Dir: TIM BURTON
Gen: FROM WAR TO PEACE:ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
The end of the world as we know it can be framed as a spectacle as hilarious as it is bleak - at least that’s how writers Jonathan Gems and Tim Burton see it. Soldiers disintegrated into dust, thousands dead, trillions of dollars of damage and society starting anew. Finding the humour in such things is not easy, particularly when convention usually dictates heavy drama with smatterings of humour, not comedy as the driving force.
Like most alien invasion films. Mars Attacks! features many world capitals and landmarks but does so with a twist - as miniature models on the Las Vegas strip where the film mostly takes place. Basing itself there is an obvious subversion as Las Vegas is not a city known for its contributions to humankind or a positive reflection of society - even less so rural Kentucky where much of the rest of the film is set. So heading to these places to see how folks from there deal with an alien invasion is one way to grab your audience’s attention.
More akin to the likes of Pokemon than traditional science fiction, Mars Attacks! started out life as a card game devised by Topps in the early 60’s, which provided the very stylised nature of the film almost 35 years later. Set in contemporary 1990’s but oddly portrayed with clunky radars, old TVs, radios and fashion. Even the flying saucers themselves and theremin laced soundtrack are very anachronistic. The plot is in the name, and a massive cast of oddballs struggle against an invasion from the vastly more powerful Martians. Pierce Brosnan is hilarious as Professor Kessler, scientific advisor to the President - complete with pipe and lab coat. As his colleagues operate noisy translating machines of questionable function, the film looks back to the Roswell-era perception of aliens and makes it part of the laughs, while also celebrating the very unique style that such a secretive and eccentric culture created.
Humour is never far away. Amidst the murderous throes of the alien invasion on the executive, the President and his family are diverted during an evacuation by a tour group going through the white house, unfazed by the commotion. Jack Nicholson’s double lead role as the President and a redneck Vegas hotel tycoon is great. More along the lines of The Nutty Professor than Dr Strangelove, but still another hallmark of a classic comedy. With big names like Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J.Fox and Danny DeVito, Burton was happy to spice up the film and allow Nicholson to play two roles, hoping to emulate Irwin Allen’s massive ensemble disaster casts from the 1970s.
Music plays a key role in Mars Attacks!, but not nearly in the same way it does for say E.T. or Close Encounters. In Mars Attacks! music is the downfall of the aliens, as the country wailings of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” are too much for them to bear, literally blowing their minds. This probably isn’t quite how Whitman visioned his music being received in the future but certainly one way to keep yodelling in the music canon and something that sets it apart from many of its contemporaries, a truly absurd deus ex machina based on “did they really just do that?” humour.
Even the people of the supposedly more cultured cities are ridiculous. A bimbo TV chat show host who carries a chihuahua everywhere (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her boyfriend, the narcissistic anchor (Michael J. Fox) caught in a love triangle with dialogue like something from Gone With The Wind. Burton deliberately sticks with this risible humour wherever possible including a show-down in the form of a boxing match between retired heavyweight world champion Byron Williams (Jim Brown) and the weedy alien ambassador.
Abduction, while shown in other films in this series as a terrifying event is turned into an almost slapstick routine. The experimentation of humans seems to base itself on schoolboy Frankenstein biology, sewing animal heads onto humans and vice versa, to no real purpose other than to make everyone laugh. That, alongside the Looney Toons physics and ray guns makes it evident that there is no real purpose behind the invasion other than an exercise of power for the little green men. No one in the audience surprised by the lack of a reasonable explanation either.
Mars Attacks actually has a lot in common with the other big alien movie of that summer, Independence Day - but with some noticeable changes. The president’s daughter is as sweet as could be in ID4, but Natalie Portman isn’t nearly as wholesome in Burton’s take. Then compare the dog in Mars Attacks to that of Independence Day - a chihuahua to a golden retriever, the hillbilly soldier Jack Black to decorated pilot Will Smith, and the useless President Dale to that of the fighter pilot statesman President Whitmore. Two very different uses of the same material. The parallels were noted by many with Burton saying he saw Mars Attacks as like “a MAD magazine version of Independence Day”, a statement in itself which says that the film was not to be taken too seriously and certainly not as a rival production.
Perhaps alien invasion and comedy are more compatible than we might initially think. Humour is certainly one way of dealing with such a catastrophic concept. Though it was not a huge financial success when it was released, Mars Attacks has since found a comfortable place in film history based around its funny dialogue and quirky ensemble cast - featuring some great one-liners and cameos. Plus it’s the only way you’ll see a Tom Jones concert crashed by aliens for the man himself to join the fight against the invasion. What happens in Vegas, does not stay in Vegas.
The martians pose for a photo in front of the Taj Mahal before promptly blowing it up
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.