One of my favorite scenes in Don Siegel’s sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers happens when the characters are running away from the pods and hide in the protagonist’s office, for the second time in the movie they will take a look through the window and observe the center of the town, to know if they are safe, and it is the same shot we saw the first time, but it lasts a few seconds longer, and now, after their perception of the order has already been disturbed, they can finally see the workings of the aliens within the city.
I needed to mention this because what makes Hooper’s movie special among the Jack Finney adaptations and the original by William Cameron Menzies is its basis in a offbeat interpretation of the similar scenario given by the sight of a child. And I could not say this is derivative of the 1953 film, Menzies’ work was that of a set decorator, not a film director, all the estrangement was built from weird designs and the narration moved quickly from plot-point to plot-point with little regard to comprehend the kid’s reactions to what was happening around him. That pragmatism hurt the movie because I could never tell the difference of the proceedings (which should be enormous) in relation to Siegel’s superior treatment. The kid’s actions were not very distinct from the adults and the shocks were closer to the sequence I mentioned above.
Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, however, takes a peculiar route. Storywise, it feels a little predictable and stilted at times, resulting from its strict adherence to the boy’s nightmares, we know that every event will be shaped as part of his paranoia, as confirmation of the worst childhood fears, and the whole thing is beyond silly (“They’re huge, ugly, slimy, giant Mr. Potato Heads!”), but not sillier than being afraid of a clown toy and the odd shadows cast by lightning on a tree. This looks like an extension of the first part of Poltergeist (or what I liked the most about it), following the mundane interactions of the family before turning into a more conventional horror film.
It suffers from having less time spent with the adult characters, who act mostly as robots or other children, and the specific plot-oriented situations come since the very beginning, but that reduction of dialogues and small distractions from the horror grant the director more time to spend with each individual set-piece, and a big amount of it is given to the protagonist exploring his surroundings, observing the changes in behavior since they start and responding calmly to them, unlike the adults who only notice changes in routine and react almost hysterically. And the great thing about it is: Hooper’s camera loves the actors, it bends to the boy’s expressions like the story is bent to his obsessions, there is not a second of dishonesty capturing whatever absurdity occurs, and that results in the most gorgeous close-ups and two-shots, usually with an adult being contradicted by the boy, and inspired use of steadicam in more open spaces, where we are guided by him.
I should say that comparing film to other arts is dangerous because it can deny particular and fundamental elements of each of them, but it is hard to explain in another way Hooper’s nearly operatic sense of composition, with notions of rhythm and scenic development that seem to come directly from Richard Wagner (this may sound like random name-dropping, but I mean it), based so much on precise and very dramatic use of intervals, with unusual consideration for instant (and integrally represented) action that does not have immediate narrative objective, but is charged with extraneous elements, sensations and ideas that materialize the past and give indications of influences outside the frame, and everything carried as an harmonious device for storytelling, never as whimsical and unnecessary exhibitions of the helmer’s talent. Maybe that explains the lingering and repetitive structures and obsession with sound in most of Hooper’s filmography. The experiment here is not nearly as radical as we saw in some of his other films, but the nature of the project (a family-friendly sci-fi blockbuster) makes it more perceptible, because there is nothing bombastic, no easy attractions in it, only a curious, patient imagining of what could happen in the gaps left between Menzies’ faithfully recreated tableaux.
It is a perfect example of something I wish all the perpetrators of “slow cinema” would learn, those who mistake movies for pedantic literalism and capricious pictorialism without any knowledge of how space and time have worked or at least theorized in films for more than a century, rendering everything descriptive and ultimately empty, un-dramatic. They are having a good time with critics, Hooper never had, that is why I learned to ignore good taste and started paying attention only to the movies themselves. Invaders from Mars is as beautiful and richly textured as any of the director’s best works and one of my favorite movies about childhood.