Is That a Probe, or Are You Just Glad to See Me?: ‘Invaders From Mars’

You’ve come to expect him by the time you’ve seen your twelfth crappy sci fi flick of the Attack of the Eye Creatures, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers variety: he pipes in over the movie’s establishing scene (which is always — always — a drifting long shot of the universe in all its inky blackness) to recap humanity’s recent, wondrous advancements in the world of science and speculate on whether there could be life on other planets. He’s the all-seeing White Guy Narrator, and as any ’50s trash cinema fan knows (and who isn’t a ’50s trash cinema fan?), he’s usually responsible for setting the agenda right off the bat.

Nowhere is this more true than Invaders From Mars. There’s heaps of agenda in the movie’s opening scene; in fact, the disembodied Voice of Reason can’t get through a full sentence without moralizing on such a stunningly grand scale that surely even the audience of 1953 must have rolled its eyes. His oratory follows the title credits, out of whose murky void drifts a constellation of celestial bodies. “What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets?” he wonders, as the heavenly globes in question sail by. “Human life, like ours? Or life considerably lower on the scale? Or dangerously higher?”

Sheesh. The movie hasn’t even been on a minute, and already the WGN has given away its moral, its cautionary message for commie-spooked Middle America: we don’t know what’s out there, but we’re pretty sure it isn’t up to any good.

This is nothing special. Plenty of ’50s sci fi movies fret about the unlimited potential menace of outer space. But what are we to make of this curious ambiguity in the narrator’s words? By saying “dangerously higher” on the “scale,” is he implying there’s some sort of relationship between technological advancement and danger? Because it sure sounds like it. And if so, according to the narrator’s rules there are only two possible outcomes in store for humanity’s evolutionary venture: either we eventually go to war with menacing enemies from outer space, or we eventually evolve to become as menacing as they are. That spells “danger” any way you look at it.

The received wisdom about movies like Invaders From Mars would probably say that this reading is an illusion conjured by fifty years of hindsight, the imposition of a deconstructive aesthetic onto a monolithic time. Presumably, in the 1950s, people mostly thought that American exceptionalism was the bulwark not only against “aliens” of whatever stripe but also against the dangers of progress — which, yes, had recently refined warfare into a bloodbath of intolerable sophistication, but needed only the guiding light of American beneficence and ingenuity to lead the world at large into a technological utopia.

If only the Yanks could remember the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, everything was ultimately going to turn out fine. Among the various ways to paraphrase the decade’s zeitgeist, this is the one I see most often.

Trouble is, telling the good guys from the bad guys is exactly Invaders From Mars‘ problem. It is, after all, an alien possession movie, part of the genre that brought us It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In these movies, telling protagonist from adversary is a huge problem, because the aliens’ preferred mode of conquest is to purloin the bodies of innocent people and masquerade as humans until there are enough of them to conquer Earth.

David (Jimmy Hunt), the movie’s stargazing child hero, has this problem big time. First body-snatched is David’s father, George, who works a mysterious, classified job involving a rocket under construction at the nearby Army base. It’s to protect the job, not the family, that Dad strolls out to investigate when David sees an alien saucer land in his backyard. “The work at the plant is secret,” he explains to his wife Mary (Hillary Brooke), “And we have orders to report anything unusual. And there have been rumors.”

In the backyard, George is rewarded for his vigilance by being swallowed up into a dilating hole that opens in the ground under him. There, unseen, he is colonized by Martians in a sinister, mysterious way. Soon afterward, George tosses Mary into the Martians’ clutches.

Young David doesn’t witness this orifice in action until his preteen neighbor Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau) — while bedecked in a superhuman array of ribbons, bows, and other sugar-and-spice cuteness — skips into the same field and suffers the fate that befell David’s parents. When David, who happens to be peeping at Kathy through a telescoping lens, sees her get sucked into the ground, he scrambles to the nearest police station — only to discover that the chief has also been transformed into something not of this Earth. Now orphaned and ensnared in a society inexplicably turned hostile, David seems completely abandoned, perfectly doomed.

But just as things are bleakest, salvation appears in the alluring form of Dr. Blake (Helena Carter). Detecting some truth in David’s frantic, confused story about body-snatching, Dr. Blake guards the boy when his alienized parents come to spirit him away to who-knows-what extraterrestrial torments. In the process, she clutches him against her breast, where her bright red handkerchief droops into his face.

Later, having adopted the temporarily parentless David, Dr. Blake and hunky astronomer Dr. Kelston verify the boy’s story with the aid of Dr. Kelston’s telescope, which is much larger than David’s and impresses Dr. Blake a great deal. But David isn’t jealous. To the accompaniment of stringy, romantic music, the majestic panels of the telescope open up and the lens thrusts up through it. Together, Dr. Blake, David, and Dr. Kelston aim the telescope at the Army base, where David peeps at his Dad’s rocket.

If all of this sounds vaguely perverted, that’s because I’m not piling on enough slinky language to describe it. By this point the movie is amazingly perverted, and the on-screen probing hasn’t even started yet.

Maybe the reason for this can be found in that White Guy Narrator bit in the beginning. Since the topic of psychosexuality has, er, come up, let’s think of the narrator’s little jest about the dangers of progress as a kind of Freudian slip. Freud has come to be remembered for his preoccupation with the distinctly uncomfortable business of anal fixations and primal scenes, but his major concern was actually with the workings of repression — how people transform ideas they can’t accept into symbolic representations that they can. The Freudian slip is an impulse the conscious mind rejects, channeled instead through language to relieve some of the pressure it applies on the psyche.

In Invaders From Mars, the narrator, while telling us we should be very worried about outer space, trips up and accidentally reveals that there are great perils in the path to technological perfection right here on terra firma. Those who’d seen, not that long before, World War II’s orgiastic butchery — and the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular — recognized progress’ terrible dangers only too well. But recognizing is different from knowing, or acting on that knowledge, and the outcome of atomic holocaust could scarcely be imagined in any case.

Instead, despair over the prospect of atomic war found symbolic expression in all sorts of other ways. Take the entrenchment of the middle class in the 1950s into something called the “nuclear family,” or the absurd eroticization of the only weapons around lethal enough to put a stop to all fucking for good. (Need an example of sexualized nukes? Type “atomic blonde” into the Internet search engine of your choice and see what happens.)

If sexual perversions are like Freudian slips — projections of repressed dread — then the perviness of movies like Invaders From Mars indicates, among other things, that a lot of the people making and watching them were probably scared senseless. And for that, at least, it’s hard to blame them. Theirs, after all, was the first era in history to contend with the prospect of more-or-less instantaneous Armageddon.

Unable to comprehend apocalypse in all its magnitude, who among us doesn’t secretly imagine it as something like David’s traumatic descent into orphanage? As a self that somehow survives the dissolution of everything around it, and after that suffers in a kind of hostile void? I’ll tell you what I imagine: standing on a deserted street littered with smoking, burned-out cars, like the highway of death in the Gulf War or that traffic jam in Deep Impact, only well after the comet has hit.

Look in. I bet what you imagine is similar — or at least, as unrealistic. Understanding nuclear war in sexual, familial, or personal terms masks the unfathomable reality that it is, in fact, the eradication of sex, of family, and — most unimaginably, at least to hear that Sartre guy tell it — of self.

Dr. Kelston, the astronomer, helps a bit in turning away the alien invasion, but really solving a problem of this magnitude requires the attention of Dr. Blake — a physician and, at least it would seem, a psychologist. When she sounds the alert on the Martians by skillfully parsing David’s terror for the adults who otherwise wouldn’t believe him, she does more to save the planet than any other grownup around.

As a matter of fact, all the other adults make a pretty serious botch of things, although the movie never comments on this specifically. For instance, we eventually learn that the Martians would never have attacked had it not been for that rocket George was working on, part of a clever government plan to achieve world peace by packing Earth’s orbit full of weapons. And despite Dr. Kelston’s sky-watching wariness — not to mention his hush-hush military connections, about which he harrumphs a great deal — the Martians’ trespassing saucer skitters right by him, and the rest of the Astronomical Society. The movie’s happy resolution doesn’t come courtesy of military prowess or eternal vigilance. It comes from Dr. Blake’s professional open-mindedness, her understanding of human nature.

For this the movie gives Helena Carter top bill, leaving Arthur Franz to scream at his agent. Why would a Red-baiting, sky-wary sci fi movie privilege medicine and psychology over astronomy like this? Maybe because nukes wouldn’t have spared the people making Invaders From Mars, and on some level they surely knew it. Despite themselves, they let it slip that the cause of peace calls not for looking up but for looking in and around us, and trying to figure out what we’re really afraid of.