Monday, May 1, 2017

Oddball Film Report: MARS ATTACKS! (1996 - color)

MARS ATTACKS! (1996 - color)

The Short Story: Tim Burton directs an all-star cast in a lavish tribute/send-up of 50's science fiction and 70's disaster epics.

The Details:
   It was something of a misfire. 

   A movie you either love or hate, Tim Burton's lavish tribute to 50's invasion movies via a big screen adaptation of the notorious early 60's Mars Attacks trading cards certainly brings the goods to the table. The use of those goods doesn't quite work out the way the producers were hoping, however. This may largely be because the tone of the film is hard to pin down. It seems to be trying to be all things to all people, and pleasing fewer than intended.

   It's an epic, all-star disaster movie that hearkens back to both the disaster cycle of the 70's and the Technicolor epics of the 50's. 

   It's a science fiction horror film. 

   It's, if not an outright comedy, certainly a satire. It's very quirky, becoming moreso as it progresses.

   It's a political satire, one which perfectly foreshadows Washington's denial-based reaction to Islamic terrorism in the next century. This is completely coincidental, of course, but it's hard not so see it upon reflection from the Age of Terror. As such, this aspect of it has more subtext now than it did in the 90's.

   It's got gorgeous color and makes full use of the wide-screen lens. It's at times a very beautiful movie, in fact. The problem seems to lie in the attitude the film tries for. It's not entirely earnest, nor is it entirely snarky. A better balance of these approaches might've worked wonders.

   The film's opening partly explains the pros and cons of the movie. As the Warner Brothers logo comes up, we see a classic flying saucer descend through the clouds behind it. A wonderful little touch. 

   In a pre-credit bit, a pair of farmers are confronted with the sight of a stampede of cattle that have been set aflame (this image a recall to the card set). The farmers then look up and see a flying saucer take off. 

   This leads into the credits which play over footage of the saucer returning to Mars, after which a massive fleet of saucers takes off and encircles the Earth. It's a hypnotic sequence, and builds our attention to a positive frenzy. Then everything grinds to a stop as we begin our first scene proper, that of the US President studying satellite photos of the saucers and conferring with his staff. It's one of the cruelest openings I've ever seen.

   That's not to say there aren't some amusing moments here. Though largely lost in the chaos that follows, Jack Nicholson's performance as President Dale is quite good. He begins as a statesman used to speaking with the people in a familial way (if typically seeing himself as set apart from them, he does seem unusually interested in the people for a career politician). As things progress and he becomes more and more stressed, he manifests in a rather realistic progression from control to uncontrol to outright abandon. 

   The truth is, many of the performances here are pretty good, if one dimensional. The actors really aren't going over the top so much as the movie is. In better directorial hands, this could've been pretty effective. Basically, the film is about watching people react to an invasion by murderous cartoons, thus owing a nod as well to Martian, Go Home!

   Anyway, the subject of the scene is how to deal with this discovery of flying saucers surrounding the globe. Only General Decker (Rod Steiger) sees the Martians as a potentially hostile force. The others follow the lead of the scientific advisor Professor Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), who believes that the very fact of technological superiority requires peaceful ambitions. 

   Apparently, the US is the only country that has knowledge of the Martians, and the debate is largely on whether to announce the story to the rest of the world -and how to best do it.  Press Secretary Ross (Martin Short) writes up a hopeful speech for the President to deliver. (Presumably, the fact that such a momentous event is announced in such a relaxed, Mr. Rogers-like manner is one of the gags, but it rings true of the political class of the 90's.)

   Across the country, people react to the news of the Martians. Nicholson plays two roles here. In addition to President Dale, he also plays seedy con man Art Land. He's a sharp trigger who comes off as a slow wit, or maybe he's a slow wit who fronts crafty... Anyway, he's married to new-age nutcase Barbara (Annette Bening), who thinks the Martians coming to Earth is just ducky. 

   Other characters include Jim Brown as former heavyweight champion Byron Williams (on hard times since his divorce and now stuck entertaining in a Las Vegas casino), his ex-wife Louise (Pam Grier) and her mildly rebellious sons, and "GNN" reporter Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox) and his wife Nathalie (Sarah Jessica Parker). Though he's a serious reporter, she's basically a tabloid TV hostess, and Jason is confused and upset that she's the one who's going to interview Professor Kessler about the Martians.

   There's also a trailer-park redneck family headed up by Joe Don Baker. His son Billy Glenn (Jack Black) is an Army grunt gung-ho to fight the Martians. Baker is proud of Billy Glenn, but practically the whole family thinks younger sibling Richie (Lukas Haas) is a disappointment. The only family member Richie really gets along with is his senile Grandmother (Sylvia Sidney).

   Kessler is interviewed by Nathalie on live TV, during which time the Martians break into our transmissions and make an announcement. The exact nature of this announcement is unclear, even after it's been translated by an experimental voice recorder. Kessler insists things are good, and shortly the White House gets word of the Martian landing zone in Nevada.

   It's well known that there are two types of military General, the warrior General and the political General -the latter type the sort to use their position as a means to an easy life and push policy agendas. If General Decker is a warrior General, General Casey (Paul Winfield) is a political General. He's largely been biding his time in silence, waiting for a chance to move to the front of the pack based on favorability rather than effort. Siding with Professor Kessler's they-must-be-peaceful evaluation, he's placed in charge of the operation to greet the Martians.

   A massive crowd gathers in the Nevada desert to greet the Martian flagship, including Barbara. Rather than join the crowd, though, she finds a position atop a hillside to overlook the event. The crowds, in a slyly realistic touch, includes a large contingent of hippies -the very sort who would go greet the Martians rather than cautiously watch from afar. Both Jason and Nathalie are on the spot reporting the event. The saucer arrives and touches down. The Martians appear before humanity. The translator insists the Martians have come in peace, but all falls apart when a hippie releases a dove in celebration.

   What exactly is going on here isn't clear. The Martians are quite obviously evil and relish messing with us. Yet, they do seem legitimately afraid of birds. How much one thing has to do with the other is never made clear, but the dove sets off this particular massacre.

   In the ensuing chaos, General Casey, Jason, and Billy Glenn are vaporized, Nathalie is abducted, and much destruction occurs. Barbara, watching from her hillside perch, bursts into tears as the saucer takes off. Back at the White House, the general feeling is that we may've unknowingly done something to offend the Martians.

   Barbara sees the writing on the wall and falls into despair, though Art seems unconcerned. President Dale sends a radio message to the Martians, in the hopes that the incident in Nevada was result of cultural misunderstanding. The Martians chuckle over the message before responding with the desire to address Congress. 

   Decker is vindicated the hard way when the Martians vaporize the assembly, though the President still poo-poos the idea of retaliating with atomic weapons. Kessler, on hand during the Congress episode, has been abducted and wakes to find he's now little more than a living head suspended from wires in the main saucer. Nathalie is also on hand, having had her head attached to the body of her little dog. 

   Presumably, this is meant to be comical, though it's mostly surreal. The Martians merrily experiment on whatever they capture. They're so cartoon-like by nature, they do very little that makes any sense. (Certainly Nathalie's casual acceptance of this turn of events points toward a humorous take, though given the recent trauma she's experienced there is a certain realistic air to her denial. I have my doubts that was really the intention, though.)

   Ross has a weakness for ladies of the evening, and he has the hard luck to pick up a Martian spy dressed as a sexy gal in the shape of Lisa Marie (who, it must be noted, is quite beautiful in her 60's-era makeup). The spy manages to sneak into the Presidential bedroom and nearly kills the President and the First Lady (Glenn Close), but the secret service manages to save the day. The killing of the spy, however, greatly angers the Martian King and all-out invasion begins.

   The film has some wonderful footage of the saucers in action, though too often they go for visual gags rather than outright destruction. My brother explained it to me as the Martians are basically delinquents and vandals moreso than a conquering army. There is some great Army vs Martians stuff, but it's mostly background for the characters fleeing. 

   The Martians attack the White House, and the First Lady is crushed by a falling chandelier during the chaos. In Las Vegas, Art is killed when the Martians demolish the hotel he's about to open. 

   Barbara comes to Byron for help, telling him she has a plane and wants to find safety in some remote caves. Byron wants to fly to Washington, where his family is under siege. Tom Jones, playing himself, finds his evening show interrupted by a sudden Martian attack. He can fly a plane, so he, Barbara, Byron, waitress Cindy (Janice Rivera) and gambler Danny DeVito make for the hangar as full scale invasion takes place around the world. In Kansas, Richie escapes the murder of the rest of his family as he drives to the retirement home to save his Grandmother.

   The Martians invade the White House war room and slaughter everyone. The President, a statesman to the last, makes a speech to the Martian King about cooperation-rather-than-destruction. The King extends his hand in peace, but it's a trick and the President is killed. It looks like Earth has fallen to the Martians. 

   However, a weapon against them is discovered when Richie finds his Grandma about to be killed by the Martians. She pulls her headphones free of her record player, filling the room with the tones of Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" and then watching in confusion as the Martians in the room grab their heads in pain. Slim's yodeling causes the Martians' brains to explode!

   Back in Vegas, DeVito gets scorched before the others reach the airfield. Unfortunately, a company of Martians is on the tarmac. Byron buys time for the others to take off by directly challenging the head Martian to a bare knuckle battle. Byron comes on strong, but the other Martians swarm him when his opponent falls. In New York, Louise senses something has happened to Byron.

   The voice of Slim Whitman broadcast around the world causes the saucers to begin crashing. Kessler and Nathalie, their heads ending up rolling about on the deck of the saucer, proclaim their love for one another as the command ship crashes. (As you can tell, it's in this reel that things have shot so far over the top that one must assume this is an all-out comedy.)

   In the aftermath, the only official left alive in Washington is the President's daughter, Taffy (Natalie Portman). She presents Richie and his Grandmother with the Metal of Honor. Louise ponders how she'll go on without Byron. Byron has survived, however, and comes marching up toward the remains of the apartment building. Tom Jones plays us out with his signature tune "It's Not Unusual."

   The Mars Attacks trading cards which inspired the film first appeared in 1962. Topps had enjoyed success with a Civil War trading card set, and it was felt a science fiction set could do equally as well. The resulting card set was a series of graphic paintings depicting the war against invaders from Mars. 

   The Civil War set had been pretty gory, though it was based in history. Mars Attacks followed the same pattern with a lean toward fantasy. This particular combination didn't come off quite as harmless as the actual war cards. Topps was so squeamish about it that the cards were issued under the banner of "Bubbles Inc" rather than the more respectable Topps logo.

   Parents were horrified by the cards and there was immediate backlash against them. Mars Attacks was violent, nasty, and lurid, following the lead of the pulps. Of course, the pulps were aimed at adults, not children (never mind that probably more children read them than adults did). The cards were quickly yanked from distribution and became the stuff of legend with the kids who remembered them. 

   The cards eventually resurfaced, with some of the more graphic images being toned way down. A couple of decades after the original affair, the cards were reissued in a time when card collecting had become more of an adult hobby. The reissue did so well that new cards were commissioned. Misreading the aesthetic of the 60's cards, the new ones were despicably nasty and bleak, delighting in the slaughter of innocence in every merrily bizarre and cruel way possible. By this time, the property really had become the gore equivalent of pornography.

   It was one of the additional cards, by the way, which inspired the Martian spy dressed as a woman with a beehive hairdo.

   Even more intentionally tasteless and repugnant was a tribute series called Dinosaurs Attack, also released by Topps, in 1988. A few years later, the cards were offered as options for motion picture adaptation. The 90's dinosaur craze was in full swing at the time, so it was decided to go with Mars Attacks in order to stand out from the crowd. Immediately following the decision, a slew of invasion films were announced. MARS ATTACKS! would be released the same year as the more regulation INDEPENDENCE DAY.

   The story told by the cards had the Martians launching a full-scale assault on Earth, first with ships and ground troops, then with enlarged insects. The US Army manages to marshal it's resources and launch a counter-attack, actually landing on Mars and fighting there before leaving as the planet explodes. The movie, written unaware that the cards had an actual story, involved the Martians surrounding Earth and toying with American diplomacy before launching a full-scale assault with ships and ground troops -after which man discovers that the singing voice of Slim Whitman will kill the Martians. 

   The film's tone is all over the place. Much of it is played for laughs, but much of it also rings true in natural reactions. The parts are largely under-written, but they seem more complete by the casting of so many professional actors. The part of Jason Stone is practically a non-entity, but Michael J. Fox comes across as a complete character mostly in his star presence alone. 

   In this, the film recalls the disaster movies of the 70's. Certainly Danny DeVito's tacky and oblivious gambler reminds one quite strongly of Walter Matthau's tacky and oblivious barfly from EARTHQUAKE. The straightest presentation is that of divorced lovers Jim Brown and Pam Grier, who rise above the cartoonish surroundings. A few lines trimmed here and there and much of the film could be considered perfectly straight before the climax.

   The film's aesthetic is an interesting one. Though set in the 90's, the film does what it can to offer a more timeless look by punching up as much retro design as possible. Much clothing and some sets are very, very 60's, while others hearken back to a decade earlier. The White House photographer carries a very old fashioned flashbulb camera to take a picture of the First Lady, decked out in a dress one could see Jackie Kennedy donning. 

   The Army men are mostly seen in uniforms that recall the 50's, and even use Patton tanks -which were the standard in the 50's. In classic Hollywood style, the film is shot in full wide-screen, something Tim Burton rarely does. The colors are so bold and rich, they deftly recall not only the 60's card sets, but the rich Technicolor of early 60's motion pictures. The picture looks good, and certainly sounds good thanks to Danny Elfman's score.

   Elfman's work must be praised, grounding much of what we see with a largely serious selection. Only the Martian theme seems overly whimsical, though even it is visceral and war-like. Heavy theremin use recalls THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, while a mechanical drive is mixed with a vocal choir typical of Elfman's product. His opening theme is a masterpiece which starts small and lurking and builds to fever pitch. The music then goes largely quiet until the Martian's make their next appearance. 

   Musically, the saucer landing in Nevada is given a majestic and mysterious sense of wonder, and the resulting massacre is scored with incredible feeling. The dangerous, yet heroic, theme played when Jason braves heavy fire to reach Nathalie is touching and stirring. Jason's being vaporized upon taking Nathalie by the hand is played a bit comical visually (what with Nathalie's little dog picking up Jason's severed hand and scampering away with it) but not musically. Had the rest of the film had the discipline of the score, it might've been a better experience.

   Of course, one must assume the tone is intentionally silly when Nathalie has her head swapped with that of her dog, and then continues to flirt with Professor Kessler when he awakes to find himself in pieces. (Then again, this is Tim Burton we're talking about. Even when he's being serious, he's quirky.) 

   The final indignity is the solution being found in the yodeling of the late Slim Whitman. This is so fanciful as to undercut much of what we've seen come before it. This Whitman bit, by the way, is in parody of movie monsters often overcome by sound waves harmless to human beings. Electronic signals frequently offer deliverance in 50's monster movies.

   The cast is certainly striking, with more big stars than one has seen since the 70's cycle of disaster dramas. That such a cast could be assembled in a more recent movie, in a time when it was really no longer cost-effective to have all-star casts, is truly impressive. As a counter-point, INDEPENDENCE DAY likewise featured a cast packed with familiar faces, but most of them were of a lower stature than were the likes of Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker, Annette Bening, and Pierce Brosnan at this particular time in history*. The blending of then-current stars with old pros like Joe Don Baker and Jim Brown also recalls the 70's films, as does the presence of a Golden-Age Hollywood leading lady in the shape of Sylvia Sidney. Come to think of it, most of those movies tried to include a pop star, and this one has Tom Jones! 

(*Will Smith was still primarily a TV star when he made INDEPENDENCE DAY, but the film's success and his performance quickly catapulted the young man into position as one of the industry's biggest stars.)

   Initially, Burton wanted to use stop-motion animation in tribute to the 50's movies he loves, and which inform MARS ATTACKS! The crew managed to convince him, though, that stop-motion would send the film wildly over budget (and the film is already quite lavish). Burton instead went with the still-fresh (if already over-used) Computer Generated Imagery technique. Even so, he made sure his Martians were based on the hideous creatures of the card set (interestingly, the 80's clip showcase INVASION EARTH, THE ALIENS ARE HERE! also gave it's Martians the same uniforms worn by the card set invaders). The flying saucers, meanwhile, are beauteous throwbacks to the 50's. Most prominently, they hearken to Ray Harryhausen's rotating wonders of EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. The MARS ATTACKS! vehicles are somewhat streamlined, however.

   In recall to the card set, there's often so much action packed into frame that it can be difficult to follow what's going on. You want to watch everything at once, and that can be difficult with the saucers buzzing about, buildings being torn apart, explosions going off, and assorted civilians and soldiers running around in every distance the camera can capture. 

    Some beautiful miniature work is mingled with a few instances of real demolition, and some better-than-average CGI. This movie must've been super-expensive, between the cast, effects, and location filming. The odd bit is that INDEPENDENCE DAY, which was filmed much more modestly, feels like the bigger movie. With everything on display, it remains true that MARS ATTACKS! really feels like a B picture.  

   In the end, it's hard to sum up a movie like MARS ATTACKS! with any firm conviction. Parts of it work, others don't. It's just too quirky to really pin down. Ultimately, though, the film is largely entertaining. How much one enjoys what's there, well, that's going to come down to each individual. MARS ATTACKS! can be an acquired taste, to be sure.   

Mars attacks!

Earth surrounded...

The Martians make their presence known to the world...

Professor Kessler is sure the Martians are peaceful...

Kessler and the President feel General Decker is worried over nothing...

The White House watches as the Martians attack...

The Martian spy...

The Martians invade Las Vegas...

Tom Jones and Barbara seek refuge...

President Dale and the Martian King...


  1. Thank for the review
    Personally I found the film to be a bit disjointed as it was not sure what it wanted to be
    I do wish they had given Pam Grier more to do
    My fave parts remains Byron defeating the martian commander fair and square and being swarmed by the treacherous invader and then his return home

  2. "What exactly is going on here isn't clear. The Martians are quite obviously evil and relish messing with us. Yet, they do seem legitimately afraid of birds. How much one thing has to do with the other is never made clear, but the dove sets off this particular massacre."

    I saw this as the Martians being insulted because as soon as they land, Earth gives them the bird.