The Very First Film That Terrified Me! – Invaders From Mars (1953)

Video transcript:

The heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe, and fear, now a vast region for growing knowledge. The distance of Venus, the atmosphere of Mars, the size of Jupiter, and the speed of Mercury. All this and more we know. But their greatest mystery the heavens have kept a secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like ours? Or life extremely lower in the scale? Or dangerously higher? Seeking the answer to this timeless question, forever seeking, is the constant preoccupation of scientists everywhere. Scientists famous and unknown. Scientists in great universities, and in modest homes. Scientists of all ages.

That was the opening narration of an alien invasion film that predates “Independence Day”, “District 9”, and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Hello, and welcome to Madd Fictional Media, where today we’ll be taking a look at the 1953 science fiction classic, “Invaders From Mars.”

Oh, and if you haven’t guessed, we intend to walk you through the film, and that’s as close to a spoiler warning as we’re prepared to give you for a movie that’s been out since the 50s. If you’d rather not have the plot ruined for you, you know what to do.

Please note: If this is your first exposure to “Invaders From Mars” and you choose to stay, you’ll no doubt find it outdated and corny, but, if you can step outside of that mindset, and take a look at what the movie gets right, who knows, you just might enjoy yourself, and add a new classic sci-fi film to your watch list.

Now, any film buff worth their salt knows that the mark of a good film begins with a snapshot of the world the movie is set in, so that the audience can get their footing before the plot kicks in. And when you come across a great film, you’ll discover the same effect is achieved with little to no expository dialogue.

As low budget as Invaders appears to be, it does a fantastic job of providing a proper backdrop for the film. We understand instantly the reality in which this story takes place, with the family profession, the placement of the Rockwellian farmhouse, and our young protagonist’s interest, without any of the worldbuilding getting in the way. It’s a very barebones approach to a film that wastes no time getting the audience stuck in.

After the opening credits, our focus turns to the bedroom of 10-year-old David MacLean, played by Jimmy Hunt. His window is wide open, with a telescope poking out of it, which suggests that he’s an amateur astronomer.

His alarm clock goes off at 4 AM, and he’s startled out of sleep, fumbles to shut it off, and quickly stuffs it under his pillow to muffle the noise.

George MacLean, played by Leif Erickson, hears the alarm, and assumes it’s time to get up, but his wife, Mary, played by Hillary Brooke, points out that it’s only 4 in the morning.

George figures out that it’s his son, and as he enters the boy’s room, prepared to give him a good talking to, he sees David with his eye pressed to the telescope, examining an astronomical event that won’t happen again for six years.

And George is immediately invested! Which shows us they’re not just father and son, they’re best buds! And David has probably taken up aspects of his father’s scientific profession as a hobby. And the pair would have probably stayed up all night long, if Mary didn’t show up to put both her boys to bed.

It’s a simple show don’t tell bonding moment that illustrates the family norm. Yes, it’s inconvenient that David woke the entire household, but his parents aren’t angry. They understand, and support, his scientific interests, the way good parents should.

Roughly 40 minutes later, David is awakened again, this time by a noise that sounds like a thunderstorm, and when he looks out the window, he sees a flying saucer land in the sandpit on the hill just behind the house.

When David wakes his dad, and tells him about what he saw, the important thing to note is that George doesn’t disbelieve David, even though he tries to calm his son down by telling him it was just a dream. But unbeknownst to David, George is part of a scientific research team working on a secret project, and he feels what David saw might be related to it, so he goes out to the sandpit to investigate.

Morning comes, and George hasn’t returned, so Mary calls the police, and two officers (played by Charles Cane and Douglas Kennedy) conduct a search, and they wind up disappearing as well.

George eventually returns home but from the moment we first lock eyes on him, we can tell he’s a totally different man. He has a thousand-yard stare that would spook a zombie, and he’s disconnected and irritable, not at all like the affable man we saw earlier.

When questioned about his whereabouts, he curtly states that he stopped over to see their neighbor, Bill Wilson. But when George sits down, David spots a puncture wound on the back of his father’s neck.

When he asks about it, George backhands him hard enough to knock the young boy to the floor. And you can tell by David’s shocked expression that his father has never raised a hand to him before in his life.

Before Mary can question what happened, the policemen return, and they’re also noticeably different, robotic and distant, and although we don’t see it, David spots puncture wounds on the back of their necks, identical to his father’s.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch this in the theater when the film first opened. It was a little before my time. I watched it as a young boy in the mid 1960’s on late night television, after sneaking into the living room while my family was asleep.

This scene is where the first real fear came into play, because the film introduced a new concept to my young mind. I was used to monsters looking like the creature from the black lagoon, or something easily identifiable. But I was totally unprepared for the idea that monsters could wear the faces of the people you loved and cared about most in the world. That they could be changed into cold, unfeeling strangers overnight without your knowledge.

Yes, I know now that it was a popular theme during the cold war era of science fiction films, but as kid I didn’t know anything about the Red Scare. All I knew with a certainty was that monsters were real, and aliens existed and their only purpose was to take over our world.

But I digress.

Later, David, having a scientific mindset, takes his telescope outside, and trains it on the sandpit, where he witnesses the disappearance of a young girl, Kathy Wilson, played by Janine Perreau. He runs to tell the girl’s mother, played by an uncredited Fay Baker, but in the middle of his story, Kathy returns.

And she’s perfectly cast in this role, because she has the creepiest expression ever witnessed by human eyes. If you woke up in the middle of the night and found her staring at you, you’d instinctively reach for a weapon, or holy water and a crucifix. And maybe even a stake, if you had one handy.

This is not meant to be a slight on the actor’s looks at all, she grew up to be a very beautiful woman. All I’m saying is that stare was visually the creepiest thing about the film. It still gives me chills to this day. Good job, Janine.

Meanwhile, George and Mary are heading into town, but first, he wants to show his wife something out by the sandpit. This leads to another scary event. I mean, who wouldn’t be frightened by a sandpit sinkhole that sang a tune in the eerie vocal effect of a chorus as the swirling sand swallowed you whole?

Nothing’s been right since he saw the saucer land, so David decides to go to the police station to get help, but Police Chief Barrows (played by an uncredited Bert Freed) also has that strange puncture wound on the back of his neck. And David winds up being locked in detention until his father can pick him up.

Desk Sergeant Finlay (played by an uncredited Walter Sande) is concerned about David’s mental wellbeing and puts a call through to Dr. Pat Blake (played by Helena Carter) from the city health department.

David asks to see the back of Dr. Blake’s neck and I have to admit that for at least a solid week and a half after watching this movie, I asked to see the backs of everyone’s neck who spoke to me. They must have thought I was crazy, and they were right, just not on this occasion.

David tells Dr. Blake the entire story and in another amazing turn of events, she doesn’t automatically dismiss the boy’s claims. Instead, she calls her astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston (played by Arthur Franz) to validate David’s story.

While Dr. Blake is on the phone, Mary arrives at the station to pick up her son, and David is happy to see her, unaware that she now has that same thousand-yard stare. Then George shows up and David tries to resist them taking him home.

Re-enter Dr. Blake who stops them from taking David from the police station under the guise that the boy is showing possible signs of having the poliovirus and must be taken to the hospital isolation ward for observation.

Dr. Blake takes David to the observatory and Dr. Kelston describes a theory that the Martians have developed a race of slaves called MYU-Tants, not mutants, MYU-Tants to travel to Earth and stop us from developing space flight (which is the top-secret project that David’s father is a part of) in order to maintain an existence on their dying planet.

In a bit of lucky coincidence, they turn the telescope to David’s house and spot George MacLean leading General Mayberry (played by an uncredited William Forrest) and pushing him into the sandpit. Now Drs. Blake and Kelston are 100% on David’s side. Kelston immediately calls his contact, Colonel Fielding (played by Morris Ankrum) to get the army on the case.

Kelston postulates that the Martian ship is hiding beneath the sandpit, having used a radioactive ray that can melt right through the earth. In another stroke of coincidence, one of Fielding’s officer’s, Sergeant Rinaldi (played by Max Wagner) strikes off on his own to investigate the sandpit and gets sucked in while the military watches, offering proof that the threat is real.

Word comes through that Kathy Wilson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Dr. Blake attends the autopsy and uncovers a strange bit of technology buried in the little girl’s brain that they assume to be a mind control device. By reverse engineering the device, the military figures they stands a chance of locating the broadcast’s point of origin.

While the Army tanks are en route to the sandpit. The mind-controlled humans begin destroying facilities connected to the top secret space rocket project, and those who successfully complete their mission, die from cerebral hemorrhages due to the control crystal exploding in their heads.

Other mind-slaves are not so lucky. General Mayberry is killed while attempting to blow up a rocket scheduled for launch, and David’s parents are apprehended as they unsuccessfully try to kill one of the secret project’s top scientists, Dr. Bill Wilson (played by an uncredited Robert Shayne) who happens to be Kathy’s father. Hearing the fate of the other mind-slaves, David is naturally worried about what will happen to his parents.

The army tanks arrive and surround the field around the sandpit. Then a unit determines the approximate spot where people have been sucked into the sand, dig a hole, pack it with explosives, and blast a pathway into the Martians’ underground lair.

Dr. Blake receives a call telling her that David’s parents are on the operating table. When she walks the boy to a secluded spot to break the news to him, the pair are sucked into the sandpit and carried by MYU-Tants to the Martian Intelligence (played by and uncredited Luce Potter). The being, described as “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence,” is interrogating them through a mind-controlled Sergeant Rinaldi and when Dr. Blake refuses to answer any questions, she is forced onto a table and the drill machine used to implant the mind-control device inches toward the nape of her neck.

Fielding, Kelston and a small detachment breach the tunnel beneath the sandpit and make their way to the Martian ship, fighting MYU-Tants along the way. They manage to save Dr. Blake before she’s enslaved but the ship is preparing for take-off, so Fielding orders his men to pack the saucer with explosives.

The problem is, David’s missing, having been carted off by Rinaldi. Fielding orders all available men to go looking for the boy.

The timer is set and starts counting down, but the MYU-Tants use the radioactive ray to seal off the tunnel leading to the escape route.

David is rescued. And he suggests using the Martian radioactive ray to burn a hole to the outside. The tension builds as the explosive timer ticks down to zero and everyone has evacuated the tunnels and are running for cover. David’s run feels like an eternity just like in a dream when you’re running for dear life and not getting anywhere. And the events of the movie are playing out over his frightened face, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes.

That scene, expertly done, made me nervous and had me chanting under my breath for him to run!

The spaceship lifts off and explodes and David wakes up in his bed during a thunderstorm. He races to his parents’ bedroom, confused and frightened. They’re both alive and back to their normal selves. They reassure him that he was just having a bad dream, and George puts him back to bed.

But at 4:40 AM, David hears a loud noise like thunder, goes to his window, and the movie ends with him witnessing the very same flying saucer from his nightmare, slowly descending into the sandpit.

As previously mentioned, Invaders from Mars was released in 1953 just when science fiction was becoming a major Hollywood genre, adapted from John Tucker Battle’s original screenplay which was based on a nightmare that terrified his wife.

The script found its way to producer Edward L. Alperson and the original intention was to go for a 3D shoot, but the 3D craze was beginning to die down by the time filming began, so that idea was abandoned. And as it was delegated to the Saturday matinee class of space thrillers aimed at children the budget shrank to $290,000.

This meant the script needed an overhaul, so Richard Blake was brought in to downscale the global invasion into something that would fit within the tinier budget. Blake’s solution was to turn the story into a dream, a change that upset John Tucker Battle so much that he had his name removed from the credits.

I think this was a mistake on Battle’s part. Having read Battle’s 1950 revised draft, most of the key elements remained intact. All Blake did, besides adding the dream element, was tighten up the pace by removing unnecessary elements (like David’s dog, Cricket) and tweaking the initial interaction between David and his father. In Battle’s script, George MacLean, was a little gruffer about his sleep being disturbed, disbelieved David’s U-F-O sighting, and fed his son leftover flu medication to put the boy to sleep, even though David wasn’t sick. I don’t know about you, but slipping your kid a mickey finn at 4 in the morning hardly qualifies you for parent of the year, in my book. Also, the thing that leads George to investigate the sandpit in the early morning, was the disturbing noises made by their cow that was being a nosey parker on the hill. Maybe my bias is showing but I prefer Blake’s take on the story.

Again, I digress.

The film was then rushed into production in an attempt to beat George Pal’s “War of the Worlds” to theaters, making it the first feature film to show flying saucers and aliens in color.

Other budgetary changes Included Alperson hiring an all B-List cast and assigning the directing chores to William Cameron Menzies, who had directed before but was primarily known for his ingenious work on production design (a concept he practically invented) at the time.

As you can imagine, the special effects were done on the cheap. The effect of the Martian radioactive wave melting the tunnel walls was achieved by an overhead angle of oatmeal boiling in a pot, with red food coloring mixed in and shot with a red light. The cooled bubble tunnel walls were actually thousands of latex condoms blown up and pasted to the walls (and if you pay close attention, you can see them wobbling whenever anyone runs past). And the MYU-Tants were plush velour jump-suited extras with visible zipper seams running down their spines.

Jack Cosgrove created matte paintings of the MacLean house and the telescopic view of the atomic rocket, as well as glass paintings of a number of saucer interiors, including the angle down the glass tube above the Martian operating table.

The scenes of the military regiments rolling in when Colonel Fielding summoned troops to surround the sandpit, were accomplished by Edward Alperson using stock footage of a World War 2 training film on how to transport tanks by rail.

And then there was the infamous repetition of shots. In the underground tunnels leading to the Martian ship, the scenes of shuffling MYU-Tants and running soldiers are reused and disguised by flipping the scenes horizontally, to make it appear that there are more than six MYU-Tants present. The same trick is used when David’s parents attempt to flee from the army soldiers, when Rinaldi drags David out of the Martian operation room, when the soldiers open fire on a MYU-Tant and drop it in its tracks, only to have the fallen MYU-Tant rise and get shot again by reusing the same shot from seconds before, and when the army tanks open fire on the spot in the sandpit that the Martian ship is launching from.

Despite all this, one of the things that impresses me today is, even though it’s all a dream, David is somehow grounded in reality. He never overpowers an adult or goes toe to toe with a MYU-Tant. He’s constrained by the laws of physics of what a boy his age and size can do. That doesn’t make him any less a hero. His actions are responsible for mobilizing an armed response to an alien invasion and he’s in the thick of the action every step of the way. He’s a 10-year-old boy who marches with soldiers and manages to keep stride.

Once you realize that the story is being dreamed, all of the odd camerawork and effects make sense, as they added flourishes of dreamlike surrealism. David’s house was the most elaborate indoor set because it was a place he was most familiar with. Other indoor sets, the ones David hadn’t seen every day (the police station, the observatory, and the Martian saucer) were spartan, consisting of elongated structures with stark, unadorned walls, sometimes much taller than necessary to emphasize David’s smallness in the face of authority and the unknown.

Oh, I should mention Raoul Kraushaar’s curious musical score, especially the Martian chorus as people are sucked into the whirlpool of the sandpit. What’s even creepier than the eerie and foreboding melody is that fact that David and Dr. Blake can actually hear it just before the sandpit swallows them.

A year later, the film was scheduled to be released in the UK, but the run time was too short, and the dream narrative didn’t meet the demanding standards of the British film distributor, so additional footage was shot to expand the planetarium scene (causing wardrobe and background set continuity errors, not to mention new Jimmy Hunt’s growth spurt and older appearance) the U.S. ending was replaced with a more straightforward conclusion of David, Blake and Kelston seeking cover behind an army tank before the Martian saucer explodes overhead, and Dr. Blake assuring David that his parents are safe now that the Martian saucer was destroyed. This version ends in David’s bedroom, where he’s been put to bed by Kelston and Blake. Standing at his door, they wish him a good night.

In my humble opinion, the U-S ending stands head and shoulders above this, but hey, to each their own. Different bikes for different likes as they say.

Have you seen the film? If so, which version, American or British? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Nostalgia certainly plays a big part of my love for Invaders From Mars. Seeing it at a young age helped me to relate to this compelling tale set in an adult world heading into the crisis of an alien invasion, mainly because it was told from a boy’s point of view, and a good portion of the key scenes are filmed from a low angle to enhance the dramatic and visual impact. It was easy to put myself in David’s helpless shoes, and imagining how I would feel, and what could I do, if the logic of the world shifted on its axis, and the people I knew and authority figures could no longer be trusted. After the movie was over, I spent a long time thinking about how I would deal with a sandpit that became a living, sinister place that fed on humans, swallowing them whole into the bowels of the earth. I wasn’t as fortunate as David, because I didn’t know an astronomer with military connection, and I doubted that I could have convinced a single, solitary soul of the impending peril of an alien invasion that utilized our own people as weapons of mass destruction.

Which begs the question: How would the 10-year-old version of you be able to safeguard the planet? Let us know in the comments.

If you’ve made it all the way through this video, bless you, you’re a rock star. As this is our first video, asking you to subscribe is a bit premature (but if you’re willing to take a leap of faith, we certainly won’t stop you). If you enjoyed yourself, why not leave a like and share the video.

If you hated the video, be the bigger person and leave a like anyway. That will teach us a valuable lesson about the kindness of strangers.

Until next time, thanks for watching.

I Watched: Horse Girl

How do you draw a definitive line between dream life and waking life when characters and events begin bleeding into both? That’s the question explored in the Netflix fim, Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena, written by Baena and Alison Brie, which follows a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee who finds herself more content in the company of horses and supernatural crime shows than people. Have a gander at the trailer:

Sarah (Alison Brie) is that oddly shaped piece that doesn’t quite fit in the societal puzzle, friendly yet friendless–with the possible exception of her boss, Joan (Molly Shannon)–her shy, introverted ways leads her to live a quiet life. Aside from working at a crafts store, she visits the grave of her suicided mother and frequents the horse stable where Willow, the horse she rode in her childhood is boarded, which annoys the stable owners to no end.

On her birthday, when roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) finds Sarah home alone, she invites her boyfriend’s roommate, Darren (John Reynolds) over for a double date. The four drink and smoke weed and despite Darren talking about his ex all night, he and Sarah hit it off. When the party’s over, Sarah has a bizarre dream in which she is lying in an antiseptically white room with a man and woman and she wakes up face down in the living room on a mound of throw pillows and there are large scratch marks running across the wall that she can’t account for. Shortly after, a series of bizarre incidents begin to befall Sarah and that’s where this recap ends because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the movie for you.

So, would I recommend Horse Girl? It’s a yes for me but it’s one of those divisive films and it depends on how you view it, as a psychological drama about the effects of hereditary mental illness or a slow burn science fiction fever dream. Like a previous film I reviewed, Relic, the filmmakers seem intent on leaving the decision of whether Sarah is suffering mental problems or the victim of extraterrestrial forces beyond her ability to comprehend, entirely up to your interpretation.

Whichever way you personally lean, the one thing you will probably agree on is Alison Brie’s powerful and convincing performance as a troubled woman who slips on a patch of sanity and falls head first into the instability of a dream-life/waking-life reality that’s been tilted on its axis.

It’s currently on Netflix (apparently it’s been there a while) and it’s certainly, in my not-so-humble opinion, worth the watch. Besides, city and state reopenings have been a mixed bag, so you’re better off playing it safe by maxing and relaxing in your home, and there are far, far worse things you could be doing with 104 minutes of your self-isolated life. Treat yourself, why don’t you?

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Greyhound

In Greyhound, directed by Aaron Schneider, screenplay by and starring Tom Hanks, based on the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by a Nazi U-boat wolfpack during World War II.

Only a few months after the United States officially entered World War II, US Navy Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) receives his first war-time assignment aboard the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed GREYHOUND, to deal with the problem of German U-boats disrupting convoys of supplies in the Mid-Atlantic gap between North American and Britain where shore-based military air support is sorely lacking. Accompanying Greyhound in the assignment to get the 37 Allied ship convoy safely to Liverpool are two British destroyers codenamed HARRY and EAGLE, and a Canadian Flower Class corvette codenamed DICKIE.

When the convoy is three days away from Liverpool, Greyhound sonar identifies an incoming U-boat closing in on the convoy and the destroyer prepares to intercept. The U-Boat is able to launch a single torpedo before the Greyhound fires a full pattern of depth charges. Luckily, the U-boat torpedo misses, and the Greyhound depth charges effectively destroys the U-boat.

Before the Greyhound crew can celebrate their victory, their sonar picks up multiple targets slowly approaching in the distance. A Wolf Pack of six U-boats are stalking the convoy, staying just out of firing range. Krause suspects the Wolf Pack is waiting for nightfall in order attack under the cloak of darkness.

When night falls, the U-boat attack commences and a number of passenger and freight ships are destroyed by torpedoes. Krause has sonar on a few of the U-Boats but chooses to rescue the survivors of the downed ships rather than engage the enemy. And after their successful attack, the U-boats pull back to a safe distance once again.

The following day, the U-boats mount another coordinated attack and the Greyhound crew are now being taunted by broadcasts from the lead captain of the Wolf Pack in an attempt to affect ship morale. During the Wolf Pack attack, the Greyhound is barely able to evade the torpedoes deployed against her but the Dickie and the Eagle, are less fortunate. The Dickie takes some damage but still seaworthy, the Eagle, however, eventually sinks. Through the combined efforts of the Greyhound and Dickie, another U-boat is destroyed but Krause’s destroyer is now down to only six depth charges and their ammunition is running low and the convoy is still two days away from Liverpool and not yet in range of air support.

What happens next? They would be telling, and you know I hate dealing out spoilers (somewhat) but you’re free to head over to AppleTV+ and find out all on your lonesome.

So, would I recommend Greyhound? I have to admit that based on the trailer, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater to see this, COVID-19 notwithstanding, but, surprisingly enough, yes, this gets a recommendation. In fact, of all the films I’ve watched over the past week, I enjoyed this one the most, which is saying a lot because I’m typically not a war film kind of guy. I think it’s because this film takes a different approach by placing us inside the Greyhound along with the crew through the entire skirmish. The adversaries remain faceless voices issuing taunts over the airwaves, and when convoy ships are destroyed it all happens at a distance. There are a few explosions, U-boat destruction is typically marked by oil slicks on the ocean’s surface and I believe there are only three scenes containing blood and they’re minimal at best. Unfortunately, also minimal is character development, though subtle Tom Hanks plays to his strengths in portraying an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances, and I’m a fan of Stephen Graham and Elisabeth Shue, even though they aren’t given much to do here.

Another thing Greyhound is lacking (and this time it’s a good thing) is that mid-movie slump. You know exactly what I’m talking about, when a film comes out the gate strong, then sags in the middle and has to ratchet up the action in the third act to get you interested again. I can safely say, once you’re aboard the Greyhound, your investment in the story and the outcome remains consistent throughout. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a very well-paced film and I’m impressed by Hank’s handling of the screenplay.

In closing, if you’re looking for the intense, high octane tension of a 1917 or Dunkirk, you should probably go watch 1917 or Dunkirk. Greyhound isn’t that sort of war film and it doesn’t have to be. But it most certainly is ninety minutes of streamlined sea battle that’s worthy of your viewing time.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Old Guard

In The Old Guard, written by Greg Rucka, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.

Former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hires a mercenary team to rescue a group of kidnapped children in South Sudan. During the mission, however, the team find no children, and are ambushed by a squad of soldiers and are killed with extreme prejudice. The problem is, the mercenaries don’t stay dead. Their bodies spit out bullets, wounds heal rapidly and they slay their attackers, all of which has been recorded by Copley to expose their gift of immortality.

The mercenary team consists of Andromache of Scythia, but you can call her “Andy” (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) all of whom are centuries-old warriors with regenerative abilities who use their vast experience to help those in need.

While the team is hunting down Copely, the scene shifts to Afghanistan where U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) gets her throat slit in the line of duty, dies and recovers without a scratch. She is plagued by a disturbing dream that is somehow shared with the other immortals, who are now alerted to her existence, which forces Andy to track the Marine down and rescue her before the military brass can subject her to testing.

Copley shows video of the ambush to pharmaceutical executive Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who naturally wants to capture the mercenaries and turn them into lab rats in order to uncover the secret of their abilities for fame and profit. Andy take Nile to France where she’s introduced to the rest of their team and she hears the story of Quynh (Veronica Ngo), Andy’s first comrade, who was captured by priests during the witch trials and cast into the sea in an iron maiden and has been continually drowning ever since, as the mercenaries have not been able to pinpoint the location of the iron maiden. Nile learns that neither she or the rest of the team is truly immortal and one day their ability to heal will stop without warning.

Merrick’s forces are able to track the mercenaries down and in the melee Joe and Nicky are captured and a heavily wounded Booker is left behind as bait for Andy, who has taken damage during the assault and discovers her body is no longer healing in the process. After a bit of computer hacking, Booker locates Copley, and he, Andy and Nile mount a rescue attempt.

And because I don’t like spoiling films (not much, anyway) that’s all I’m telling you. You wanna know how it ends? You know what to do. It’s available on Netflix for you to stream to your heart’s content.

So, would I recommend The Old Guard? Sure. Just go in knowing that this is based on a comic book series written by Greg Rucka and the plot feels comic booky in nature, which is a weird thing for me to say because this film is in my wheelhouse and I should like it better than I do. I suppose my biggest problem is that I have no connection to any of the characters. Oh, I’m told how wonderful the characters are but I’m not shown anything beneath that expositional surface. The story is laid out so matter of factly, interested in hitting story beats rather than providing texture, that it feels more like the pilot of a tv series than a fleshed-out movie. Items are introduced to set up a sequel or possibly a franchise and I know that’s a thing now, with everyone jumping on the How-To-Franchise-Like-Marvel bandwagon, but it shouldn’t be overtly shoved into a film in place of proper character and story development.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see Nile, our every-person, resist a little more. Resist coming to terms with what she’s become, resist the mercenaries and their cause, and resist the wholesale slaughter that comes part and parcel with joining the old guard (which she does a little but it’s not enough in my opinion). Having said all that, it ain’t a terrible movie (don’t go by me and my tastes, what the hell do I know?) and if you’re already subscribed to Netflix, you’re not going to be out of any extra money, and Charlize Theron knows how to throw down in a fight and there’s enough action to satisfy your deep-seated need to see bad guys catch a bullet.

Ciao til next now.

Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

after-earth-1a

A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.

Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

after-earth-1a

A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.