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Non-Review Review: Mars Attacks!

I have a genuine affection for Mars Attacks! It’s certainly not Tim Burton’s best work, but it’s also miles above some of his more disappointing output. It feels like an affectionate homage to Ed Wood, putting together the kind of movie that the old B-movie director would have approved of, except with the judgement to play it as a comedy rather than entirely straight (although Wood’s filmography is typically “so bad it’s good“, one could scarcely accuse the director of being in on the joke), and made with a more significant budget. Seen in that light, it’s hard to resist the movie’s (admittedly uneven) charms.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, they say...

The movie takes its name (and apparently its concept) from the Topps trading card game, but the inspiration appears to be pure Wood, with even the characters remarking on how the aliens’ flying saucers look suspiciously similar to hubcaps and Danny Elfman’s score evoking that sort of humming noise the director was so fond of. Of course, the execution (both in terms of skill and budget) far surpasses anything that Wood accomplished, one senses that Burton had the infamous filmmaker in mind while producing this schlock-fest.

One of the more interesting facts about the production is the fact that (apparently) the plan was to originally adapt the trading card series Dinosaurs Attack! for Topps, but it was felt that it would just look like an attempt to emulate or spoof the hugely successful Jurassic Park. Of course, by the time the film was released, it looked like Burton and his company were simply pointing their own brand of wit at the hugely successful Independence Day. You just can’t win, sometimes, it would seem.

Green men on the red carpet...

Perhaps it’s the similarities to Independence Day that hurt the film’s critical and commercial reception. I reckon that after Emmerich had updated the B-movie alien invasion flick for a nineties audience (it’s remarkable how close it is in spirit to those cheesy old fifties films), Burton’s take seemed all the more out-dated and ineffective. The alien invasion film had moved on from the sort of quirky and cheesy old-fashioned schlock that Burton and his crew were parodying.

It’s a shame, because that style of movie is evoked with loving detail. Of course, the production values are top notch, but it’s hard to imagine that – given a larger budget – that the sets and props from those old films would have looked a bit like those seen here. From the completely white autopsy room and the bubble-head contamination suits through to the whirling antenna atop the translation device, beyond that to a war room seemingly designed to evoke memories of Doctor Strangelove, even down to the design of the creatures and their technology, there’s a consciously retro vibe to the entire film. I especially like the suggestion, in reference to pulp sci-fi, that the Martians have emerged from the canals on Mars.

You can't fight in here, it's the war room!

I can understand that this production design might not be to everybody’s taste, but I really loved it. There’s something charming about a sort of science-fiction film that isn’t afraid of shooting and filming in bright lights rather than dark shadows, and it’s nice to see what one of those classic B-movies might have looked like if given the budget of a major studio epic. Even though the film has its flaws, I really can’t fault the sort of fifties bubble-gum chic that Burton brings the story to life with.

I think the Martians as presented here might be among my favourite movie monsters of all time. Put simply, these little green men are pretty much little green sociopaths. They just seem like the most obnoxious cosmic neighbours one could possible have asked for. Burton’s trademark off-kilter humour gives these guys a wonderful sense of identity, and it’s somewhat telling that these creatures are so much easier to identify with, when compared to most aliens, because of their seemingly impossibly large dick-ish-ness. When you consider the only syllable they ever speak is “ack”, that relatability seems especially impressive.

Having a blast(er)...

It’s hard not to warm, just a little bit, to creatures who decide to go bowling on Easter Island, or throw a Martian snowglobe into the war room just to mess with everybody there, or carry speakers around while vapourising freely, loudly declaring, “Don’t run! We are your friends!” Hell, I can even sympathise just a little bit with their particular weakness, as revealed at the end of the film. God knows I can’t stand it either. Add that to the fact that their visual design is just wonderfully hokey and old-fashioned, and they are easily among my favourite aliens of all time. in fact, I suspect these monsters decided to invade Earth not for our water or anything like that – they were probably just bored one afternoon and looking for something to do. Oh, those adorable little psychotic rascals!

The movie does suffer from the fairly fundamental fact that cheesy movies are… well, cheesy. It does seem quite easy to mock the sort of stilted writing and contrived plotting that one expects from a film like this, and Burton’s affection for the style of film is so apparent that it’s hard to tell when the movie is actually mocking these horrible old films, or just emulating them. The line between a parody of a bad film and the bad film itself can be hard to distinguish. Some of the movie’s self-aware references to cheesy old movies (kids being instantly good with alien guns and saving the President) come across as just cheesy rather than clever or witty.

It is unusual...

In fact, the whole subplot about a family separated by the invasion seems designed to reference the common trope of families separated by the invasion. However, unlike Burton’s skewering of the American government’s method of operation (“but didn’t I always tell you honey,” one high-ranking general boasts, “if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things are bound to happen?”), it never feels like the movie is aggressive enough in deconstructing or mocking that sort of “journey home to the family” schtick, with only Tom Jones’ surreal heroism seeming to mock the “everything’ll be okay” ridiculous contrivances that typically resolve such plots with a happy endings. Though it does climax with a nice fist fight with a bunch of Martians, so there’s that.

It’s a shame, because the movie’s satire works really well when the Government is in focus. I personally love the President’s response to the extermination of Congress, instructing his press secretary, “I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.” Being honest, any movie crazy enough to cast Jack Nicholson as the President of the United States probably has my vote by default. Creating another scenery-chewing role for the veteran actor as huckster Art Land is just icing on the cake. There is something hilarious, but very telling, in the way that the movie presents its authority figures as far more preoccupied with the media and photo opportunities and speeches than in actually being too concerned about the discovery of intelligent life.

I can think of some Presidents who'd be happy to see Congress vapourised by Martians...

I also have a bit of a soft spot for Pierce Brosnan’s pipe-smoking intellectual. Brosnan is really the only actor who seems like he has arrived from the set of a fifties sci-fi horror, which is perhaps because the character would seem right at home there. I love his stubborn refusal to accept that the aliens could be hostile. “Logic dictates that given their high level of technical development they’re an advanced culture. Therefore, peaceful and enlightened. The human race, on the other hand is an aggressively dangerous species. Now I suspect they have more to fear from us than we from them.” After the first massacre, he’s quick to chalk it up to “cultural misunderstandings.” He pleads, “Mr. President, I know this seems terrible, but let’s not be too rash.”

It’s especially brilliant because our own scientific minds seem to be making the exact opposite arguments – that, drawing from our own history, contact been more advanced civilisations and less advanced cultures don’t tend to end particularly well for those without the advanced technology. There’s something delightfully and gleefully ridiculously camp in Brosnan’s portrayal, from the way he holds a female reporter close as the Martians broadcast (“he just copped a feel!” her boyfriend protests) to the way that he tries to explain to the Martians that they shouldn’t be engaging in such carnage (“Mr. Ambassador, please! What are you doing? This doesn’t make sense! It’s not logical!”) And, in fairness to Brosnan, he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself – which is contagious.

These little green men have very blue tastes...

The cast is phenomenal. There’s big actors like Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close, but also smaller cult names like Lukas Haas and Joe Don Baker and even Paul Winfield. Man, I love Paul Winfield. There’s also just some really decent actors in key supporting roles, like a young Natalie Portman or Pam Grier or Michael J. Fox. Fox is an actor who (unfortunately) never really got a chance to deliver on his potential, and he has such a warm screen persona that it’s hard not to enjoy him. Indeed, even when the film isn’t at its best (the reuniting family plotline), it’s still fun to watch the cast.

It’s not perfect a movie under two hours, it does feel like it outstays its welcome slightly, and there are some segments that don’t work quite as well as others. The ending is sorta random, but this was never really going to have a perfectly structured ending anyway. However, it’s also a movie made with a lot of love in the style of the kind of cheesy movies I used to find on telly at weird hours as I was growing up. It’s hard to resist that sort of enthusiasm, coupled with delightfully quirky sense of humour. I love, for instance, a moment where the Martians inhale the helium generated by an atomic explosion and use it to raise their voices. My inner physics nerd loves it too, because helium is actually a by-product of a nuclear explosion.

The brains of the operation...

It’s not the strongest movie that anybody involved ever made, but – if you love a bit of cheesy sci-fi comedy – you can’t go far wrong.

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4 Responses

  1. Everyone I know seems to hate this movie, but I’ve always loved it. I just think it was so neat of Tim Burton to make Mars Attacks! after making his bio-pic of Ed Wood. In many ways, this movie is a bigger tribute than Ed Wood was.

  2. How could someone hate this movie? I loved it as a kid, but I haven’t watched it in some years.

    • My brother actually said the same thing, which is weird – it’s so not his type of film. But then, I think my parents (or at least my mother) loathed it, if only because they were expecting something a bit less b-movie-ish (with Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on a dog’s body on the cover, I’m not sure how)…

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