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.

Failed Analogies

I wouldn’t be posting this if I hadn’t just posted the review for The Day the Earth Stood Still, but this one just has to be shared.

I have an older episode of Bones on in the background while working on some writing this morning; certainly not science fiction in the traditional sense, but definitely fiction focused on science.  Temperence “Bones” Brennan, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is brilliant in her field, but not so brilliant when it comes to understanding regular social interactions, and how to engage people.  This is quirky when she’s working on the case, but as the episode shows, it’s not so charming when she’s on the stand testifying before a jury.

The federal prosecutor takes Bones to task for this, even before the more charming (but less rigorous) defense expert testifies.  In chastising Bones for her demeanor, she charges:

“You come across as a robotic Klaatu.”

Unfortunately, Bones is not well-versed in pop culture, and Agent Booth, her regular partner, is more an action guy than a sci-fi nerd, so no one gets what we here in the Galaxy know right away: Gort is the robot, Klaatu is the alien.  (Of course, given Klaatu’s demeanor in either version of the film, the alien attitude does come across as somewhat robotic by Earth standards.)

It’s amazing these prosecutors can manage their cases at all, given their weak grasp of the facts . . .

Sunday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: The Day the Earth Stood Still

As I continue my tour of alien visitation, I’m switching gears for the second part of my double feature, and looking at aliens who aren’t looking to invade the Earth, but instead hope to save the Earth. 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the early classics of the genre, a film that stood out from the B-movie classics we all love from that era, and had a larger message.

The Day the Earth Stood Still features many elements that would become cliché in the genre, but that doesn’t take away from the film at all; perhaps its early date makes the cliché more acceptable. The movie starts with a flying saucer descending on Washington D.C.; the alien, Klaatu, emerges from the interplanetary ship, declares that he comes in peace, produces a goodwill offering, and is promptly shot when the offering is mistaken for a weapon. Gort, Klaatu’s eight foot tall robot bodyguard, quickly disintegrates the guns, cannons, and tanks brought to greet the saucer – but does no harm to the soldiers.

Man’s aggression toward the alien actually fits the theme of the film: Klaatu is an ambassador to Earth to warn us that our aggressive nature is our own undoing – but our own affair – so long as it is limited to Earth, but as we gain the ability to travel to other planets, such aggression will not be tolerated in the interplanetary community. Since Klaatu lands in Washington, D.C., he is first taken to a naval hospital after he is shot, and visited by a secretary to the President; Klaatu requests to meet with “all world leaders” at once, which is resisted not only be the secretary (who prefers that Klaatu share his message with the American head of state), but also by the other world leaders, who can’t even agree on where a meeting would take place. (When Klaatu describes our international bickering as “childish,” it is hard to argue with his point.)

Realizing that talking to world leaders will not be the answer, he decides to try to the scientific/intellectual community, in hope that they will return to their leaders to urge them to change course. Klaatu “leaves his calling card” with Professor Barnhardt, a Nobel laureate and the smartest man in the world (at least, when Klaatu isn’t around): Klaatu easily leaves solutions on the professor’s chalkboard while he is out to a problem the professor has been working on “for weeks,” according to his housekeeper. Klaatu’s solution indeed gets the professor’s attention, and Klaatu (as “Mr. Carpenter,” his Earth alias) is taken to Professor Barnhardt later that night. Klaatu is able to convince the professor of the gravity of his mission, and his desire to help Earth; Professor Barnhardt agrees to summon the top intellectuals from around the world to meet with Klaatu.

Naturally, human nature gets in the way. Klaatu has befriended Bobby, son of Helen Benson, who live at the boarding house where Klaatu is staying; Helen’s boyfriend, Tom, initially motivated by jealousy, is distrustful of “Mr. Carpenter,” and feels his suspicions confirmed when Bobby tells his tales of trailing “Mr. Carpenter” on an evening excursion to the saucer. Tom further investigates the following day, as Klaatu explains his mission to Helen; Helen grasps the import of Klaatu’s mission, but Tom only can imagine the rewards and fame that would come to him by turning over Klaatu to the authorities.

“Shoot first” continues to be the official response, and Klaatu is gunned down in the street attempting to reach Professor Barnhardt; of course, you can’t assume that “death” is the same to an alien as to a human, and Gort rescues Klaatu from government custody so Klaatu can finally deliver his message before he leaves the planet. Klaatu artfully combines aspiration with ultimatum: in the person of Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu has seen reason in humanity, but he has had ample examples of man’s aggressive nature; if we choose not to deal with our own nature, we will be dealt with.

The original film is delightfully dated: my favorite moment would have to been when it’s reported that scientists believe the visitor is most likely from Mars or Venus, as those are the planets most capable of supporting life; I also love that the intrepid newscaster appears on screen wearing his fedora, the timeless badge of the determined male. For most of the actors involved, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the career highlight; Patricia Neal did later win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Paul Newman’s Hud, and director Robert Wise would later win Best Director/Best Picture Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and made another significant contribution to the sci-fi genre as director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film also features an excellent score by Hollywood legend Bernard Hermann.

While the original film is rightly regarded as one of the early sci-fi masterpieces, the 2008 remake probably is unjustly regarded as a disaster. It did bring in some bigger stars (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, and Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson, even John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt), and it did some revisions that will probably look as dated in 50 years as the original does today. But while I’m not a huge fan of remaking the same story time and again, I felt it worked in this case; and though the original is critically regarded as a classic, I doubt that it is sought out by any but the hardest core younger sci-fi fans. And the message is one that, sadly, needed to be updated and is worth trying to reach audiences today.

While there is still plenty of aggression in the world, director Scott Derrickson shifted the destructive theme to the environment, and does so in a poignant way: Klaatu’s message this time is that if man continues unchecked, he will destroy himself and all life on Earth; but if man is removed from the equation, the Earth may be saved. Gort’s role is also different: instead of acting as Klaatu’s bodyguard on a mission to warn the Earth, Gort is here to carry out the directive to destroy all traces of humanity once Klaatu confirms that humanity is beyond hope. While Barnhardt again starts to change Klaatu’s mind about humanity’s potential (“It is only when we are at the brink that we begin to change”), it is his evolving relationship with Helen and Jacob Benson (replacing Bobby, and played most annoyingly by Jaden Smith) that finally convinces him to call off the destruction of humankind.

Between the two, the remake has nothing on the original – but it’s a high bar trying to remake one of the most significant science fiction films made. I actually watched the remake first in preparing this review, and my first reaction to Keanu Reeves was that his manner seemed wooden and flat (which is sometimes his range), but after watching the original, I realized that this manner is appropriate for the “other” coming to observe and judge the people of a planet. Both versions are worth your time; The Day the Earth Stood Still is essential viewing, as it shows aliens coming to save the Earth, rather than conquer it.

Saturday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Sorry it’s been a couple weeks since my last review; last week I was under the weather, and this week, my old job demanded some attention.  To make it up, this weekend will feature a Double Feature, starting right now, and I’ll be back on Thursday to wrap up the September alien invasion . . .

You know how it is: once Hollywood finds an idea that works, it has to work again. And again. And, sometimes, yet again. Such is the tale of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others). It’s as if every 15-20 years, alien powers controlling Hollywood assume that a new generation of movie-goers will file into the theater and watch the same movie with different actors . . .

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally released in 1956, based on Jack Finney’s 1954 book The Body Snatchers (I haven’t read it); there were no enduring stars, but a few “that guy who was in that thing.” Of course, when you have a cult hit but no big stars, the appropriate thing to do is to remake it, which happened in 1978, this time starring Donald Sutherland, with Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum in supporting roles (and 1956 star Kevin McCarthy in a cameo).

Lest the public catch on that you’re repackaging the story too often, the name was shortened to simply Body Snatchers for a 1993 remake; this is the version I haven’t seen, which is not surprising given a box office under $500,000, though apparently the film received generally positive reviews. The most recent incarnation goes the opposite direction of Body Snatchers, and was simply titled The Invasion for a 2007 release featuring big stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Since we’re talking about a film that has been made, then remade three times, the basic plot is the same. There may be some foreshadowing incident during the opening credits that suggests (or flat out shows) how the alien infection reaches earth, but the real start of the action is when reports start coming in that a loved one “just isn’t himself.” Of course, the notion is simply dismissed by those who would have any authority to handle the problem – just acting strange is no reason for alarm, so the invasion continues to grow.

Some intrepid medical/scientific type puts together that this “not being oneself” corresponds to some kind of spore or biological pod – which is NOT OF THIS WORLD! Of course, this notion is nuts, and no one actually believes it. And, the invasion continues to grow.

The intrepid medical/scientific type continues to investigate the invasion. The onset seems to be sleep, so it is critical that the hero (or heroine) investigate without sleep, and that their faithful companion of the opposite gender do the same. They discover that the invasion is about to go world wide (or, in the most recent case – ALREADY IS!!!! BUM BUM BUUUUUMMMMM!!!!!). It all becomes very tense, as sleep deprivation combines with the growing knowledge of alien infiltration combines with the paranoia of wondering whether acquaintances and colleagues have “turned” – and whether they’ll learn that our hero (or heroine) hasn’t.

The original film – and to a large extent, the 1978 remake – is a film that has implications beyond the “mere” alien invasion. Released as the Cold War was heating up, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to read a communist threat into the secret invasion – the threat cannot be seen, and only becomes physically threatening to those who would resist. Even then, the goal is not elimination, but assimilation. The pods replace the people, but the new “pod people” go on living their seemingly normal lives – but without emotion, without individualism. The horror of the situation isn’t aliens coming with destructive technology that can kill in an instant, but will take away the qualities, good and bad, that make us “who we are” – as we assumed was happening in Soviet Russia, or communist China. This was truly a fate worse than death.

The 2007 remake has its own messages. The premise is a little more believable – gone are the pods that mysteriously turn into the corresponding human (then somehow kills that human by draining his life force); a space shuttle crash spreads the alien spores across a wide area, and the spores, once inside the human host, act as a virus and takes over the human host. I suppose the premise makes a little more sense (though, does it really make sense that a virus would have a collective consciousness once it takes over its hosts?), but it seems to take something away from the simple sci-fi horror of the earlier films – “It’s the PODS! We have to destroy the PODS!” – and turns it into some kind of sci-fi/medical drama. Notably, it is the only of the Invasion films I watched that seems to have a definitive, “happy” ending: a few people are found who seem immune to the infection, and a vaccine is quickly developed which stops and reverses the infection. It does take away from that happy ending, though, as the news was filled with peace accords and cease-fires while the alien presence had taken over, and humanity reverts to, well, human nature once the “cure” is found. Of the three I watched, this is the one I would probably skip.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film every sci-fi fan should see. The original is pretty well made, and has the charm of being better than your standard 1950’s B-movie fare, and some pretty decent acting and story telling. But if you’re only going to watch one version, I’d go with the 1978 remake. It’s definitely a product of the 1970’s, but I feel it best captures the darkness and horror of the story, with believable characters and a good blend of plot and action.

Humble Bundle: Putting the “Science” in Science Fiction

I don’t like to sell things – I could never be involved with sales, and even my last attempt at part-time retail was a quickly aborted disaster.  As a writer, I basically have no money, and my reviews are (1) meant to steer you to spend your time and money on things I love that I think are worthwhile, and (2) generally are available either on television, streaming services (which I assume most people have access to, whether Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime), or are bargain bin finds.

But if you’re here, you’re probably into sci-fi.  And if you’re into sci-fi, I’m telling you that you should check out the Humble Bundle before September 28.

I discovered the Humble Bundle a couple years ago, and I love the concept:  it’s a “pick your price” content provider, with additional premium content available at reasonable step-up prices; I’ve only paid over $20 on a few occasions, and the sheer volume of content at the top tier is insane.  The biggest portion of the payment goes to the content publisher, but 15% of the purchase goes to charity – and if you’re not thrilled with the charities support by the current bundle, you’re always free to pick an alternative (though, I never have).  Heck, one of the cool things about the Humble Bundle is learning about charities that are helping in areas I had never even considered.

The book bundle which just went live today is “Science Fiction by REAL Scientists,” with an excellent selection of e-books from Springer.  I decided to jump on the deal when I saw the premium tier, which has four non-fiction books discussing real, current science issues commonly portrayed in science fiction, including medical/biological/genetic issues, and alien life in the universe; as a writer, and as a sci-fi lover with a limited science background, these books alone let me consider my purchase an “investment.”

But that’s not all!

(There is no latent salesman inside me.  But I had to say it.)

The basic bundle and the mid-tier bundle each have five books, mostly fiction ranging from space exploration, alien encounters, and genetic enhancement.  One of the cool things about the books, however, is that each contains a non-fiction appendix detailing the real science used in the story.  I’ve always believed that the best fiction doesn’t just entertain, it also expands your mind; this bundle not only expands your mind, but literally educates you.

The charities supported with this bundle are UNICEF and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), so you’re supporting worldwide humanitarian efforts, and the artists who produce the works we love.

The bundle is only active for two weeks, so go check it out!

Humble Book Bundle: Science Fiction by REAL Scientists

#TBT Classic Movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I’m trying something a little different for September – a theme. For the next four weeks, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on classics about aliens visiting the earth. While Close Encounters didn’t start the genre, it remains one of the best realized films that focuses on the most basic aspect of it: alien visitors. The aliens aren’t invading, they don’t have a message for us – they’re simply here to check things out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie I wish I could have seen with no preconceived ideas. As the movie starts, you really don’t know what kind of movie it’s going to be – the opening scene actually looks like a time travel movie, which followed by a brief interlude in which several pilots refuse to acknowledge the unidentified flying objects they’ve observed to be UFO’s, which is followed by a scene with a child’s room full of apparently possessed toys. It’s only when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves his house to go on a work call that we’re sure it’s an alien movie.

The strength of the film is that it’s not really about the aliens, it’s about humanity’s reaction to the aliens. Some are fascinated with the visitors, to the point of obsession; some are frightened; some refuse to believe. Neary and his wife, Lonnie (Teri Garr), were a dysfunctional couple before Roy’s encounter, and Roy’s obsession turns out to be more than Lonnie can support. Single mother Jillian Guiler starts out with a mother’s concern when her son Barry wanders off, then watches the visitors with awe, before experiencing terror when Barry later is taken by the alien craft. The aliens are unable to communicate with humanity, and their crude attempts look like either friendly fly-bys on country roads, or a terrifying invasion of Jillian’s lonely country home.

The government response creates the drama for the second half of the film, and I enjoy the tone used here. Of course a government conspiracy is employed to clear the area around Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, where signs point to an imminent alien convergence. Clearing civilians is the extent of the conspiracy, however, as operation staged is not about confronting the aliens, but observing and attempting to communicate with them. There is no alien language developed for the film, simply tones – music – a common language to open a dialogue. For the last 5-10 minutes of the film, dialogue as a whole is largely replaced by the amazing film score – John Freakin’ Williams, ’nuff said.

I don’t know if this movie could be made today, with the subtleties of understanding (and misunderstanding) with the visited humans, and the focus on dialogue with the visitors; military force is never discussed as an option toward the aliens, while in movies before and after Close Encounters the human military or police presence is either a necessary precaution or a typical source of misperceived human aggression toward aliens. In E.T., The Extraterrestrial, Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterpiece produced just five years later, the government actions toward the alien visitor and his youthful friends are overtly sinister, and Peter Coyote comes across as creepy even when he’s ostensibly trying to help. Even in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the closest film that comes to mind in the tone of Close Encounters), the “other” was cautiously treated as threat until its identity as our own creation became clear at the end. (The film also contains a nice Star Trek Easter egg.)

While it’s hard to imagine this kind of film being made today, the movie stands up remarkably well. Because the story revolves around the human reaction to the alien visitors, there is little reliance on special effects or costuming for the aliens or their technology; while “flying saucers” are no longer en vogue, the types of ships aliens would fly is pure speculation, and since they only appear in the dark, their lights are very effective in giving an impression of a space ship, without giving the kinds of details that would date the movie.

I expect that Spielberg is done tinkering with the film – he’s not George Lucas, and his career has seen so many diverse successes that no one film or franchise defines him. (In the interest of full disclosure, I watched the Director’s Cut – Spielberg’s final tinkering with the film – for this review.) Still, I would expect a new release of the film in the next few months, as the film celebrates its own 40th anniversary in 2017. I don’t see any reason to wait to watch it, though – watch it now, and watch it again next year. You can celebrate one of the best examples of the genre more than once.

The Continuing Five Year Mission

It is well known that 2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek – and today is the actual 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode.  You can’t overstate the legacy of a television show that lasted only three original seasons (plus an animated run), but has spawned multiple spin-offs, books, comics, and over a dozen movies, and has earned the loyal following of millions of fans worldwide.

Don’t worry, I won’t even try to state (or understate) the franchise’s impact.

I can but wonder if hundreds of years from now, as man leaves this Earth to venture to the stars, if the person who started us on the path is someone who was inspired by Roddenberry’s creation.

Happy Anniversary, Star Trek – and congratulations on having your five year mission extended ten times over, and counting.  The series has indeed lived long, and prospered beyond imagination.