Invaders from Mars (1953) (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Dec 30, 2022
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Invaders from Mars (1953) (4K UHD Review)

Director

William Cameron Menzies

Release Date(s)

1953 (December 16, 2022)

Studio(s)

National Picture Corp/20th Century Fox (Ignite Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B
  • Overall Grade: A+

Review

Seventy years after it was first unleashed on the public, Invaders from Mars remains one of the most beguiling science fiction films ever made. There’s never been anything else quite like it, before or since—and that includes Tobe Hooper’s underrated remake from 1986. Paradoxically, it’s been profoundly influential, yet few filmmakers have ever even tried to imitate it. Its impact was more on a personal level in terms of how it affected those who saw it. Other science fiction and fantasy films of the Fifties and Sixties, such as The War of the Worlds and Jason and the Argonauts, inspired many young fans to become filmmakers or special effects technicians of their own. On the other hand, the primary thing that Invaders from Mars inspired was nightmares. Once it’s gotten under your skin, there’s no shaking it. Yet there’s also no simple explanation for why it works so well, which is one reason why no one else has ever really attempted to do something similar. It was born out of a perfect storm of circumstances, both good and bad, and it’s a rare case where the flaws actually enhance the experience of watching it. In a way, Invaders from Mars ended up being the ultimate fusion of craftsmanship and happenstance.

The chief architect of Invaders from Mars was the legendary production designer and director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies had previous experience in the genre with his 1936 film Things to Come, although post-production tinkering on that one meant that the final cut fell short of his original intentions. Invaders from Mars wouldn’t be free from its own share of post-production turbulence, but the nature of the story meant that any lapses in logic created during the final editorial process ended up enhancing the surreal atmosphere, rather than detracting from it. The story was envisioned by John Tucker Battle, based on a dream that his wife had experienced, and fleshed out into a screenplay by Richard Blake. David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) is a young boy with a passion for science and astronomy. One night during a storm, he witnesses what appears to be a flying saucer landing over the hill beyond his house, so he wakes up his parents (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke) to warn them. When they go to investigate, they come back changed into something sinister. David ends up running to the police and under the supervision of the alluring doctor Pat Blake (Helena Carter). The two of them team up together with a local astronomer (Arthur Franz) and enlist the help of the military to repel the invaders. Yet once they seem to have gotten the upper hand, the rug ends up being pulled out from under David’s feet.

Menzies brought all of his skills to bear in envisioning this story for the screen, creating unforgettably distorted sets for his actors, and incorporating a stylized color scheme into both the production design and the cinematography. Everything that happens during Invaders from Mars is visualized from David’s perspective, regardless of whether or not he’s actually present during a scene. It’s all interpreted through the lens of his juvenile imagination. As the narrative progresses, David becomes increasingly disoriented by his experiences, and that’s where the film takes a leap beyond what even Menzies may have originally intended.

Invaders from Mars was running short for a feature film, so producer Edward L. Alperson had stock footage of military forces cut into it, and many other shots were repeated to pad things out—sometimes optically flopped to make them look a little different, sometimes not. Other shots were extended for no valid dramatic reason. Whether intentional or not, the repetition and elongation create jagged rhythms that keep viewers off kilter, mirroring David’s own disorientation. All of that comes to a head during the finale, where the editorial process takes a genuine leap into territory unlike any other science fiction film from the era. It’s a sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Lynch film, with dream logic overtaking any semblance of narrative coherence, as David’s life unwinds before his very eyes. It’s The War of the Worlds meets Lost Highway, or maybe Mulholland Drive.

The most intriguing thing about Invaders from Mars is the way that it straddles a line between childhood nightmares and juvenile fantasy. For all of the very real nightmares that it may have generated among those who originally saw it as children, much of the film actually qualifies as wish fulfillment. Young people often have to face the frustration of being dismissed by adults who don’t take their concerns seriously, but most of the adults in David’s life recognize him as being an intelligent, level-headed young lad. Not only don’t they dismiss his wild stories about flying saucers, but they also allow him to be an active participant in planning the fight against the invaders. They even rely on him to figure out how to operate the alien weaponry. However nightmarish that the Martians may be, David is really living the dream for most of the film; he’s respected, appreciated, and most importantly, adults listen to him. That’s why the dissolution of the conclusion has such resonance. It’s not that David is being plunged back into the nightmare of a Martian invasion, but rather that he’s being returned to the harsh reality where children’s feelings are taken for granted, and their fears are quickly dismissed. That’s why the altered sound effect in the final shot is so crucial. While it may imply that David is imagining what he’s seeing, the real significance is that it indicates the fact that adults aren’t going to believe him anymore, one way or the other. The dream is over.

Cinematographer John Seitz shot Invaders from Mars on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1. While it was photographed on Eastman Color 5248 stock, release prints were produced using the three-color SuperCinecolor process. SuperCinecolor pulled three different black-and-white separation master positives off of the original camera negative, then used those to create a Y-C-M dupe negative for printing. That fact caused headaches for restoration supervisor Scott McQueen when creating this new 4K version. Since the OCN was never used for printing, the titles and any other optical work such as dissolves were cut into the dupe negatives only, and those no longer exist. Worse, when an extended version was created for foreign distribution, the original negative was recut and spliced. This incomplete camera negative was still the primary source for the restoration, but it had to be supplemented with material from three different SuperCinecolor prints, as well as one Eastman Color 5381 print. All of these sources had varying degrees of damage and fading that needed to be cleaned up and corrected before a new color grade could be applied by Greg Garvin, including the High Dynamic Range grade in HDR10 for this edition.

While the material added for the foreign versions was restored separately by Greg Kimble (in 2K), the intention was to re-create the original domestic theatrical version of Invaders from Mars as accurately as possible in 4K resolution. The only area where McQueen and his team arguably deviated slightly is in regards to the color timing of the original release prints, but that’s a defensible choice. The SuperCinecolor process didn’t always produce prints with accurate color, and no two prints were exactly alike, either. As a result, they used the original negative as the touchstone for the new color grading, rather than any of the prints. This isn’t necessarily the way that Invaders from Mars would have looked to audiences in 1953, but it’s the way that it should have looked if a better printing process had been utilized at the time. Considering the inconsistent results that SuperCinecolor provided, this was really the only logical choice for how to handle the timing for the restoration.

The proof is in the pudding, and all of the hard work by McQueen’s team has resulted in a tasty confection indeed. While the necessity of using a variety of sources means that this restoration isn’t quite perfect, it’s still a revelation compared to any and all previous versions of Invaders from Mars. The shots taken from lesser elements are recognizable as such, but they don’t stand out much more so than other films from the era that used dupe footage for opticals—in fact, they’re arguably a bit less obtrusive than in a genuinely problematic film like Giant. There’s a moderately heavy layer of grain throughout, regardless of source, and that does tend to obscure fine detail somewhat. There really isn’t 4K worth of actual detail visible here, but the grain management alone still makes the jump to 4K worthwhile. Thankfully, that grain has been left intact despite the extensive cleanup that had to be performed, which means that every last bit of detail that’s actually visible has been left alone. Just as importantly, decades worth of faded and inaccurately colored prints have been swept away, and the stylized color scheme designed by Menzies and Seitz can now be experienced like never before. The night scenes have a properly blue-tinged look to them, and the greens glow brilliantly in the interiors of the Martian ship, making the blazing reds of their ray guns even more intense. Even the burnished bronze of the Martian Intelligence stands out more than in previous versions. Menzies wanted some of the sequences to have a more monochromatic look, and those are also reproduced beautifully here with deep blacks and the kind of dazzling whites that could only be created on color stock. Given the erratic nature of the SuperCinecolor printing process, it’s safe to say that Invaders from Mars has never looked as good as it does now, so kudos to Scott McQueen and the talented group of artists and technicians who brought the film back to such vivid life.

Audio is offered in English and Spanish 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Korean subtitles. The primary sources for the audio were the optical tracks on the three SuperCinecolor prints, each of which had varying levels of damage. The final restoration combines the best sections of each. The careful cleanup work by audio engineer Greg Faust means that noise, distortion, and other artifacts are at a minimum, while the full spectrum of the frequency response has been retained—within the limitations of what the original optical audio tracks would allow, of course. There’s not much in the way of low end, but there’s still a bit of dynamics to some of the sound effects, such as the thunder at the beginning of the film. Clarity is excellent, with the dialogue never sounds muffled or compressed. There’s perhaps just a bit of distortion left in some of the loudest peaks of the wonderfully eerie score, but that’s about the only flaw in the audio presentation, and most people probably won’t even notice. (As an aside, while the music is credited to Raoul Krauschaar, it’s generally acknowledged these days as actually being written by an uncredited Mort Glickman.)

The Ignite Films 4K Ultra HD release of Invaders from Mars includes a slipcover and a 24-page booklet featuring detailed restoration notes by Scott McQueen. (All of the preceding information was derived from McQueen’s notes, but any errors in parsing them for this review are entirely my own.) There was also a Limited Edition version that included a poster signed by Jimmy Hunt, but that’s sold out at this point. Note that it’s UHD only—Ignite opted to release a Blu-ray edition separately, rather than including both as a combo pack. They partnered with Arrow Films on the project, with the latter handling U.K. distribution. The menus were clearly designed by Arrow, so it’s possible that the discs will be identical on either side of the pond, just with different packaging. The following extras are included:

  • William Cameron Menzies: The Architect of Dreams (HD – 16:26)
  • Jimmy Hunt Saves the Planet (HD – 10:30)
  • Terror from Above (HD – 22:24)
  • Restoring the Invasion (HD – 6:50)
  • TCM Festival Intro (HD – 7:02)
  • European Observatory Sequence (HD – 8:51)
  • European Ending (HD – 2:52)
  • Theatrical Trailer (4K/SDR – 2:10)
  • Re-Release Trailer (HD – 2:17)
  • Image Gallery (HD – 37 in all)

The Architect of Dreams features James Curtis, author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Things to Come, as well as a brief appearance by Menzies’ granddaughter Pamela Lauesen. Curtis provides some biographical information about Menzies, including his path to becoming a director, and also gives an overview of the production of Invaders from Mars. Lauesen steps in during the last few minutes to offer a few memories of her grandfather. Jimmy Hunt Saves the Planet is a lively interview with Hunt, who is as energetic and enthusiastic as ever, even in his Eighties. He describes Invaders from Mars as the highlight of his career, shares his own memories of the cast and crew, and then explains why he ended up quitting the business at such a young age. Terror from Above is a featurette on the cinematic and cultural impact of Invaders from Mars, including interviews with Joe Dante, John Landis, Mark Goldblatt, Bob Skotak, and Scott McQueen. Dante describes it as a Lewis Carroll child’s eye view of a science fiction film. They all share their childhood experiences of seeing it for the first time, and also discuss the cold war implications of the story, especially in light of the body snatcher themes. Restoring the Invasion is a look at the restoration process, with Scott McQueen showing examples of the raw scans from the different sources, compared to the corrected versions. The TCM Festival Intro features John Sayles introducing the restored version of the film for the Turner Classic Movie Festival in April of 2022.

The European Observatory Sequence and the European Ending were both shot months after the domestic release of Invaders from Mars, as a way of padding out the film and softening the conclusion for foreign distribution. Menzies wasn’t involved in the post-production work for the domestic version, let alone this later foreign one, so the scenes were actually filmed by former child actor Wesley Barry (who would go on a few years later to direct the flawed but fascinating Creation of the Humanoids, another science fiction film in desperate need of restoration and rediscovery). The footage intercuts poorly, as Hunt was visibly older, with a different haircut, and neither the sets nor the costuming match the original production. The observatory scene also bogs down the overall pacing of the film, and the revised ending destroys its themes. Needless to say, Invaders from Mars is better off without this material, but it’s still fantastic that it was restored for this release as a bonus, since it remains an important historical document.

While it’s not the most extensive collection of extras, they’re all interesting in their own ways, and McQueen’s essay in the booklet is worth its weight in gold. Of course, the real star of the show is the restoration itself. Even if you’ve watched Invaders from Mars multiple times, you’ve probably never really seen it at all. This isn’t merely a restoration; it’s a revelation, and that’s not an exaggeration. Is it perfect? No, but it still gets the highest possible recommendation. Buy this disc. Save your pennies first if you need to, but just buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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