Mars Attacks! (1996) ***½
There have been plenty of movies based on books, plays, short stories, comics, television shows, ancient myths, video games, and even toy lines, but try as I might, I can think of but two that took a series of bubblegum cards as their source material. 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids (and let us never speak of it again after this) is at least explicable on the grounds that it was green-lit just in time to cash in on the tail-end of the cards’ popularity, but Topps released its 55-card Mars Attacks series all the way back in 1962, 34 years before the movie based on them appeared. Nor can that card series be described as a classic pop-culture phenomenon in any but the narrowest and most particular sense. The cards’ subject matter— wonderfully violent and icky images of the Earth being overrun by exposed-brained Martians and their pet giant insects, painted by prolific pulp-magazine illustrators Bob Powell and Norm Saunders from concept art by E.C. Comics luminary Wally Wood— ensured that they would receive limited distribution, and whatever popularity they achieved fed directly into the massive parental outcry that caused Topps to curtail their print run. I, for one, would never have known they existed before the advent of the film were it not for an article in the January 1982 issue of Heavy Metal Magazine. So how in the hell did a Mars Attacks movie ever get made, let alone as late as 1996? Well, for one thing, one of those lucky kids who was able to get his hands on some of the cards back in the 60’s was Tim Burton, and after a string of critically acclaimed and/or hugely profitable movies running from Beetlejuice in 1988 to Ed Wood in 1994, Burton was in a position to secure backing for pretty much any project he damn well pleased. For another, Independence Day was also targeted for a 1996 release, and considering the close structural similarity between Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Devlin and Emmerich’s high-priced alien-invasion fiasco, I’d be astounded if it never occurred to the suits at Warner Brothers that Burton was offering them a chance to needle a rival studio.
That structural resemblance first presents itself during the opening credits, as the extraterrestrial invasion force makes its way to Earth before any of the central characters have been so much as hinted at. So, however, does the difference between Tim Burton and Roland Emmerich, for instead of sailing across the void in one monstrous, planetoid mothership, these alien invaders arrive aboard thousands of decidedly Harryhausenesque flying saucers. Naturally, the Martian fleet causes much concern as it takes up orbit, and chances are nobody feels that concern more acutely than President James Dale (Jack Nicholson). President Dale is a triangulator, a focus-grouper, and a poll-panderer so dedicated that Bill Clinton seems a model of unswerving conviction in comparison, and he’s on the verge of panic over the prospect of actually having to decide something. This is not to say that Dale lacks for other people’s opinions to choose from, however. His military chief of staff, General Decker (Rod Steiger, from The Amityville Horror and End of Days), is quite voluble about his desire to nuke first and ask questions later. On the other hand, Dale’s scientific advisor, Dr. Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan, of Nomads and The Lawnmower Man), sings a tune that any fan of 1950’s alien invasion flicks knows by heart: the Martians are our technological superiors; superior technology implies commensurate cultural advancement; cultural advancement is synonymous with pacifism; ergo the Martians’ intentions must be peaceful. General Casey (Paul Winfield, from Gordon’s War and Damnation Alley), the number-two military man among the president’s advisors, makes a principle of never voicing an opinion unless explicitly asked for one, but when pressed to break the tie, he sides with Kessler. That’s essentially what Dale wanted to hear, anyway, and the president commits to the following course of action: Dr. Kessler’s laboratory will figure out how to invite the Martians to a summit meeting in some readily controllable sector of the Southwestern desert, General Casey will act as America’s ambassador to the aliens, and White House press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short) will immediately set up two of the president’s favorite things— a press conference and a televised address.
Meanwhile, we meet the several groups of private citizens who will provide the film’s bottom-up view of the coming interplanetary conflict. The journalistic perspective is supplied by TV anchorman Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox, of Back to the Future and The Frighteners) and his fiancee, puff-piece talk show hostess Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker). It annoys Stone to no end that the president interrupts Nathalie’s broadcast rather than his own for the address to the nation, and it annoys him even more when she also somehow manages to scoop him for an on-air interview with Dr. Kessler. The trailer-trash Norris family, meanwhile, serves as the voice of the Common Man. While Mom (O-Lan Jones, whom Burton had used before in Edward Scissorhands) and Dad (Joe Don Baker, from Congo and The Pack) load their firearms and prepare to defend their trailer park against the Green Peril, eldest son Billy Glenn (Jack Black, of King Kong and The Neverending Story III) enlists in the army, and little brother Richie (Lukas Haas, from Solarbabies and Lady in White) pretty much ignores the momentous events in the outside world in favor of catering to his senile old Grandma (Silvia Sidney, of Snowbeast and Beetlejuice). Then in Las Vegas, Barbara Land (Annette Benning) detaches herself from her scam-happy husband, Art (also Jack Nicholson), and persuades herself that the advent of the Martians is going to be more or less exactly like the landing of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind— and you bet your ass she manages to finagle her way onto the guest list when Ross follows the president’s directive to populate the site of the interplanetary summit with a large but tractable crowd of carefully vetted onlookers. (Art, for his part, goes right on ahead with his various get-rich-quick plans, just as if nothing even slightly out of the ordinary were going on around him.) Also in Vegas is former boxer and current casino pharaoh impersonator Byron Williams (Jim Brown, from Slaughter and The Running Man), who really wants nothing more than to race back home to Washington DC, where his bus-driving ex (Pam Grier, of Escape from L.A. and Scream, Blacula, Scream) has her hands full raising their two boys, Cedric (Ray J) and Neville (Brandon Hammond, of Strange Days and Tales from the Hood). Inevitably, all of the aforementioned characters (to say nothing of transatlantic lounge crooner Tom Jones) find themselves somehow embroiled in the action once the Martian ambassador and his military entourage respond to the president’s peace overtures in the Nevada desert by zapping the shit out of everything in sight with their metal-melting, flesh-incinerating rayguns. And just as inevitably, circumstances will throw most of them together in various combinations, and their efforts to resist the interplanetary invasion will wind up availing far more than the rather hapless military response that follows the eventual success of the First Lady (Glenn Close, from Fatal Attraction and Mary Reilly) and First Teenager (Natalie Portman, much more convincing here than in the Star Wars prequels) in persuading James Dale that the time for talking is over.
It makes my head spin a little when I consider that Mars Attacks! commits virtually every one of the misdeeds for which I so roundly castigated Independence Day, and yet works— often brilliantly— anyway. The aliens are only marginally less of a background presence for most of this film than their counterparts in the Devlin-Emmerich movie. The primary focus throughout is on an unwieldy mob of characters whose connection to the main plotline is often tangential at best, and most of those characters’ stories would amount, in a serious drama, to the very purest schmaltz. And Mars Attacks! is more top-heavy with major names on one segment or another of the career arc than anything Devlin and Emmerich ever made. Seriously— can’t you just see mugshots of Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito (whose part was too small to be worth mentioning in the above synopsis), Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Jack Black, and Martin Short lined up in a rank of little boxes across the bottom of the one-sheet, like on the posters for The Swarm or The Poseidon Adventure? (Indeed, several of the various poster designs— the Japanese version being the most striking example— featured exactly that.) The thing is, though, that comedy allows you to get away with stuff that would never, ever fly if you wanted to be taken seriously, and that’s especially true when the point of the joke is mostly to exaggerate the elements of some other work that get in the way of its being taken seriously.
This is not to say, however, that Mars Attacks! owes its success solely to the partial exemption from ordinary narrative and/or genre expectations enjoyed by comedies. After all, in order for a movie to take advantage of those exemptions, it is generally necessary that it actually be funny, and there has never been any shortage of comedies that fail at that central endeavor. First and foremost, Mars Attacks! is just a very funny film, and the main reason why is that Tim Burton, as a longtime lover of the movies it parodies, understands them to a depth that any non-fan would have difficulty matching. Time and again, some scenario will arise that is instantly recognizable from the likes of The Thing, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or The Day the Earth Stood Still, to which the human characters will react precisely according to the time-honored pattern of such films. The Martians, however, appear to be taking their cues from Woody Woodpecker, impishly exploiting the credulous seriousness of their hapless opponents. In fact, one gets the impression that the defenders of the Earth would fare better if they switched to more Lantzian tactics themselves— a supposition which the eventual revelation of the aliens’ weakness amply confirms. The humor, in other words, springs organically from the introduction of a few false notes into the expected harmony of the movie’s premise, which is almost always the best way to approach a parody.
Interestingly, that applies not only in the obvious sense of having the Earth overrun by sadistically devious spacemen who seem to have invaded our planet as an elaborate April Fools’ Day prank, but also in the sense that Burton uses Mars Attacks! as an opportunity to play off the sci-fi conventions of the 1950’s and those of the 1990’s against each other. For example, the 50’s-style scenes of mass destruction and interplanetary kidnapping amount with surprising frequency to an excuse to eliminate some of those Emmerichian slumming A-listers in hilariously horrible ways. Can’t abide those trailer-trash rednecks or the smarmy Las Vegas ass-clowns? Don’t worry— most of them won’t be around for long. (Sarah Jessica Parker, it pleases me to note, gets subjected to a medical experiment in which her head is transplanted onto the body of her pet Chihuahua, and vice-versa.) Jack Nicholson’s President Dale seems like an obvious dig at the “inspiring” chief executives that figured in so many contemporary big-budget sci-fi movies, but foremost among the advisors who lead him into one form of folly after another are a naïve scientist somewhere between Cecil Kellaway and Robert Cornthwaite, and a belligerent general who comes across as Morris Ankrum by way of Dr. Strangelove. Again, it takes the perspective and perception of a true fan to play such games with this much success, and the contrast between Mars Attacks! and the majority of its more “serious” contemporaries simply underscores the absurdity of entrusting updates of old genre premises to filmmakers who openly disdain them. Mars Attacks!, joke though it is, is a more effective alien invasion movie than its competitor which ostensibly means it.