Horror In The Cold War Era: INVADERS FROM MARS At 70

With a 4K facelift!

By Soham Gadre · @SohamGadre · June 6, 2023, 7:08 PM EDT
Invaders from Mars 1953

With its 70th anniversary this year, Invaders from Mars is anything but antiquated. The independently funded and visually stunning production remains eye-popping in its use of color and expansively painted sets. Even more relevant and revelatory are its reflections on American life and fears during the time of its production. Born into and through an American political landscape gripped with anxiety over the possibilities of nuclear destruction, William Cameron Menzies' science fiction classic capitalizes, reflects, and sometimes reinforces these fears directly through genre tropes and traditions. The early 1950s were a time that embodied Winston Churchill's claim following World War II that America was "at the summit of the world." Economic prosperity and the birth of a new stabilizing infrastructure in the form of the "suburbs" planted the seeds of fear and alienation that would define the future of American social and political thought through the Cold War era.

Invaders centers on an idealistic nuclear family comprised of husband and wife George and Mary MacLean and their young son David, in a quaint suburban town that becomes the target of an alien invasion. The premise is pretty familiar and can even be considered cliché by modern standards. But this was a pioneering film in establishing those clichés. It's not hard to understand why the breadth of science fiction in Hollywood often landed on the suburban town as the choice destination for aliens. Small quiet towns were the hallmark of the post-war American ideal. They are still used today, at least in political messaging, as the gold standard for defining the 'values and traditions' of what 'real' America stands for, contrasted to the cities or rural plains and hills that are always defined as dangerous and lawless.


It feels like we're seeing a major rise today in political horror and science-fiction, from Jordan Peele's Get Out and Us to The Purge franchise and A Quiet Place to Nia DaCosta's Candyman remake but, that only seems to be the case because we are more openly thinking about how cinema reflects our societal concerns. Invaders is an exhibit of how genre cinema has always reflected the 'state of the nation,' so to speak. Since then, many classic horror and sci-fi films used entertaining genre thrills to metaphorize underlying political and social messaging. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead came to distill the racial and political tensions brewing in the 1960s; John Carpenter's The Thing reflected the re-heightened "red scare" and nihilistic outlook of the economically grief-stricken Reagan Era. In many senses, Invaders from Mars represents a good contrasting marker against Carpenter's masterpiece for outlining the differences in America's feelings towards the Cold War during the '50s vs. the '80s. Invaders takes a much more hopeful and novelistic approach that was still viable in the early stages of the conflict and at a time when the economy hadn't completely tanked.


In the film's suburban town, David witnesses a flying saucer land in a nearby open field. His parents at first don't believe him, but his father goes to check anyway. The sand beneath his feet opens and swallows him whole. Interestingly, the people who fall through this hole return almost the same as they were, save for their personalities. They go from openly loving and courteous to austere and outright rude. The symbolic contrast of these personalities matched the general tenor of how American culture saw itself compared to Soviet culture. The use of extensive military sequences featuring tanks and armored vehicles with patriotic music in the background reflected a universally optimistic view of America's role as victors following World War II and a sense that there was no problem or threat the United States couldn't solve.

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What is immediately striking about the film is its use of color, combining Eastmancolor negatives with a "SuperCinecolor" print overlay that gives it a uniquely vibrant pallet. Its unmistakably bold colors, promoted prominently on the poster and utilized in the fantastic opening credits, are part of a visual palette that is hardly seen in science-fiction cinema today. It gives the movie a solid pop, a fittingly off-kilter and otherworldly feel to its quaint suburban locale. With the lack of special effects, the set design utilizes color and hand-painted designs quite well. The aliens' costumes offer a practical-effect novelty that has become in vogue in response to the tiring use of CGI in today's genre cinema. The boiling and bubbling from the Martians' red lasers was achieved by filming a large tub of hot oatmeal and red food dye. The framing of characters in wide expanses within the laboratories and the Martians' underground saucer gave the movie an epic scope despite the limited budget.

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Invaders from Mars was one of the first alien invasion movies released in color. The movie was reportedly rushed into production to beat the competing War of the Worlds adaptation slated for the same year. In an ironic twist, this sort of race to be first mirrored many elements of America's drive to beat the Russians in the space race to the moon more than a decade later. The idea of being first or of asserting a level of power and, in turn, a paranoia over one's own survival is a central element of astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston's (Arthur Franz) theory for why the Martians attack – to stop a rocket that the American army is planning on launching. The rocket is part of a project to build intergalactic space stations with weaponry that, once established, could wipe out any other country that dared threaten us. What's interesting is how the American characters interchangeably consider the threat of Martians vs. Americans and Martians vs. Humans. It's another way the movie shows the cultural understanding in the '50s that America was at "the summit of the world" and, thus, its leading protector.

Menzies' film's legacy remains a visually striking pioneer of genre tropes in science-fiction. But it also represents the history of science-fiction and horror cinema as vectors for understanding the different eras of America's social and political consciousness. The fears and concerns of the populace, combined with the international and economic tensions of the time, are often reflected in movies as a way of making sense of the times. Invaders from Mars can be enjoyed in two ways: as a political allegory and a fascinating colorful romp that originated many of the science fiction tropes we see today.

Invaders From Mars recently underwent a 4K restoration from Ignite Films. Check out all the bonus features and get your copy right here.