouting and continues the rest of the film by following him about. With some of the strange dialogue and motivations, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was 10-15 minutes of footage that was excised from the film for one reason or another.
The Science in The Fiction
One of the bigger tropes of the older sci-fi films is placing a character in the ensemble whose job and skill-set is somehow tied to the mysteries of the alien invasion. Their knowledge becomes paramount for helping to solve the problem. Such as Gene Berry’s character in The War of the Worlds (1953) being an atomic scientist, who uses his skills to attempt to repulse the invaders. Here, Charles is repeatedly referenced as an entomologist, who has a good knowledge of bugs, and is a professor at Columbia University. His opening speech to his class about insects was that “we’re going to meet some creatures who do things you’ve never dreamed possible,” which certainly makes it seem as if he has an important role to play with the aliens. They’ll be some kind of insect that he can understand and know how to stop, for example. Nope. After all the teases and setup, there’s no payoff to this particular avenue. In fact none of the characters actually do anything in the film except move to places where the action unfolds.
There’s also no further exploration of the reason the aliens waited 25 years to return, setting their departure to 9pm on a Sunday, if Margaret’s warnings are to be believed. Their leader, who the audience sees speaking to them in a holographic message, talks of their mission to study the planet but there’s no evidence of that, even in one little scene, other than Margaret leaving the group to marry Charles. She is shunned and cast out (or at least self-exiles) for going against the group, when she seems to be the only one fulfilling their mission. Obviously the aliens are technologically advanced to build interstellar ships, create spheres to house the consciousness of the humans, and wear skins that make them resemble people, but there’s no real purpose to any of these fantastic feats. The premise just fails on closer inspection.
The Final Frontier
Strange Invaders seems like it has the possibility of being so much more, but is too fractured and poorly assembled to be a cohesive story. Characters’ motivations are lacking, the audience lacks empathy for the leads, and the aliens have no real exciting elements about them. In fact the special effects, including the creature effects for the aliens, are probably the best aspects of the film. They were developed by Chris Walas, who would get much acclaim for his creature effects in Gremlins and the 1986 remake of The Fly, among other films.
The film also makes an attempt to channel the previous era through the casting of several notable actors from the time. Most notably is the “stunt casting” of June Lockhart as Charles’ mother, and Mark Goddard as the police detective that investigates the murder at Betty’s apartment. These two actors were famous for being on the 1960s show Lost In Space, about a family that has spaceship trouble and is constantly stranded on various planets. Additionally, actor Kenneth Tobey, who plays the leader of the aliens in Centerville, and the boarding house manager, was famous for his roles in The Thing from Another World and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, two examples of classic invasion films.
It would take a couple years, but a better reimagining of the 1950s sci-fi alien film would appear with 1986s remake of Invaders From Mars. That film along with others would touch on the 50s aesthetic in ways that were more believable and entertaining than Strange Invaders.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.