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Mars Attacks!

Entry updated 10 July 2019. Tagged: Film.

Film (1996). Warner Bros. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Jonathan Gems, based on the "Mars Attacks" series of Topps trading cards (1962). Cast includes Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Michael J Fox, Lukas Haas, Tom Jones, Jack Nicholson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Martin Short and Rod Steiger. 106 minutes. Colour.

This anarchic Satire chronicles a Martian Invasion of our planet. When a fleet of flying saucers (see UFOs) is first spotted in orbit above Earth, the US President (Nicholson) decides to greet them peacefully, and with full honours. The ambassador from Mars lands his Spaceship in the American desert, and the Aliens are revealed to be small humanoids with huge brains; they wear lurid spacesuits and wield plastic-looking Ray-guns. Declaring that "we come in peace", the Martian ambassador then proceeds to slaughter the human greeting committee. The President restrains himself from counterattacking, reasoning that the disaster must have arisen from a cultural misunderstanding, and he seems to be vindicated when the Martians request an opportunity to address Congress to explain. They then proceed to vaporize it as well, marking the launch of a full-scale attack by the Martians who still mockingly insist that they "come in peace" as they eradicate human civilization. When all hope seems lost, and almost the entire human cast has perished, it is discovered that a particularly piercing country music song causes the Martian's oversized brains to explode into jelly. The song is beamed out across the globe, and the invaders are defeated.

Disarmingly ludicrous, Burton's Mars Attacks has the usual scenes of revered monuments being blown up. But the real guilty pleasure lies in watching the sprawling cast of celebrities being maimed and killed by the sadistic Martians, leaving few but the archetypal Burton misfits alive. However, the price of having so many characters is a terribly fragmented and uneven first half. With the exception of Jack Nicholson as the despairing President, no character is given enough screen-time to make more than a cursory impression. For all its memorably funny images, Mars Attacks meanders through too many (largely pointless) plot strands, producing occasional tedium. As satire (primarily of American culture) it is rather unfocused.

The real stars of the film are the Martians, expertly designed to mimic the colourful art of the trading cards which inspired the film. The cards themselves were collectors' items, infamous for making scenes of graphic violence freely available to children, thus ensuring their instant cult status. Mars Attacks turns the histrionic narrative from the cards into a comedy, making it in part an affectionate homage to the B-movies of Burton's youth, a topic the director had already explored in his biopic Ed Wood (1994) about the famously incompetent filmmaker Edward D Wood Jr.

Originating in a 1985 storyline version by Alex Cox on which Martin Amis also worked, it is probably largely coincidence that Mars Attacks, which was in production at the same time as Independence Day (1996), seems to spoof that movie in particular. This relationship between the films is reminiscent of the connections between Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) and Fail Safe (1964); particularly as Jack Nicholson, like Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's film, plays more than one character in Mars Attacks. But whereas Dr. Strangelove was effortlessly superior to Fail Safe, Mars Attacks is too incoherent for its Parody to be really effective, and was a much lesser commercial success than the amiable blockbuster Independence Day.

Jonathan Gems novelized his own screenplay as Mars Attacks! (1996). Further novel Ties are Mars Attacks #1: Martian Deathtrap (1996) by Lawrence Watt-Evans writing as Nathan Archer and Mars Attacks #2: War Dogs of the Golden Horde (1996) by Will Murray writing as Ray W Murill. [JN/NL]


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