Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.
There are a number of reasons Richard Kelly might have chosen to set his 2009 head-scratcher The Box—a film I like more than most, though I’ll readily admit its flaws—in 1976. It could be that Kelly, having recreated the late-’80s Virginia of his teen years in Donnie Darko, decided to revisit the mid-’70s of his childhood. Or it could be that, wanting to recreate the paranoid spirit of the post-Watergate era, he decided to take his Richard Matheson adaptation back to the source of that spirit. But I think there’s another reason, too. The Box needs to be set in 1976 for the same reason King Kong—in both its original and Peter Jackson flavors—makes sense as a tale of the 1930s. Just as Kong takes place at the moment when exploration, colonization, and global warfare had filled in all but a few uncharted spots on the map, Kelly sets The Box at the point when the old mysteries of Mars—the planet figures prominently in the plot, though it would be unfair to say exactly how, for those who haven’t seen it—were being put to rest by the Viking space probes. Mars continued to stir imaginations, but the fantasy that our nearest planetary neighbor might be home to mysterious, intelligent aliens were chased away by all those photos of endless expanses of red dust. King Kong’s Skull Island and the Mars of The Box and are the last gasps of persistent cultural fantasies about the wild kingdoms waiting for us just a boat or rocket trip away.
But that Mars enjoyed a long, multifaceted life before fading into the realm of pure fantasy. In 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced the first maps of Mars and labeled some features “canali,” meaning “channels.” But the possibility of Martian-made canals captured the popular imagination, and as the 19th century drew to a close, Mars was in the ascendant. The popularity of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories confirmed Mars as the go-to planet for alien fantasies, be they of malevolent Martians (like Wells’), grand adventure (like Burroughs’), or some other variety. It was just too conveniently close not to stoke Earthlings’ daydreams.
Or our fever dreams. It spoils nothing to say the final moments of the 1953 science-fiction classic Invaders From Mars reveals the preceding action as (probably) the dream of its young protagonist David (played by Jimmy Hunt). The film already feels like a dream. Directed by William Cameron Menzies, Invaders unfolds like an instructive story for children gone horribly amok, one in which the hero always does the proper thing, only to see the crisis around him worsen. From his bedroom, David watches a strange craft land in a nearby field. When his scientist father (Leif Erickson) goes to investigate, he returns acting like a different man. Specifically, a cruel, cold man with a strange mark on the back of his neck.
Before long, David’s mother bears the same mark, and carries herself in the same unforgiving fashion. Knowing something’s wrong, David tries to do something about it, only to find that authority figures who haven’t already been turned by the aliens don’t believe him, until a pretty psychologist named Dr. Blake (Helena Carter) takes his side. Then things get worse: Though David wins the trust of key military figures, even they can’t stop the Martians from gaining a toehold. In the end, David is forced to descend into their underground lair, where he confronts the Martian leader—a humanoid head atop tentacles—and his dreaded mutant (or, as the film would have it, “mute-ant”) henchmen.
Maybe even with a director other than Menzies, Invaders From Mars would feel like it’s made of dream-stuff. But Menzies is one of the secret shapers of our collective imagination, even though he never became a household name. He worked as an art director, set decorator, director, and producer as part of a career that stretched from the silent age to the Technicolor era. Along the way, he made notable contributions to films like The Thief Of Baghdad, the bizarre Paramount adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, and The Bat (a major inspiration for Batman), and memorably adapted H.G. Wells’ Things To Come. By the time he shot the relatively low-budget Invaders From Mars, Menzies knew as much as anyone about pulling off startling effects using simple elements. Here, it’s less the bizarre Martians—as creepy as they are—that make the film effective, and more the cavernous, sparsely decorated police station or the view from David’s bedroom, where horrors await just over the horizon at the end of a pleasant-looking trail.
It’s a nightmare, and Menzies keeps it rooted in the stuff that makes kids restless at night. David struggles to understand not just the aliens, but also the workings of the grown-up world. The drama beneath all the Martian business comes from his fumbling attempt to navigate antagonistic parents and unreliable authority figures. It’s as much a film about growing up as about fending off an alien invasion, and the aliens’ moist, flesh-like hideout, or the way Menzies keeps framing David against the outline of Dr. Blake’s tight sweater, could make even the most casual Freudian’s head swim. (Even the military stock footage of the film’s finale reinforces the unreal sense: It’s what a boy would imagine the army’s response to an alien invasion would look like, cobbled together from war movies and old newsreel footage.) When the film was re-released in 1978, the posters billed it as “A nightmarish answer to The Wizard Of Oz.” That about sums it up.
Here, Mars is the source of the great unknown, and the origin of all the sinister things waiting just beyond the view of the bedroom windows of our childhood. Like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Invaders From Mars has been read as an allegory for the McCarthy-spurred Red Scare. I think, as informed as they are by the tenor of their times, both films have more going on than that. But there’s certainly no shortage of Red Scare-inspired science-fiction films, including the profoundly silly 1952 effort Red Planet Mars (incidentally, the directorial debut of another art-director-turned-director, Harry Horner, father of composer James Horner).
Peter Graves stars as Chris Cronyn, an astronomer who begins receiving signals from Mars via a miraculous invention known as “the hydrogen valve.” After he and his correspondents sort out how to talk to each other, Mars begins answering questions about its civilization. Martians, it seems, live for 300 Earth years and have advanced agricultural techniques that ensure food for everyone. Great news, right? Wrong. Because every new revelation about Mars sends Earth into a panic. “Pensions for 235 years!” one man says while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “Who’s going to pay them?” his companion replies. Who indeed? And that news about the abundance of food? It sends the food market into a tizzy. A scene from the floor of the Capitol leads one congressman to demand answers to the question that’s troubled everyone since news of life on Mars broke: “Is the government going to continue to support the price of potatoes?”
Before long, Western civilization edges toward collapse, Cronyn becomes stricken with guilt, and a pair of Russian agents working in concert with Franz Calder—the ex-Nazi inventor of the hydrogen valve, played by Herbert Berghof—look on gleefully. At least for a while. Then Mars starts getting kind of preachy, telling Earth: “Seven lifetimes ago, you were told to love goodness and hate evil.” See, Martians love Jesus. That news, in turn, creates a panic in the godless land of the Soviet Union, where citizens start digging up long-neglected icons of saints and worshipping openly, only to be machine-gunned by pitiless communists. But in time, even those nogoodniks are forced to see the error of their ways, and as they renounce Marx and Lenin and embrace God, a new era of peace on Earth appears to be at hand.
Just to back up for a second: All this is happening because one scientist claims to be communicating with Mars, a development the entire world takes at face value. In fact, the notion of doubt itself flies out the window. At first, Graves and others express reservations about releasing the religious message, including a cabinet member who tells America’s president (John Ford regular Willis Bouchey) “We can’t hitch our wagon to that star.” The president replies: “We’ve switched stars, Mr. Secretary. Now we’re following the Star Of Bethlehem.” It apparently occurs to no one that they might be on the receiving end of the biggest punking in history.
And they might be. Late in the film, Calder steps up and claims he’s responsible for the messages. The first round was designed to bring down capitalism, the second to bring down communism. And now that neither has worked, he plans to expose himself as the source of the messages and bring mass hysteria to the globe. Or maybe they aren’t being punked after all: Shortly before Calder blows up Cronyn and his hydrogen-valve-powered receiver, Mars sends one last message “Ye have done well, my good…” So, yes, that was God on the radio after all, though the president later explains that we won’t have the technology to talk to Him again anytime soon, for reasons the film never makes clear.
As ridiculous as Red Planet Mars is—and it’s at least enjoyably ridiculous—like Invaders From Mars, it comes from a time when Mars could be virtually anything: home to topless princesses, malicious invaders, God, you name it. By 1964, that started to change. In November of that year, NASA launched the Mariner 4, a spacecraft that later transmitted images of the planet back to Earth. A film released that June, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, reflected a soberer sort of Martian adventure. Stranded on the surface of Mars, astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and his monkey sidekick Mona must learn how to survive with meager resources. He learns to create a supply of oxygen from rocks, and discovers edible plants. Eventually, he meets another castaway, an alien from another planet fleeing the cruel masters who have enslaved him.
It would be a stretch to call Robinson Crusoe On Mars realistic (though it was marketed that way), but it is consistently believable on its own terms, monkey astronaut and all. Director Byron Haskin, working from a script by Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins, focuses on the mundane details of what it takes to survive on the Mars of the film. Unexpectedly running out of oxygen in the middle of the night, Draper wakes up in a panic, knowing that if he doesn’t find some air, it’s the end. Surviving that scare, he uses the elements at hand to construct a modestly comfortable life for himself. The inspiration comes from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and as anyone who’s made it even part of the way through that book can tell you, Defoe doesn’t spare the details, cataloging every aspect of his hero’s existence. Like its source, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is a fantasy rooted in the realm of possibility, imagining the step-by-step process needed to reach Mars and see for ourselves what was pure mystery even a few years before. By imagining it, we were halfway there already. But getting there meant losing the ballast of yesterday’s wonders.
Next: Tough women of the West, by reader request.