Although I didn't see the film theatrically, I loved Mars Attacks! by the time it was released on video. There was subsequent minor rebirth of interest in franchising of the world created by the Topps brand trading cards of the 1950s, in the form of new comic books by Image, with the Martians attacking Spawn and so forth, before spinning the martians off from crossovers into original stories on their own. True to Image's 90s 'tude-inal cred, the comics were full of the same grossness and ultra-violent kitsch that made the trading cards infamous in their day. I hadn't put it together as a kid that Topps was the same trading card company to release Garbage Pail Kids on unsuspecting suburban mother hens. As of this writing, Mars Attacks! and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie are the only two live action films ever made based on trading cards. "Mars Attacks," the franchise, is oddly enough going stronger than the film ever did, which is still woefully underappreciated. Thanks to a small, easily consolidated market of character licensing rights, Mars has attacked The Real Ghostbusters, the Transformers, Popeye, KISS and Judge Dredd, courtesy of IDW Publishing to coincide with the trading cards' 50th anniversary. The convenient thing about anonymous invaders from space is that you can pit them again any other fictional character. Admirably, Burton didn't tamper with old fashioned look of the Martians was not tampered with, embracing their Weird Tales pulp sci-fi paperback cover roots. Animated with a Beavis-like slack-jawed twichiness and given personality only in Beavis-like moments of lust for our beautiful human Earth women.
The screen story and screenplay are credited to one Jonathan Gems, a British playwright. Gems and Burton - whom Gems thanks in the novelization's opening dedication as an invisible co-writer on the screenplay - authored the official "Mars Attacks" film as an homage to the cards, but also a satire of 1970s all-star disaster films, sci-fi tropes, and several social strata of the United States. Gems is a Brit and its cliche to comment that Brits and Europeans often catch the nuances of American life better than our own satirists, but here we are. His is an informed version of America to give a ribbing to; one where the films' opening scene casually shows farm crackers living alongside Filipino families in the sticks - in other words, territory on par with another great satirical work of the 1990s, "King of the Hill."
With a huge ensemble cast, the story takes its time establishing characters and examining their reactions to the encroaching Martian menace rather than expounding any kind of Martian mythology. As aliens, they are in fact completely implacable and in a comedy full of conceptual jokes, Mars Attacks' greatest and best remembered is their baldfaced gibberish language: "ACK ACK ACK ACK ACK!" Humanity's preening optimism in anticipation of first extraterrestrial contact was ripe for puncturing during the 1990s resurgence of interest in scientific evidence for alien life. From the President in Washington to the trailer parks of Kansas to the glitz of Vegas, Americans of all dispositions and sophistication fail to perceive imminent danger, and then for the most part fail to respond effectively.
Critics alternately savaged this film as too over-the-top and not over-the-top enough to be funny, unable to attune to Burton and Gems' vision of grand-scale social and political satire combined with Gremlins-esque eruptions of mischievous monsters wreaking havoc while aping humanity. There is certainly more intelligence and human characterization in this film than Independence Day, a film which stupidly takes dead seriously all the same cliches of 1950s invading aliens films, up to and especially including their jingoistic pro-military bent. Mars Attacks! was released in December of 1996, a few months after the Summer blockbusting success of Independence Day, and felt like a categorical rebuke to everything audiences loved about Roland Emmerich's modern disaster picture which treats the obliteration of cities by alien spaceships as somber spectacle and cheers on humanity's action-packed counterstrike.
An exploding White House is the iconic promotional image, an image meant to thrill and stir emotions, the kind of Hollywood imagery which caused people to say of 9/11 that watching those towers destroyed felt like watching a movie, five years later. Mars Attacks! has a flying saucer tip the Washington Monument on top of a Boy Scout troop. Both films even have the American President as a main character. Independence Day gives him a decisive action sequence against the aliens and a rousing victory speech after their defeat.
After a rousing "Can't we all just get along" speech for intergalactic brotherhood, President Nicholson is impaled by a Martian flag. The Martians are only defeated by dumb luck when someone accidentally discovers their non-sequitor Achilles' heel: like anti-matter to the film score's sci-fi theramin warbling, Slim Whitman's yodeling makes their brains explode. The financial and critical failure of this film to connect with the dopey daydreams of the mid-90s moviegoer is probably what terrified Tim Burton into calculating mainstream success and abandoning any voice of artistic irreverence in his subsequent filmography. Roger Ebert gave two stars to Mars Attacks! but what does he know? He gave two to Beetlejuice, a film Pauline Kael knew well enough to declare a "comedy classic" upon arrival.
Mars Attacks! juggles about 20 characters in four or five locations across the United States in a little under two hours. Literally six of them are left alive by the end of that time, which is the other issue: this film has a hilariously mean streak to its humor and the joke is on mankind. When I watched Jurassic Park recently for the first time in many years I was reminded of how Spielberg deformed the all-star disaster movie formula from the exploitative body counts they were in their heyday into a PG-13 thriller where only expendable tertiary characters are eaten by dinosaurs. Never have so many well paid actors been disintegrated in a single film. Burton is reaching for Dr. Strangelove level comedy, and that's mighty dry terrain - Mars Attacks! is a spoof, yet a restrained and only selectively campy one. Gems allows us to believe in Jack Nicholson as the President James Dale without having him play it as a comedic exaggeration of "Jack Nicholson," the movie persona. Ultimately, he winds up in a direct Strangelove referenced underground war room with Rod Steiger playing an exaggerated Hawk pushing to nuke the Martians.
The same could be said of every cast member, every one of whom is a big name. Only Danny DeVito, in about ten minutes worth of screen time, is giving a "comedy" performance. Him, and Nicholson doing a Sellers-esque turn by playing a second role as a sleazy casino impresario. All the beautiful people are playing into their own types, slightly parodying themselves while retaining credibility as real people thanks to Jonathan Gems' playwright's ears for nuanced and melodious dialogue, so distinctly varied in every character. Danny Elfman's music, at once whimsical yet suitably bombastic for the eventual wanton destruction, strikes the perfect note of arch deadpan seriousness.
Somehow even with the majority of the cast playing dolts, many of them have moments of absurd empathy - Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker are stuffy and dippy, respectively, but find love when reunited as mutilated Martian science experiments. Few $70 million films then had the gall to decapitate Brosnan and Sarah Jessica, before stitching the latter's head to a chihuahua, or to kill Jack Nicholson twice.
A critical portion of the varied characters at play joins the government scientists and leader stock types of 1950s sci-fi protagonists with the media and show business galaxy of stars 1970s galaxy-of-stars casts. Michael J. Fox and Sarah Jessica Parker play a TV personality power couple. Glenn Close plays a chillingly acidic parody of vain and publicity-consious clotheshorse presidential "First Ladies."
Paul Winfield, veteran of decades of genre films, briefs plays a more obsequious version of Colin Powell who is giddy to have won the honor of serving as ambassador to the Martians by "waiting in line" - before being the first to be fried by their weapons, for his trouble. The parade of opportunism across the country is never-ending. Revealing Burton and Gems' moral compass, the few surviving victors of a Martian invasion are not only the little people in this big cast of big stars all across America, they're marginalized members too busy taking on burdens of responsibility to think about exploiting the initial awe of Martian contact, or delude themselves with disbelief as to their motives because their ACK ACK has been officially translated as "We Come In Peace."
About one year before Quentin Tarantino publicized his possession of a golden touch for career resurrection by casting Pam Grier as the lead in Jackie Brown, Burton cast her here amongst contemporary big names for the resonance of her marquee value in the 70s. Her character is one of the good ones, a single parent bus driver in Washington whose two boys wind up defending the president thanks to video game training.
Fleshing out the 70s throwback, her husband is played by Jim Brown, playing a former boxing champ reduced to working dressed as King Tut at a Vegas casino. Brown still loves his wife, sends money back home and tries to get home to when the Martians attack. He's willing to sacrifice himself to help other members of the cast escape by boxing them hand-to-hand, and after a false alarm, we're shown that he survives the ordeal to see his family again.
In Kansas, Lukas Haas plays a shy teenager who's the black sheep of his redneck family, cast with uncanny perfection - Joe Don Baker as the buffoonish patriarch and young Jack Black as Haas' meathead army private older brother, who's among the first to be reduced to a colored skeleton by Martian ray guns. Haas looks after his dotty, sweet natured grandmother, who's similarly ignored by the family, played by Sylvia Sydney, who was also the caseworker ghost Juno in Burton's Beetlejuice.
Their relationship is genuinely touching and Haas' rescue of his grandmother at a rest home massacre during the film's climax leads to Sydney's accidental broadcasting of her Martian-killing Slim Whitman records. Annette Benning is the spiritualist and recovering alcoholic wife of Nicholson's Vegas doppelgänger. Even though her character is a bit of a space cadet during America's initial optimism about the coming Martians, she's one of the few to immediately recognize that the intergalactic situation is only headed towards total war.
Even before then, her character's recovering alcoholism is treated sympathetically and Benning's funniest moments come from playing off her jerky Nicholson and eventually Vegas costars Brown, De Vito and Tom Jones - whose 11th hour cameo addition to the scrambling survivors is the cherry atop the 1960s-unto-70s old fashioned big-cast vibe as "It's Not Unusual" carries the film into the end credits. Even Godzilla gets a guest spot, courtesy of a gag when the Martians channel surf between it and another junk-cultural touchstone, The Dukes of Hazard.
The choice of Vegas as a major location is, like the other locales in Kansas and Washington, D.C., part of a timeless quality Burton had shown adeptness for since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. All three places are unstuck in time one way or another, and longtime Burton costume designer Colleen Atwood created a wardrobe of retro-modern clothing colors and styles while the production design subliminally recalls 1960s aesthetics. Sometimes not so subliminally, as when Martin Short, playing a lascivious White House Press Secretary, is undone by a Martian in a beehive-haired pinup girl human costume while attempting to mack on her in the White House's secret "Kennedy Room." The "Martian Spy Girl," played by Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie has become one of the few iconic images unique to the film version of Mars Attacks.
The whole cross-dressing aspect of the scene is usually a little British in the negative for my tastes but Burton creates an eerily convincing alien sex trap. Mars Attacks' other word on alien sex would be the small British detail of Lukas Haas' "Alien Sex Fiend" shirt, a deathrock band from the UK and unlikely adornment on a Kansas farm boy. Another small British giveaway is a great gag where France unsuccessfully negotiates a settlement.
The novelization of Mars Attacks! would have intrigued me even if it had not been written by Jonathan Gems. Having picked it up and finished it recently I'm delighted to report that every ounce of the wit and intellect appreciated in the screenplay for the film can be heard and elaborated on greater detail on every page. Please return next month for part two of this minor Mars Attacks! retrospective: a review of the novel as companion guide to a comedy classic.