The Martians Are Coming!
Matt Joseph takes a look at some alien invasion favourites currently on DVD
Beings from a distant galaxy arrive in gigantic mother ships, station themselves over every major city in the world, and ask only for humanity’s help in saving their dying world by sharing with them some of our natural resources in exchange for their wealth of knowledge in the fields of medicine and technology. Soon, however, a few suspicious humans find that these ‘Visitors’ are here to rape our planet of all its resources and harvest humanity for their own purposes. Against overwhelming odds, a small, ragtag group of resistance fighters take up the fight to drive the invaders from the planet and save the human race from certain extinction.
This made for television miniseries from Kenneth Johnson ( The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man) uses the allegory of an alien invasion as backdrop to tell a story of enemy occupation similar to the Nazi infiltration of Europe before and during World War II. The most expensive television production ever made at the time, V interweaves seemingly unconnected characters throughout a suspenseful, action packed, and horrifying story over the course of its three hour running time, and even though many of the special effects date the picture, the film as a whole has held up surprisingly well over twenty years after it first aired on network television. The miniseries was followed the next year by a second, longer effort in V: The Final Battle and a weekly television series, but neither project managed to pull off the intrigue and drama present in the original to quite the same degree.
V is available on DVD from Warner Home Video, and for the first time is presented in both an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, represented by a surprisingly good anamorphic video transfer, and a newly created, stereo surround audio track. The disc also contains a featurette on the making of the miniseries and an excellent commentary track with Kenneth Johnson that any fan should give a listen to. If you can’t get enough V and want to continue the fight for freedom from alien authority on DVD, the sequel miniseries and the complete weekly series are available from Warner Home Video as well.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978)
Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, both films find a small group of people who must fight for survival once they stumble upon an insidious conspiracy that involves unfeeling, emotionless aliens cloning humans and taking over their identities while they sleep through the use of giant, plant-like pods.
Whether talking about director Don Siegel’s original, 1956 version starring Kevin McCarthy or Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most frightening tales of invaders from another world in movie history and you couldn’t go wrong with picking up either picture for a scary evening. The original film, with all of its ‘fear of communism’ undertones, remains a classic that still holds up to this day, due in no small part to Siegel’s direction and the chilling screenplay of Daniel Mainwaring. Kaufman’s film, based on a screenplay by W.D. Richter and chock full of paranoia and creepy effects work, is one of my favourite scary movies of all-time, featuring a better cast than you usually find in a genre picture from the late 1970s and a level of suspense that is hard to top.
While the DVDs currently available for each for these films are nothing special and sport non-anamorphic, widescreen transfers, the video on each is still fairly decent and the audio does its job without a hitch. The only special features worth of note are an interview with actor Kevin McCarthy for the original and audio commentary with director Philip Kaufman for the remake, but the price of either of the discs from Republic Studios and MGM make each an attractive bargain. If you shop around, you’re more than likely to find either title for $10.00 or less from several retailers, and if after watching these two movies you still find yourself wanting more, a third version of the story, director Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, is also currently available on DVD from Warner Home Video.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
It’s close encounters of the weird kind when a small town is invaded by what some might find as the scariest alien race of them all, circus clowns! Even as the body count rises, few of the locals believe a small group of young people when they warn of a handful of outer space freaks that enjoy making carnivorous balloon animals and dishing out killer popcorn while terrorizing the countryside, leaving it up to them to save the world from death by cotton candy.
This is a movie that, just by its very title, screams cult classic. You have to give credit to the Chiodo Brothers, who are also responsible for the creature design work in another off-beat alien flick, Critters, for pulling off such a crazy idea and actually making a movie that not only serves up some scares, but several dark comedy moments as well. The only real problem with the movie is that when the clowns aren’t on screen, the human characters are a dull and inane bunch, but thankfully the film is full of great sight gags and inventive, never-seen-before ways in which the intergalactic Bozos dispatch of them. If you have yet to see the flick, make sure you give it a try—you’ll never look at clowns in the same light again.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is available in region one as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies line of DVDs, but unlike most of the entries in that collection, this disc contains a generous offering of extras to go along with the good, anamorphic widescreen video transfer and audio tracks. Included are several behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentary with the Chiodo Brothers, deleted scenes, bloopers, and more, making this a disc that’s hard to pass up for the relatively low price found at most retailers.
They Live (1988)
In John Carpenter’s allegory of corporate mentality in the ‘80s, the aliens are already among us and controlling virtually ever aspect of our society with subliminal messages and the promise of power and riches. A nameless wanderer, played by professional wrestler Roddy Piper, stumbles upon an underground resistance group who have found a way to reveal the invaders for who they really and search for a way to wake the rest of the world from their induced sleep and indifference.
They Live seems to be, like many of Carpenter’s other movies from the 1980s, finally finding a wider audience thanks to home video, and good thing as it’s one of his more intelligent and thought provoking outings. What the film lacks in over the top special effects is made up for by the screenplay being cleverer than most in the genre and a dark, satirical sense of humour that is kept up throughout the movie’s entire running time. Roddy Piper and Keith David make a good Mutt and Jeff team while attempting to stay one step ahead of the alien conspiracy that has engulfed society and really carry the picture on their performances. Overall, They Live may not be the best of Carpenter’s plentiful output from the decade of Reagan and Thatcher, but it’s near the top.
Unfortunately, unlike some of Carpenter’s other movies on DVD, They Live has yet to receive a really good treatment on the format in region one. First released by Image Entertainment near the beginning of the format’s debut and then out-of-print for a few years, Universal Home Video brought the title out of moratorium only to add nothing to the package in the process. The anamorphic, widescreen video transfer and audio are adequate for the release, but with no extras to speak of that’s about as good as it gets. On the other hand, the region two version of the film, released by Momentum Home Entertainment, contains the film’s trailer, a featurette, and best of all, audio commentary with Carpenter and Piper. Hopefully with the number of Carpenter films that are rumoured to be remade in the near future, Universal will see fit to re-release the movie as a special edition in region one to capitalize on those future pictures, but until then, and if you can take advantage of it, the best way to go is to order the region two version of the film.
Independence Day (1996)
Gigantic spacecrafts once again descend upon our skies in 1996’s, popcorn favourite Independence Day, only this time the alien travellers make their intentions upon our planet apparent in short order with a barrage of firepower that destroys our major cities and landmarks. Led by none other than the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), a group of scientists and military types search for answers in combating the seemingly unstoppable aliens and their technology before the planet is laid to waste and crushed like an empty beer can.
Independence Day won’t win any points for creativity or intelligent writing while it reaches into an abundance of movies in the genre’s pool for ideas and clichés, but it does make up for its screenplay by providing a fun and rollicking spectacle against the backdrop of global annihilation courtesy of some very nasty, alien invaders. Even though every one of the characters represents a cookie cutter stereotype, there’s nary an unlikable one in the bunch and the actors, including Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, infuse their roles with gusto as the film’s special effects carry it a long way in the ooh ‘n ah department. Trying to pick the film apart for its many inadequacies is nearly an exercise in futility as you’ll be hard pressed to find a movie that tries so hard to be a crowd pleaser and succeeds, so power up your home theatre, make a super tub of popcorn with lots of salt and butter, and enjoy the ride.
Fox Home Video has made available a number of different editions of Independence Day on DVD over the past few years, but if you can manage it, the way to go is with one of the two-disc sets that come loaded with extras. Each widescreen edition of the movie features an excellent, anamorphic video transfer and wall blowing Dolby Digital audio tracks, so there aren’t any worries in the presentation department with whichever you choose, but the extras available on the multi-disc sets are worth the extra few dollars spent upgrading as you’ll definitely want to see how some of the more elaborate special effects shots were pulled off.
The Arrival (1996)
David Twohy’s The Arrival finds radio astronomer Charlie Sheen seeking to find an explanation to some strange signals that he believes to have come from intelligent life somewhere in outer space. Travelling to Mexico in search of the signal’s origins, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy of global proportions and a race to save not only his own life, but that of all mankind.
Director David Twohy’s first major motion picture, The Arrival, came and went during the summer of 1996 in ‘blink and you missed it’ fashion, but it was actually the most intelligent and frightening of the alien invasion films released that year and has deservedly gathered somewhat of a cult following since its release. As the converse of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Independence Day, what it lacks in effects and budget is made up for with a witty and suspenseful screenplay and strong performances from leads Sheen, Lindsay Crouse, and Ron Silver. When it comes to most of the pictures in this genre, you have to savour the good ones since they’re few and far between, so make sure you do yourself a favour and check this one out.
The current edition of The Arrival available on DVD from Artisan Home Entertainment is unfortunately the best the film has going for it at this time in region one. The disc sports an unimpressive, but serviceable non-anamorphic widescreen transfer with suitable audio and contains only a couple of trailers as far as the extras go, but does include the movie’s inferior sequel as a double feature. Region two has an edition of the film from Entertainment In Video which contains a few extras, but having not seen it I can’t comment on the picture or sound quality. Hopefully someone will give the film the treatment it deserves and allow it to catch on with a wider audience.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Ack, ack! Martians invade the Earth, and apparently really enjoy doing it in Tim Burton’s off-centre, kooky salute to the 1962 trading card series. Whether zapping helpless humans, taking up a game of bowling on Easter Island, or crushing everything in sight with giant, mechanical robots, the big-brained invaders seem to just be wreaking havoc solely for the fun of it while the remnants of mankind fight for survival in several overlapping stories.
Burton’s film is deeply flawed with little direction to the story, a little too strange for its own good, and features cardboard thin human characters that are a real drag when they’re the primary focus, but thankfully picks up and is a lot of fun when the stop-motion inspired Martians take centre stage. Jack Nicholson’s dual roles and some great set pieces and effects featuring the psychotic Martians keep the movie from being a total dud, and if you can make it through some of the more dodgy parts—and have a halfway warped sense of humour—you’ll find Mars Attacks! an amusing send up of alien invasions past.
The DVD from Warner Home Video is typical of the earlier titles available on the market with little in the way of special features and a very average, anamorphic widescreen video transfer and main audio track, but it does include trailers and an isolated score that showcases Danny Elfman’s work on the film. With the movie’s tenth anniversary coming up around the bend, here’s to hoping that a special edition is in the works for next year that comes with a new video transfer and some interesting, invasion worthy special features.
Invaders From Mars (1953/1986)
After seeing strange lights coming from beyond a hill behind his home, a young boy begins to notice that everyone in town is acting kind of peculiar. While searching for answers to the weird behaviours of those around him, the lad discovers that invaders, from Mars no less, have begun to take over the minds of everyone around him and have to be stopped before they take over the world!
The original film was yet another product of Hollywood taking a stab at the Red Scare phenomenon of the 1950s, yet it remains as one of the decade’s creepier alien invasion stories thanks to the set design and direction from legend William Cameron Menzies that takes it down a nightmarish and surreal path that few films attempted at the time. The 1986 remake, from director Tobe Hooper, replaced much of the subtleties that made the original memorable with special effects by Stan Winston that were state-of-the-art for the time, and in the process created nothing more than a totally disposable chiller that is at best a B-grade horror piece suitable for a rainy day, though it does admittedly have its moments.
A couple of years ago, Image Entertainment released a so-so special edition of the original that contains a nice video transfer and audio along with both the American and British cuts of the film, but offers little in the way of special features as the few, scant extras that are included are nothing to rave about. As for the remake, Hooper’s picture is currently out-of-print after having a 1998 release by Anchor Bay and a second release by MGM as part of their Midnite Movies line of DVDs in region one a couple of years back, but the MGM disc may still be found at a few retailers who have not sold off their stock as of yet and can probably be found used fairly easily as well. Out of the two, the MGM disc is the one to shop for as it contains a nice, anamorphic widescreen video transfer and decent audio along with a few special features, including a publicity featurette and the film’s theatrical trailer.
The Thing from Another World (1951)/The Thing (1982)
While stationed in the arctic, a group a researchers uncovers an alien spacecraft buried deep within the ice and with it the craft’s strange, otherworldly pilot. The alien creature is eventually thawed from its frozen tomb and ready to threaten civilization as we know it, unless of course those stranded at the remote outpost can somehow stop the menace in time.
Howard Hawk’s production of The Thing from Another World is one of my favourite, classic science fiction films because it still manages to deliver up a good scare or two nearly sixty years after its original release and contains all of Hawks’ trademark touches. John Carpenter remade it just over thirty years later by sticking closer to the source material of both films, the Joseph Campbell story Who Goes There?, and in the process created what is now considered to be a modern horror masterpiece, even though it was a flop upon its initial theatrical release. While the original picture went with a rather unoriginal, Frankenstein-type, vegetable monster as its antagonist, Carpenter’s Thing was not unlike a spreading virus that imitates its victims almost perfectly, and leaves the remaining survivors to wonder who is human and who is not. With these two, very different monsters, each film veered in different directions; Hawks’ became something similar to the Universal Monster pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s and Carpenter’s shape shifted into a thriller that not only horrified with some truly ahead of its time and gruesome effects work, but a picture that worked more on a psychological level with a constant feeling of desolation and paranoia permeating through every frame of the picture. While you can’t go wrong with either film, I’d have to say that this is one of the few instances where the update outdoes the original.
Warner Home Video released The Thing from Another World a couple of years ago in region one as part of its annual Halloween promotion, and while the full frame video transfer and audio are quite good considering the picture’s age, the only extra to be found on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer. Taking into account its status as a classic in the genre, the lack of supplements is a disappointment to say the least and hopefully one day the title will be revisited. Universal Home Video has released John Carpenter’s The Thing on DVD twice in region one, and while both releases contain nearly identical features to one another, such as audio commentary from Carpenter and star Kurt Russell and one of the best documentaries available as an extra on DVD, the latest incarnation on DVD features the picture’s first digitally re-mastered, anamorphic widescreen transfer that is leaps and bounds better than the first release, even if it is missing Ennio Morricone’s complete score from the initial release.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
In this retelling of the H.G. Wells tale, the Martians invade the Earth by sending a vanguard of war machines disguised as meteors to wipe humanity from the face of the planet. One by one, the cities of man fall prey to the Martian onslaught as a group of scientists search to find a way to stop the otherworldly aggressors and their awesome might.
Taking its cues from both the novel and Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds is the crown jewel in the career of producer George Pal, the man also responsible for such classics as When Worlds Collide and The Time Machine. With the Martians’ intimidating manta-ray shaped ships and cobra-like probes, the picture is full of now iconic imagery and sound effects and features two excellent performances from leads Gene Barry and Ann Robinson that epitomize hero and heroine roles of the time. Nominated for three Academy Awards, and winning the honour for special effects that still have an unsettling quality about them today, The War of the Worlds is a landmark in science fiction filmmaking. If you had to pick only one science fiction film from the 1950s, or arguably any era for that matter, this would be the one.
Paramount Home Video has recently released an all-new special edition of the film to DVD that really lives up to the too often thrown around word special. Not only has War of the Worlds been given a beautiful video transfer that brings the Technicolor process used in the picture’s filming to life, but in addition to the standard, mono soundtrack found on every home video release of the film, Paramount has also included the film’s original stereo soundtrack that, up until just recently, had been thought lost to the ages. Also included on the disc are a host of extras, including audio commentary from stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson on one track and commentary from Joe Dante and film historians Bob Burns and Bill Warren on a second, more informative one, a couple of featurettes on the making of the movie and writer H.G. Wells, trailers, and the 1938 radio broadcast in its entirety. Whether or not you have the first, featureless release of the film on DVD from Paramount, you need to treat yourself to picking up this disc, which is a classic sci-fi lover’s dream come true.
While this is far from a complete list of the many alien invasion movies available, I hope that you found reading my little article helpful in unearthing a new, genre favourite or read the list with some fond memories of drive-ins long gone and late nights watching the local, double creature feature while hiding under several blankets. Whether you like your aliens doe-eyed and cuddly as in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, or dripping with slime and ferocious like Ridley Scott’s Alien, there’s nothing like a good invasion of the Earth for a couple hours worth of cheap entertainment, but just remember, it's no use to keep watching the skies because they’re already here and you’re next!
Editorial by Matt Joseph
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