A Tale of Two Aliens: TCM Festival Makes for Some Otherworldly Connections

“E.T.” may be a blockbuster classic, but “Invaders From Mars” is the alien movie that’s been stuck in my brain for decades

E.T. - Invaders From Mars
"E.T. the Extra Terrestrial": Universal / "Invaders From Mars": Ignite Films

This year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, which took place over the weekend in Hollywood, showcased more than 80 movies, including a particularly memorable classic that takes a child’s-eye view of the aftermath of a spaceship landing on Earth. And no, I’m not talking about the festival’s opening-night movie, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

Sure, “E.T.” is probably the most famous movie in which aliens are shown through the eyes of children, and it was a kick to see its IMAX remaster screened at the huge TCL Chinese Theatre as the opening attraction on Thursday.

(And it was a kick to hear Spielberg, who was supposed to have been joined by stars Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore until unspecified events prevented them from coming, talk about how he persuaded screenwriter Melissa Mathison to take on the film, and how the first 50 or so people to see the film heard a version in which the voice of E.T. was none other than the director’s good friend Debra Winger.)  

But one of the great things about a festival like TCM is the way it allows you to make connections and follow themes through cinema history – in this case, to go from 1982’s “E.T.” on Thursday to 1953’s “Invaders From Mars” on Saturday.  

And I have to admit: As much as certain lines from “E.T.” have stuck with me since I first saw it in a screening room at Universal in 1982 – “E.T. phone home,” “I’ll be right here” and the one about penis breath foremost among them – there are images from “Invaders” that have stuck with me longer.

The film by William Cameron Menzies is a ’50s sci-fi flick shot in three-and-a-half weeks for next to no money. It tells the story of a young boy, David, who sees a flying saucer land over a ridge behind his house but can’t get anybody to believe him, even when all the people who head in that direction (including David’s parents!) come back acting all threatening and zombie-like. The effects are cheesy, the most memorable line of dialogue is “Gee whiz!” and the whole thing had to be padded with the use of stock military footage to get to a modest running time of 78 minutes.

And yet from the moment I first saw it a very long time ago, back when I was about David’s age, I have at least three vivid images from “Invaders From Mars” stuck in my head. One is the view up the pathway to the ridge where the spaceship lands, with a battered wooden fence standing out against the sky. Another is the shot of a tiny mind-control probe spinning as it moves closer and closer to the neck of the kindly Dr. Blake (Helena Carter), one of the only adults who believes David. And the last is the sight of ungainly Martian henchmen running stiff-legged down the underground tunnels carved by their ship.

Even when I could no longer recall what movie they were from, I remembered those images – which makes sense, because Menzies was an acclaimed production designer whose films included “Gone With the Wind,” “Foreign Correspondent” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and his cinematographer, John F. Seitz, also shot “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Blvd.” In other words, these guys knew how to make stuff look good, even with no money.

And while I love the sweet little alien in Spielberg’s tear-jerking movie, there’s always a place in my heart for the creepy green Martian head in a fishbowl in Menzies’.

The TCM screening was introduced by writer-director John Sayles, who called the film “a movie that taught my generation not to trust our parents, or any other authority figures” and added, “I saw it in black and white on TV when I was 8 years old, and it really freaked me out.”

Well, I saw it in the same format at about the same age, and it freaked me out, too. Seeing it more than half a century later, in a digital restoration (due out soon from Ignite Films) on a big screen and in color, it didn’t freak me out at all – but it sure was fun to see those images I remembered so vividly again.

And if “Invaders From Mars” in 1953 was a prototype for the Cold War sci-fi movies in which an alien menace was used as a stand-in for paranoia about communist infiltration, it’s not exactly dated to see a film in 2022 suggesting that some people are zombies to destructive forces and others are oblivious to the threat that should be obvious to an 8-year-old.

It was also fun to watching “E.T.” and notice a few shots in which the government agents hunting the hapless little alien are silhouetted against a fence that stands at the top of a ridge overlooking the San Fernando Valley. You can’t tell me that wasn’t Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau paying a little homage to Menzies and Seitz.  

And while Spielberg didn’t mention it in his opening-night conversation, decades ago he did hire John Sayles to work on a script that eventually morphed into “E.T.” So having Sayles introduce “Invaders From Mars” was yet another link between the two movies — an instance of B-movies meeting blockbusters, and of cinema history living on in all its tangled glory.