#33: Mars Attacks!
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Sylvia Sidney, Natalie Portman
My rating: Class O (1/7, very hot blue white supergiant star). Based on a bubblegum card set put out by Topps in 1962 which was discontinued only months later due to excessive gore and violence, directed by Tim Burton, with a to-die-for cast and phenomenal comic timing—at least if you get into the spirit of things—this is very close to being a perfect movie. Don’t get me wrong here: it’s not high art, and it’s not going to change your life. But it is way more fun than it ought to be, and if you’ve never seen it you are in for a treat.
Let’s start off by pointing out how irredeemably lacking the official cast list actually is. There are a lot of very talented big name actors in this film, and the cast list leaves a number of them out. So first, let’s correct that: you also get to see, in no particular order, Christina Applegate, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Pam Grier, Lisa Marie (big shock there), Jack Black, Joe Don Baker, and Luke Haas.
The movie is a standard alien invasion/disaster film with a large ensemble cast, great special effects, and alien invaders with unstoppable weaponry who seem intent on destroying humanity. No, it’s not The War of the Worlds or Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, and it’s definitely not Independence Day, which came out in the same year in a coincidence of epic proportions. That’s because the film takes all of the elements of those films and combines it with a very dark sense of humor to give a heck of a ride for the viewer.
I don’t know if this film is for everyone. The martians are gleefully sadistic and cruel, and if you actually like people—or dogs— you might not enjoy this movie. In fact, not even the people are really likeable, with a few exceptions. In fact, Mars Attacks! is just mean. The film also turns every singler disaster and alien invasion movie conceit upside down, which is half the fun but which might also bother fans of those two genres.
Those things may be why the film didn’t do so well; it garnered only $101 million at the box office, most of which came from overseas, and is sometimes considered a box office bomb, at least in the United States. The good folks at Rotten Tomatoes only give it 5.6 stars (out of ten), and only 51% of the reviewers liked it (of the “official” critics, only 33% liked it).
In my book, however, any movie that opens with a flaming cattle stampede can’t be all bad.
Plot (Contains Spoilers) (Jump to Impressions and skip the spoilers)
Short summary: There is so much going on in this film that I’m not sure any short summary can even begin to capture its essence. Plus there are at least four boy-meets-girl moments, along with one bad marriage, three good ones…oh heck. Okay, here’s how the movie works. We discover martian flying saucers approaching earth, so the president sends his least hawkish general out to meet them. The martians kill all the soldiers and a huge chunk of the press and bystanders.
Citing cultural misunderstanding, the president invites the martians to address Congress, and the martians promptly accept, only to kill all the members of Congress. A martian agent gains access to the White House, killing the First Dog, several Secret Service agents, and possibly the White House Press Secretary.
Then the angry Martians invade in earnest. They attack the White House (Goodbye, tour guide, additional secret service agents, and the First Lady!) and Washington (Goodbye, Washington Monument and Cub Scout troop!), followed up by Los Vegas (Goodbye, Galaxy Hotel!).
Tom Jones, a ditzy new age chick, an ex-boxer and a showgirl flee Los Angeles; Richie goes to his Grandmother’s rescue; the President retires to a hidden command center. Finally convinced the martians are evil, President Dale listens to General Decker and launches a nuke against the martian leader’s flying saucer. It doesn’t work. The martians invade all over the world (Goodbye, people in Grandma Norris’ old folks’ home!; Goodbye, citizens of Los Vegas!; Goodbye, General Decker and President Dale!). Destruction of world landmarks takes place (Goodbye, Big Ben! Goodbye, Santa Sophia! Goodbye, mysterious Easter Island statues!).
Grandma Norris’ music—Slim Whitman singing Indian Love Call—turns out to explode the martians’ heads, even when broadcast over the radio. The day is saved!
The day is saved, but the movie isn’t quite over. We get a Disney-esque sequence with Tom Jones, as well as an award ceremony, and the boxer Byron returns to his family, not dead after all.
Here are some of the things I or the other members of the Wretched Excess Crew found laugh-out-loud funny:
- The movie opens with the aliens using their powerful futuristic technology to set a herd of cows on fire and stampede them, which is witnessed by an Asian man with his family and their redneck neighbor (on his tractor) just outside Lockjaw, Kentucky.
- General Casey, of “I knew if I just kept quiet I’d advance” fame, never offers an opinion; he just asks questions (“Do we know they’re warships?” “Do we know they’re hostile?”
- Professor Donald Kessler asserts that any technologically advanced species must be peaceful, so the aliens can’t be a threat.
- The nuns visiting Los Vegas are fight fans.
- Thanks to lust and a bizarre interest in fashion on the part of the White House science advisor, Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), his first interview about the martians goes to a fashion reporter (Sarah Jessica Parker).
- Louise Williams stops her bus to get her children, who are skipping school, to the applause of her passengers.
- I enjoyed White House Press Secretary Jerry Ross’ explanation for his sexual appetite as hinging on his “stress at work.”
- Professor Donald Kessler: “The human race is an aggressively dangerous species.” What hubris!
- White House tours can’t be interrupted for any reason.
- Jerry Ross: “Right now the president is talking to other world leaders…A unilateral concerted diplomatic effort is being made.”
- Androgynous reporter: “Do the martians have two sexes, like we do?”
- When Natalie reaches for her husband Jason’s hand during the initial Martian attack, she reaches it!
- The martians lounge around their ships in their underwear (except for their leader and their ambassador, who almost never remove their purple and red robes, respectively).
- When we first see the martian leader, he’s looking at a copy of Playboy—even though he’s got a nearly naked Natalie Lake right there in his ship with him, and even though he lacks external genitalia.
- Barbara Land (Annette Bening), the dippy New Age chick who hates modern industrialist capitalist society, lives in the lap of luxury thanks to her husband’s mastery in that very world order.
- Grandmother Norris, laughing: “They blew up Congress!” (This was probably more funny now, in the wake of the debt ceiling circus and the 14% approval rating, than it would have been otherwise.)
- Though he has no body, and she has the body of a chihuahua, Natalie and Donald find love on the Martian space ship.
- The entrance to the thoroughly modern and hidden “love room,” which resembles a high class bordello, is hidden in a bust of JFK (it’s called the Kennedy room).
- The martian who holds the President hostage is distracted by a caged parakeet, and takes his gun off the president in order to kill the bird.
- After the martians knock over the Washington monument, they intercept the fall and redirect it to make sure it falls on the cub scout troop.
- The First Lady is killed by “the Nancy Reagan chandelier.”
- Two little boys who have commandeered martian weapons: “What are you guys gawking at? Get that president out of here!”
- Byron Haskins to Tom Jones: “Do you know how to fly a plane?” “Sure, you got one?”
- As the martians attack all over the world, their translators bark out “Don’t run! We are your friends!”
- Easter Island’s mysterious giant statues used as bowling pins.
- The martians watch Godzilla and The Dukes of Hazzard as their warfleets rage across Earth.
- Martians spying on a couple having sex breathe so hard they fog up their helmets, and have to deploy windshield wipers.
- Danny DeVito, as the sleazy gambler-lawyer, tries to bribe a martian and offers his legal services to assist in the martian conquest.
- As young Richie rushes to Grandmother’s rescue, the evil martians stealthily creep up behind her with a big ray gun, which she can’t hear because she’s listening to music with her earphones on.
- Richie has to dodge a flaming wheelchair, complete with corpse, to reach his grandmother.
- Grandma Norris, after two martians have had their heads exploded by Slim Whitman recordings: “Richie, I think these guys are very sick!”
- The martians throw a snow globe into the command center, which everyone thinks is a bomb or weapon, before entering.
- As he attempts his last negotiation, President Dale puts his coat on and fixes his tie, so he looks appropriately presidential.
- In Kansas, the redneck neighbor’s corpse drives by on his flaming tractor.
- The Tom Jones/Barbara Land (Annette Bening) sequence with the animals in Tahoe really brought on the laughter, especially the hawk landing on Tom Jones’ wrist.
- Grandma Norris can’t stand the mariachi band playing the national anthem and covers her ears while they play.
- The microphone at the awards ceremony doesn’t actually work.
The real stars of the film are the martians, which are the product of CGI, and their malicious antics. But there are some superb human performances here worth noting. Annette Bening, as the ditzy recovering alcholic who buries herself in New Age philosophies, is fantastic. Michael J. Fox’s performance reminds me why he was so popular, a gifted comedian who has been tragically lost to us. Glenn Close nails the Nancy Reagan-ish shrew of a First Lady (my apologies to Nancy Reagan, which are amplified in her glossary entry, but the role really does reflect some of the nastier criticisms aimed at her). In a way, Pam Grier is wasted in the role of the bus-driving Louise Williams, but her performance as an enraged mother is really solid. Sylvia Sidney, as Grandmother Florence Norris, is a wonderfully malicious old woman. Natalie Portman’s character doesn’t given her much room for really showcasing her talent, but she does deliver a perfectly world-weary line upon the second martian attack: “I guess it wasn’t the dove.”
On the negative side, Jack Nicholson, normally a fine actor, over-emotes a bit as President Dale, though to his credit I didn’t realize that he was in a dual role as the Los Vegas hotel developer until the credits rolled.
Danny Elfman’s score is very nicely done, an homage to 1960s film scores, with an eerie theme for the Martians. Unfortunately, like a lot of modern movies, the music becomes very loud in places. But on the whole the music was fantastic and even managed to reflect Burton’s sense of irony and his anti-themes, if you will.
The effects are fantastic, which is important given that the martians are the key element of the film. The martians are the product of CGI: Burton was reportedly unhappy with just how smooth the animation was (he apparently wanted to use stop-motion animation, but the studio talked him into CGI), so the special effects boffins simply took out the last step where they smoothed out the motion. Burton’s martians look like skulls with exposed brains and large bare eyeballs, which gives them a sort of permanant grin. That matches their personalities; the entire series of events feels like a number of very small boys with no sense of the consequences of their actions were handed highly destructive technology and sent over to the nearest inhabited planet to play.
Narratively, a great deal of the film’s humor comes from the gleefully malevolent martians, the sort of humor that drives boys of a certain age to pull the wings off flies, as it were. As Mark remarked, they’re not attacking Earth because they need it, or because they feel threatened. They’re doing it because it’s fun.
The story really isn’t all that important, to be honest. In that respect, Mars Attacks! is like any other disaster film. What’s important is the human reaction to the disaster—but this is a comedy. A great deal of the film’s humor comes from the fact that the human reaction is demonstrated, not by fully-fleshed characters, but instead by caricatures of people. Mars Attacks! has the ditzy and somewhat hypocritical New Ager who believes in peace; the politician who doesn’t do anything without considering how it will look in the polls; the scientist who has no idea what he’s talking about; the sleazy land developer; the angsty teen who wears nothing but black; the token black man in the circles of power, present precisely because he’s inoffensive; the hyper-patriotic poor working class citizens; the ambitious but dumb news reporter; the working-class father who’s been famous but now just wants to get back to his family; and on and on.
There are a number of visual gags, as well as some delightful verbal jokes, which round out the film nicely.
I know what you’re wondering at this point: if the film was so good, and so funny, how come more people didn’t like it? Well…the film is brilliant, but it’s also mean. Then, too, Burton deliberately included imagery and events that crossed the line. He kills an American soldier holding an American flag, for example. He makes President Dale a bit of a bumbler who cynically exploits events for his political benefit, without the people ever realizing they’re being manipulated. He kills a dog on screen. He humbles US military might and practically spits on the notion of the human spirit by letting both General Decker and President Dale give stirring speeches about fighting for democracy and the need for peace, respectively, before unceremoniously killing them.
These things are funny if you look at them as criticisms of film, novels and narrative in general. They aren’t so funny if you take them seriously or don’t understand that in some ways Burton filmed an exercise in film criticism. In fact, in a lot of ways the events of Mars Attacks! are downright offensive.
Obviously, I liked this film. I am aware that there is plenty more to say about it—whether or not the film has a message (there may be one or two in there), the marked parallels to Independence Day which came out in the same year (apparently completely coincidental), and whether or not it qualifies as science fiction at all (I promise that one day soon you’ll see a post on what science fiction is)—but at the end of the film’s running time, the only thing that really mattered to me was that I’d laughed pretty hard and had a good time. The biggest disappointment for me of the entire night was the discovery that the martian language version of the film was just English—if they’d made the film with nothing but martian “Dack ack!” for dialogue, I’d have happily watched it again. And in that respect, the film is a nearly perfect example of what it’s supposed to be.