Friday, November 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mars Attacks! (1996)


I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton.  After all, here he was - making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.

Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don't remember the reviewer...). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn't tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.

Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top,  and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! -- before the Martians arrive -- are pretty dire.  It's a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j'accuse).  The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose.  The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little.  It just dies on-screen.

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos.  They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically...) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum. 

Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet).  Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs. 

For instance, these alien creatures go (far...) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility.  And that's what's so funny. 

The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond  unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere.  And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they're just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.

This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders.  Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.

As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed.  Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat.  And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton's trademark, brilliant visual invention.  I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.

In the end, I must respectfully refuse to dismiss outright any film that ends with crooner Tom Jones breaking into a rendition of "It's Not Unusual" (accompanied by alighting birds...) as a re-assertion of order and nature, I suppose.   This just isn't something you see every day, especially coming from mainstream, conformist Tinsel Town.

Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don't work.

"Why destroy when you can create?"

Mars Attacks! is based on Topps' popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector's item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth's invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians. 

The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive ("Saucers Blast Our Jets"), frozen to death ("The Frost Ray"), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.

In Tim Burton's version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein. 

As the film's story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force. 

Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity. 

Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother's Slim Whitman records!  Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.

If one bears any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards. 

Cards such as "Burning Cattle," (pictured above)  "The Shrink Ray" and "Robot Terror" are all staged directly as action sequences in the film.  "Burning Cattle" actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky). 

Meanwhile, another Topps card "Panic in Parliament" seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.

Likewise, the card "Burning Flesh" reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians' first landing in Nevada. 

Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted ("Saucers blast our jets," "Terror in Times Square,") and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind's domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).  

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.

Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

Some amusing scenes aboard the Martian saucer in the film even find the aliens in a surprising state of undress (wearing just tiny little underpants!) in much the same mode of trading card examples such as "Watching from Mars," which similarly saw Martian citizens luxuriating (but in their Martian homes) while watching the destruction of Washington D.C. on wall-sized television screens.


After the distinctive and impressive look of the film, however, Burton's Mars Attacks! plays an entirely different game.  Where the cards were gory and bloody, and sought to present a truly terrifying invasion of Earth by nightmarish monstrous creatures, the movie is played entirely for laughs, both as a satire of disaster movies and of Washington politics.  The Martians, though evil, are cinematic figures of fun and jokes, not of surreal, outer space terror.
"This could be a cultural misunderstanding."

In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions  of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness. 

The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. 

The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson's president), in the military (as represented by Steiger's character), in big business (in Nicholson's Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox's attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by -- shudder -- Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan's egghead character, Dr. Kessler). 

To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed "categories" seems blinded by agendas which don't fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion).  In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively.  There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an "either/or," binary approach. 

And again, in real life this was the era of  hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.

Here, Nicholson's Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger's jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population.  That's a non-starter.

On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan's bleeding-heart scientist, who can't seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.

Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.

Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that -- in times of war -- it's okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first.  That's the patriotic thing to do. 

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn't a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of 'em.  Nicholson's character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton's love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.)

As I noted above, the president's unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won't stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a "cultural misunderstanding." 

Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: "can't we all just get along?"   That's an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes

Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of "Pox on Both Your Houses" message of principle from the film itself.

To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class. 

With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it's up to the president's resourceful  young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.

And again, the film's last scenes -- notably post-Martian and post-establishment -- re-assert visually a sense of natural order.  Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.

 On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media.   And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas).  In other words, the disenfranchised of America.  A new world order? 

Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) "clean-up" crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito's character.

Burton doesn't reserve all his satirical jabs for politics, either. His film comments on generic Hollywood blockbusters too.  Mars Attacks! thus concerns an in-vogue American  obsession of the 1990s  (alien invasions), one featured on TV in the X-Files and in theatrical productions such as Species (1995), The Arrival (1996) and Independence Day (1996). He also revives the Irwin Allen template for disaster films.  In other words, big, expensive casts, and lots of destruction.  Only in this case, he plays both aspects not for spectacle...but for humor.

Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on...). 

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments.  In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.   These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton's nastiest picture. 

And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs.  This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination.  I can't  really say it's a very commercial one, either.  

Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered.  Talk about brass balls.   But his film is schizophrenic too.  It's a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.

Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon.  It's a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter shot execution.   Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies.  The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.

But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations.  Someone should give them their own TV series. The time is ripe for another mean-spirited, gory alien invasion, if you ask me.

 Just imagine these guys at a Tea Party Rally, or Occupying Wall Street...

4 comments:

  1. Got a love/hate relationship with Burton's films. But I love this one (even if I cannot stand Fox and Parker and do everything to avoid their films and TV shows). I was sorry to see it bomb at the box office. But it seemed to be caught in a no win situation. It wasn't close enough to the cards to make that fan base happy. Then we had folks who had no idea what the thing was in the first place. Can't tell you how many people I talked to who had never heard of the cards, let alone the controversy they caused. One of the stars was on David Letterman, they showed a clip, and the audience was like "What the hell was that?". Anyway, I liked it.

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  2. You know John, it funny, as david mentioned above, Tim Burton, for me, is such an acquired taste.

    I don't always love his films, but I don't really hate them either. I respect the man as a director and artist. He definitely infuses his own unique style and vision into all sorts of ideas and they are always grand ideas.

    There's always something about his film on an emotional level that keep me at a distance, sort of pushing me back a little. I'm not sure why.

    I really kind of liked his remake of Charlie. I liked Sleepy Hollow.

    Anyway, maybe it was the campy kind of approach to Mars Attacks that made me stay awat, but oddly, for me, I never saw the film. I saw a bit once and was wowed by the alien effects and thought one day I will see it. Based on things I've seen and what I've read here I will finaly do so. But, I suspect Mars Attacks will leave me feeling the same way many of Tim Burton's films leave me.

    "well, that was good, but..."

    Anyway, you have really given folks a thorough analysis of the man's work and what to expect and look for. The one film I still really want to see is Ed Wood for Landau's performance along with this one.

    By the way, loved your historical context and the juxtaposition to the Topps cards. I had no idea, but that's very interesting and very cool.

    Best, sff

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  3. As expected, you've given this film a wonderful context to its time and relevance in Burton's canon to what it was trying to say, John. Watching it again, I now can see where it was going and what the director was trying to relate with the 50s alien invasion movie sub-genre and those wonderful Topps cards. It was daring alright... and I still hate the thing. Sorry, but I have to say it.

    There are some things I like in the film. The title sequence is awesome, but not the prologue. It's got a great cast, which I think is mainly wasted. The look is great and quirky, but that shot of the saucers encircled around the Earth (shown more than a few times) irks me no end since it gets the scale of spacecraft way off for those on the other side of the planet! I admit, that could have been purposeful, but its just another of its traits that gets to me. It has a wicked sense of humor, but mainly is so mean-spirited and unpleasant, it's hard for me to believe it comes from the same person who brought Edward Scissorhands.

    However, I would agree with you on another thing: "MARS ATTACKS! is the CANNONBALL RUN of alien invasion movies", but I say that not in anyway affectionately. There, now I feel better ;-).

    Thanks with putting up with my rant, and for another excellent look at a Tim Burton film in this series, my friend. We come in Peace...

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  4. Great commentary here, my friends, on what is a problematic film.

    David: I agree with you fully about having a love/hate relationship with Mars Attack! The first half hour is horrible, and I share your opinion of Parker and Fox in the film. Blah! There are some positive aspects that I love -- mainly the Loki-like Martians -- but when they're not on screen the movie fizzles. Still, I can't take my eyes off this bloody thing whenever it's on!

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I completely understand your point of view, too, SFF. Some of Burton's films leave me cold or downright sick (Planet of the Apes), and Mars Attacks! certainly has its share of problems. It's an interesting film that fails in execution in a number of places, as I detail in the review, but it would make a hell of a "best of" reel showing the Martian attacks and pranks.

    Le0pard13: I love your rant, buddy. We all have to rant about movies that irk us sometimes, and your comment certainly makes a number of good points. I don't disagree with them, by and large.

    I think the cast is wasted/mis-used/overwhelming, and that the film is mean. I find the meanness kind of funny in some weird way, and the Martians are the most endearing part of the movie for me, as I've indicated. I think they are fantastic creations, and they would really work well, perhaps, in another context (like an animated short, perhaps...). I feel the human actors are overwhelmed, and that Nicholson is awful and over-the-top in this film.

    And the Cannonball Run reference is meant to be only half-way affectionate. It's a not-very-good movie, with a few sparks here and there. The same might be said of Mars Attacks!

    Great comments from all!

    best,
    John

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