"Invaders From Mars," Tobe Hooper's remake of the classic 1953 horror B-movie, begins with the "Leave It to Beaver" calm of a perfect household, as the Gardners (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) dote on their son David (Hunter Carson), an astronomy buff.
The calm is punctured, however, when a spaceship arrives from Mars and starts drilling holes in the back of people's necks (including the Gardners'), converting them into zombies programmed to do their bidding. The Martians, it seems, are perturbed by American space probes sent to their planet, and want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
As directed by Hooper, "Invaders From Mars" is a kind of extended sketch from the old "Saturday Night Live," a spoof of a style of moviemaking that most of us got to know from a flickering black-and-white image on a small kitchen television set. The acting is stylized, tongue-in-cheek; each line reading comes with a nudge in the ribs. And when young David says to the General (James Karen), "If we could just try to talk to them . . . " it gets a big guffaw from the audience, as they recognize a moment not just from a bygone ethos, but from their own campy pleasures of watching late-night movie reruns.
"Invaders From Mars" has its small pleasures, and Hooper's longtime collaborator, screen writer Dan O'Bannon, has contributed some funny lines. The General, for example, reassures young David, "Marines have no qualms about killing Martians," and in a flash you see the dark side of "Father Knows Best." But as an extended sketch, the movie could be more consistently funny, and extending it hasn't done it a lot of good.
For despite its occasional sparkle, "Invaders From Mars" is an overlong movie with a tiny spirit. It plays to a certain smug superiority of an audience nurtured on junky television, and while that smugness is in some ways justified -- movies like the original "Invaders From Mars" had their obvious failings -- it's also, over the course of a feature film, more than a little annoying. The original "Invaders From Mars" did something this spoof never even comes close to -- it scared the heck out of you. That's something Hooper might try accomplishing, before he sets about sending it up.
Invaders From Mars, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains violence.