Flashback Friday Classic Movie: Mars Attacks!

In my month long trek through the varieties of space visitors, we’ve seen visitors just visiting (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), visitors silently taking over (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and visitors coming to save a humankind bent on its own destruction (The Day the Earth Stood Still). But for the finale, I just figured I’d go with the most classic scenario – the flat out assault on the Earth.

I considered Independence Day (the original, I can’t figure out who thought it was necessary to make the new one, and have avoided it successfully thus far). It captures everything that’s typical about an alien invasion blockbuster: the aliens suddenly appear, larger than life, humanity can’t figure out if this is an opportunity or a threat – until it is all too clear that the threat is present, and beings that can travel across the galaxy in ships the size of cities naturally have technology that the human race simply can’t match.

And that’s all well and good, but if I’m taking a “classic” from the 1990’s, it’s got to be Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! is technically an adaption – of a trading card set released by Topps in 1962. The look and feel of the movie is true to the cards, especially with the design of the aliens, as well as the aliens’ single-minded (or should that be mindless?) destruction of the Earth. From the little I know about the Comics Code Authority (CCA), I have to wonder if releasing the “story” as a card set sheltered Mars Attacks from the censorship more common in comic stories of the time; even without the censorship, some card designs were considered too gory – or too sexy – to be sold to kids, and the whole set was eventually pulled from the shelves. Today, the easiest way to get your hands on the set is to buy the commemorative book published by the Topps Company celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original set, which features the front and back of each card, including the censored cards, and later additions to the set.

Who but Tim Burton could turn a trading card set into a classic movie? I was unaware of the card set when I first saw the film, but I was aware of Tim Burton’s biopic of cult director Ed Wood, best known for producing what some (many?) consider the “worst movie of all-time,” Plan 9 from Outer Space. With that as a reference, my assumption was that Mars Attacks! was a sort of Ed Wood film perfectly realized, with the fleet of flying saucers converging on the Earth during the film’s opening credits, the “little green men” aliens who seem to have a complex language based on single syllable words, most resembling “aaakk!” in a sort of verbal Morse Code.

The story also progresses as a 1950’s sci-fi B-movie perfectly realized: scientists spot the alien fleet approaching the Earth, and the scientists and military men disagree on whether the aliens are opportunity or threat. The scientists (led by the chief White House science advisor, played by Pierce Brosnan) reason that a society would have to be highly advanced to engage in interplanetary travel, and an advanced civilization is certain to be a peaceful civilization. President Dale (Jack Nicholson) chooses the optimistic view of the scientists over the aggressive view of his military advisors.

First, the President decides to interrupt all television broadcast to address the nation about the Martian visitors; the President’s address is interrupted by the leader of the Martian fleet. A contact point is established in the Nevada desert; after an auspicious first contact, a spectator releases a dove – which appears to anger the Martians, who proceed to (ray) gun down the military and much of the media present to record first contact. Despite the carnage inflicted by the Martians, the President opts to view the incident as a cultural misunderstanding – and invites the Martian ambassador to address a joint session of Congress. After the Martians take out Congress, the President delivers my favorite line from the movie: “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad!” Given the destruction that was to follow, he was right.

Humanity is outgunned by the Martians, but they underestimated our determination to defend our home planet. With our technology no match for the Martian ray guns, Byron Williams (Jim Brown), former heavyweight champ and current casino greeter, takes on the Martians mano-a-Martian. The Topps card series had no ending for the story, so Tim Burton (and writer Jonathan Gems) came up with a solution so bizarre, no one else could have come up with it.

The film works for me because it walks the fine line between tribute and parody. In some ways, it may have “worked” better without all the big stars – seeing Jack Black and Natalie Portman in early roles is fun because at that time, they would have just been actors to play their parts, unlike much of the rest of the movie, which has you constantly thinking, “It’s Jack Nicholson/Danny DeVito/Glenn Close/Pierce Brosnan/Jim Brown/Michael J. Fox/Sarah Jessica Parker/Pam Grier/Annette Benning!” (I’m leaving Tom Jones off the list, because if part of the movie is taking place in Las Vegas, of course Tom Jones should be there.) The stars have small roles, but not cameos; it may be the most impressive ensemble cast ever assembled. Incorporating that many stars sometimes distracts from the story, but it also makes the film feel like Hollywood’s love letter to the films of the 1950’s that paved the way for the blockbuster sci-fi special effects bonanzas we are treated to every summer.

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