Guest Review: Mars Attacks!

1996. The President was Bill Clinton, who would be seeking his second term that same year. Coincidentally enough, two astoundingly different alien invasion movies, which also featured their own POTUS’s premiered then too. Independence Day was a blockbuster released on July 4th weekend, and later that year for the Christmas crowd, Tim Burton‘s homage to the Topps trading card series, Mars Attacks! was released.

Both movies featured hostile aliens and a President who had to deal with the invasion. Each reacted differently, as President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) was a stoic and staid leader, while Jack Nicholson played President Dale for laughs as a smarmy twit. (Nicholson also played Art Land, a Vegas entrepreneur wannabe, a role which came off a bit better on film).

In both movies, aliens arrive en masse to invade the Earth. The ID4 aliens are not actually Martians, they come from a far more distant place, and the indication is that the Roswell incident was an advance inspection of the planet. On the other hand, Mars Attacks! clearly shows a horde of flying saucers rising from the red planet.

Whitmore (ID4) is a staunch politician, taking everything in stride, although initially unwilling to declare an emergency (until after the aliens actually are shown to be aggressive). He is a former pilot in the Air Force, and actually takes charge in the attack on the alien mothership. Whitmore is shown to be both a sympathetic character and great family man.

Dale, on the other hand is purely a political opportunist. He is the perfect example of what people think the other party’s candidates are like. After the Martians kill off Congress in session, Dale goes on the air assuring the people they still have two out three of the legislative bodies and “that ain’t bad.” He definitely doesn’t score any points for his bedside manner.

If you want a candidate who will do whatever is necessary in the face of extreme hardships, you probably could do worse than vote for Whitmore. However, if you just want a candidate who can make you feel a bit less worried over the future, simply because he says not to worry, then Dale is your man.

It’s no wonder Martians are always trying to invade the Earth. We Earthlings have a greener more hospitable planet conducive to life. We have resources out the wazoo for making life more comfortable…and we are definitely in a warmer space zone, which everyone and their brother seems to want.

But also it might be because they have an inferiority complex. Most of them are as ugly as sin, which probably makes date night at the local Martian singles bar a pain in the ass.

Even I could get a date compared to those mugs.

Tim Burton must have had a long list of “favors” in order to garner the cast he got for this movie. The long list of names above the title include such luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short and Danny DeVito. It also includes Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lukas Haas, Jim Brown, Pam Grier and, believe it or not, Tom Jones.

Mars Attacks! (1996):

When the Martians finally decide to come to Earth, I only hope we are more prepared to meet them than the Earthlings of this movie. An indecisive President James Dale (Jack Nicholson in one of two roles) can’t decide whether to approach the oncoming entourage of Martians with trepidation or with enthusiasm.

Even with advisers like the renowned scientist, Professor Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) urging that they must be coming in peace because, after all, truly intelligent races are not warlike. Are we, Earthlings? Earthlings? Anybody there? Is this thing on?. Or General Decker (Rod Steiger), who urges to be wary of them because they are coming in droves and must therefore have nefarious purposes in mind. Dale’s Press Secretary, Jerry Ross (Martin Short) has only the President’s popularity in mind, so he can’t be counted on to give an opinion that doesn’t involve the bottom line of how the Commander-in-Chief will appear to the people. And Dale’s wife, First Lady Marsha Dale (Glenn Close), is only concerned with how it will look if she is seen with such ugly specimens of interstellar life forms. Especially if she has to serve them on the Van Buren china.

Meanwhile in the real world (or as real as it gets in Tim Burton’s reality), the common people deal with the inevitable realization that we are not the only life in the universe. In Las Vegas, Art Land (Jack Nicholson again) deals with how he can make a profit off of the coming Martians, while his wife, Barbara (Annette Bening), a new age recovering alcoholic is ecstatic with the idea of how life will improve with the coming of an enlightened race.

In a remote part of the country, Billy-Ray (Jack Black) prepares to be a part of the armed forces who will be present to greet the aliens in Nevada. While his little brother, Richie (Lukas Haas) and the rest of the family send him off. Billy-Ray and Richie’s grandmother, Florence (Sylvia Sidney) is only concerned with getting back to the nursing home and her collection of Slim Whitman records.

Back in Las Vegas, Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker), the host of a cable fashion show, finds herself at the front of the pack when she lands an interview with Professor Kessler, despite her boyfriend Jason Stone’s (Michael J. Fox) insistence that he and his legitimate news network should be given this plum job. Meanwhile, former boxing superstar — now just a glorified bouncer and attraction at one of the gambling casinos — Byron Williams (Jim Brown) is dealing with a less than accommodating boss as well as his estranged wife, Louise (Pam Grier) who is having problems of her own trying to raise their two boys.

When the Martians declare they “come in peace”, the hippies in the crowd release a dove, which the Martians incinerate. They then lay waste to the assembled crowd. Giving lie, it would seem, that they came in peace…don’tcha think?

But the ever positive crowd behind President Dale insist that the Martians may have just misread the dove factor, that maybe to the Martians a dove meant war. So what does Dale do? He invites the Martian ambassador and his coterie to appear before Congress. Which the Martians waste with gusto.

President Dale: “I want the people to know they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”

The Martians have everything going for them. If you’ve seen War of the Worlds or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, you know that alien technology almost always trumps whatever feeble attempts the earthlings can pull out of their proverbial pockets.

But just when it seems like we might all have to die, the bizarre wit of Tim Burton comes into play. How the Martians are defeated is well worth sitting through this film. If that sounds as a bit like the film is a drag before the ending comes, it’s not. This is one of Burton’s funniest films and is cool on so many levels — the CGI Martians not the least of them. Just when you think the nightmare is over, along comes Tom Jones, crawling out of a cave to sing “It’s Not Unusual.” Hey, I warned you Tom Jones was in this thing at the beginning…

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.