Friday, July 31, 2015

Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton Productions/Warner Bros., 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Tim Burton’s 1996 science-fiction epic Mars Attacks!, which began life as one of the weirdest story sources imaginable for a major-studio, big-budget, major-star film: a series of bubble-gum cards. In 1962, for some reason, the Topps bubble-gum company decided to take a breather from their usual business of sticking athletes’ pictures in with packages of their bubble gum and instead plot out a 54-panel serial called Mars Attacks!, which would tell a continuous story of a Martian invasion of Earth. The series became a brief fad among some of my fellow grade-schoolers in the day and then was virtually forgotten by just about everyone, including the executives at the Topps company (who gave up on the serial-story concept and went back to baseball and football players), except film director Tim Burton, who’d already had some unlikely successes (including Beetlejuice — his clever inversion of the Ghostbusters formula in which it was ghosts trying to get rid of humans instead of the other way around — and the first two films in the modern Batman cycle at a time when superhero movies were actually considered a risk instead of a staple of the big summer blockbuster market) and so he got the green light from Warner Bros. to make a movie out of 54 bubble-gum cards. The original series writers, uncredited on the film itself, were Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and Norm Saunders; Burton tabbed a writer with the intriguing name Jonathan Gems to turn the basic concept into a script. I have only dim memories of the card series so I don’t know how faithful, overall, the movie is to it, but I do remember that the 54th card in the series was headlined “Mars Destroyed!” and featured the Red Planet blowing up as the result of a successful Earth counter-attack — alas, the movie did not end that way!

The film has at least three separate plot lines in three widely separated locales — Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and a tiny town in Kansas whose only discernible business is a doughnut shop identified with a giant replica doughnut with the letters “DONUT” emblazoned on it, just in case any of the few passers-by didn’t get the point. The people who run it, and apparently everybody else in town, lives in trailers — though there’s a nursing home nearby which features prominently in the plot — and the main characters in this part of the movie are the Norrises: grandma Florence Norris (Sylvia Sidney, still playing quiet and dignified even at that age), mother Sue Ann (O-Lan Jones), a father who isn’t given a first name (Joe Don Baker) and their two kids, older brother Billy Glenn (Jack Black) — a military enlistee of whom his folks are proud — and younger brother Richie (Lukas Haas; it’s nice to be reminded of how cute this guy once was, and he plays the sort of withdrawn character that a decade later would have gone to Paul Dano), whom the family detests because he’s grown his hair long, he isn’t interested in joining the military and he’d rather hang out with his grandma at the nursing home than be with the rest of the clan. The Washington, D.C. scenes are dominated by U.S. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), his wife Marsha (Glenn Close), White House press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), rival generals Decker (Rod Steiger) and Casey (Paul Winfield), as well as a scientist, Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), brought in to advise the government on what to do about the Martian threat. (When Pierce Brosnan entered after having starred in some of the James Bond series entries, I couldn’t help but joke that he’d introduce himself as “Kessler … Donald Kessler.”) He ends up becoming a severed head inside one of the Martian spaceships, along with Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker), the TV host who was interviewing him for the Today show and flirting with him — much to the disgust of her husband, the show’s director — and there’s a good scene at the end in which they try to make love with each other even though they’re only disembodied heads. (Earlier Lake’s head ended up on the body of her Chihuahua dog, and vice versa.)

The Vegas scenes center around Art Land (Jack Nicholson — he played two parts but could do so easily since the two characters never meet), who’s about to open a new casino/resort/hotel called the Galaxy and has summoned investors (though it already seems to be completed and one wonders why he needs additional money) and his stereotypically dumb wife Barbara (Annette Bening, once again cast in a part for which she was way overqualified). The hotel is sufficiently finished that there’s already a show going on in its showroom featuring singer Tom Jones, cast as himself — when the camera panned to his three backup singers I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, 40 Feet from a Mediocre Has-Been.” There’s also another major character in the Vegas scenes, burned-out ex-boxer Byron Williams (played by burned-out ex-football player Jim Brown), who works as a bouncer at an Egyptian-themed casino (and has to wear full King Tut drag) and also doubles as some sort of entertainer putting on athletic exhibitions, though we never see him do this. He’s anxious to get back to Washington, D.C. to ride out the crisis with his estranged wife Louise (Pam Grier) and their rambunctious, uncontrollable sons Cedric (Ray J) and Neville (Brandon Hammond). In a scene that relates to absolutely nothing else in the film but is one of the best things in it, Louise, who works as a bus driver, spots her sons in a video arcade (playing, what else, a shoot-’em-up game in which their fictional adversary is a Martian) instead of school, announces to the passengers that they’re going to make an unscheduled stop, and then stops the bus, invades the arcade, pulls her kids out of it and chews them out to the cheers of the bus’s passengers. (Pam Grier, still kickin’ ass!)

The Martians themselves are a cross between the “little green men” of classic sci-fi pulp art and the Talosians from the pilot of the original Star Trek: scrawny beings with oversized crania and green jelly instead of blood. They attack with ray guns against which, of course, Earth’s weapons offer no defense, and when they shoot a person the victim’s entire skin and muscles vaporize immediately and all that’s left is a skeleton — both Charles and I wondered if someone like Tim Burton, who so loves the worst 1950’s schlock sci-fi he actually made a biopic of Edward D. Wood, Jr., had copied this effect from Tom Graeff’s Teenagers from Outer Space, though Burton’s effects budget was several orders of magnitude bigger than Graeff’s and his version of the effect is both more convincing and more gross. The main plot point of Mars Attacks! is an interesting inversion of 1950’s sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (from which Burton pretty obviously copied the flying-saucer “look” of the Martian spacecraft) in which everyone in the government, from the President on down — except for General Decker — insists that the Martians’ intentions in visiting Earth are peaceful. Even when they shoot their ray guns at the dove of peace released at the point of first contact by a young man in Las Vegas, and then shoot the people there to meet them (under a big sign reading “WELCOME TO EARTH”), President Dale and his advisors insist that these are merely “misunderstandings” and they’re going to keep trying to talk to the Martians instead of attack them.

Mars Attacks! is the sort of weird movie that doesn’t quite come off — the effective fusion of camp and action Burton achieved in his two Batman movies eludes him here, and in trying to make his action scenes both exciting and cartoony he all too frequently achieves neither. It nominally takes place in the year 2000 — obviously picked for its symbolic millennial significance — but there are some deliberate throwbacks to the early 1960’s, when the basic story source originated, notably the universal translator that’s supposed to render the Martians’ duck-like language into English (and which keeps saying the Martians are saying, “We come in peace,” and “We are your friends,” even while they’re vaporizing every human in sight with those damned ray guns which look like plastic toys on screen), whose memory seems to consist of four little spools of magnetic tape. (Missing the parodistic intent, Charles wondered, “Who still uses tape as a storage medium?”) Inevitably, Mars Attacks! is a film of moments rather than a coherent whole, and equally inevitably it’s filled with references to other movies — including a sequence at the White House war room that can’t help but evoke Dr. Strangelove even though its propagandistic purpose is quite the opposite: the general who’s advocating an all-out nuclear attack on the Martians is clearly being presented as the sensible one, while the President himself and the advisors (including Winfield’s General Casey, who’s quite obviously drawn as a parody of Colin Powell) keep trying to “negotiate” with extraterrestrial beings clearly bent on nothing but our total destruction — though there’s a worm-turning sequence later in which General Ripper, oops, I mean Decker wins approval to nuke the Martian ship — only the Martians have an anti-missile defense system, a giant red balloon that swallows the nuclear-armed missile, digests it and lets what’s left of its energy out with a burp as it returns to its home craft.

In the end only seven of the 22 credited principals are still alive, and the only thing that saves Earth from the Martian invaders is Burton’s and Gems’ weird analogue for the earth bacteria and viruses that destroyed the Martians in the obvious model for their story, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As he’s rescuing his grandma from the nursing home which is being attacked by the Martians, Richie accidentally pulls out the jack from grandma’s headphones — thereby playing the record she was listening to, an insane cover of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy hit “Indian Love Call” by, of all people, Slim Whitman — and the sound of Whitman’s voice is precisely the vibration needed to blow up the Martians’ oversized heads and get the green jelly they have in place of blood to spurt out picturesquely. Accordingly Richie and his grandmother win the Medal of Honor (though one wonders just who awarded it to them since both the President and Congress were vaporized in earlier scenes) and the film draws to an end that’s about as quirky as the rest of it. Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton’s imagination running wild — it’s O.K. entertainment but he’s made many movies that worked better because he kept his rambunctious imagination more under control — but it has one rather odd saving grace: Jack Nicholson’s performance as the President. As the hotel promoter in Vegas he’s turning in typical Nicholson schtick and makes himself even more unwatchable than Burton intended, but as the President he clearly modeled his performance on Richard Nixon and turned in a good enough job that I came away convinced he would have been a better choice than Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella in the two “serious” movies so far made about Nixon. I’ve never been a Nicholson fan — that shark’s-teeth grin and vulpine laugh always put me off — but he’s one actor Tim Burton seems to have got the best out of; his performance as the Joker in the first Burton Batman seems to me the best work he’s ever done — the mannerisms that put me off when Nicholson plays “serious” roles were just right as the comic villain (Cesar Romero in the TV show overemphasized the camp; the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight Returns made him too crazy; Nicholson got the balance just right) — and once again here he got finely honed acting out of a performer who usually just explodes — or throws up — on screen.