a Primal Root written review
Adapting a notoriously gruesome and controversial trading card series from the 60’s into a PG-13 holiday release for the 1990’s cannot be an easy task. “MARS ATTACKS!” in it’s original form was a blood soaked Topp’s trading card series created in 1962. Of course, there was parental and societal uproar over the gory, frequently sexual card series which led to the series’ original run first being censored and then being halted entirely. Yes, tell the public they cannot have something because they cannot “handle it” and remove it from the market entirely. Ladies and Gents, this is how you create a cult following.
In the early 1980’s, “MARS ATTACKS!” began it’s resurgence gaining a whole new generation of young fans while banking on the nostalgia of those who once had this gloriously sick and subversive creation snatched from their grasps by the moral watchdogs that know what is best for us all. Bunch of dick holes, I tells ya! This resurgence culminated in a film adaptation featuring and all star cast and directed by, at that point, creative dynamo, Tim Burton fresh of his biographical film “Ed Wood”, everyone’s favorite cross dressing Trash Cinema film director!
Just how in the world do you take a popular cult TRADING CARD series and transform it into a profitable commercial venture? Well, with the restraints of the imposed PG-13 rating, the best path was to tone down the horror elements and amp up the darkly comical elements which the screenplay by Jonathan Gems delivers in spades. Not only is it a damn funny movie from start to finish, it also manages to be highly intelligent, wickedly mean, and greatly entertaining. Here, let me lay it out for you…
It is brought to the attention of The President of the United States of America, that flying saucers have been spotted surrounding planning Earth originating from our neighboring planet, Mars. To the best we can translate, the Martians come in peace, but as soon as they land, they being disintegrating every living thing they come across with their awesome Martian hand cannons. The remainder of the movie is a series of sight gags, action set pieces and nasty comedy as humanity fights for survival through a full on Martian apocalypse.
“MARS ATTACKS!” is a blazingly dark, subversive, wacky sci-fi flick. Sure, it has it’s flaws, like a sluggish pace and a feeling that Tim Burton had a tough time juggling his impressive ensemble cast, but at the end of the day the movie comes off just as anarchic as the Martians themselves. The film extends it’s middle finger towards societal conventions, and then has fun laughing maniacally as it exposes the shaky pillars that they all stand upon. MARS ATTACKS! sets it’s sights on lampooning just about everyone. Conservative military leaders and Wal-Mart families to liberal scientists and new agers, MARS ATTACKS! takes delight in taking them down a peg or two.
For the most part, every character is played as a buffoon, a cartoon version of stock characters from B-movies past, contemporary leaders and everyday civilians. The only folks not played for laughs are the handful of societal outcasts and misfits who are played as entirely human like the president’s daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman, channeling Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice), mild mannered New Mexican donut peddler, Richie (Lukas Haas) and, most impressively, Byron and Louise Williams (Jim Brown and the incomparable Ms. Pam Grier) as a blue collar, seperated African American couple trying to make ends meet and raise two young boys. Louise drives a bus in Washington D.C. while Byron, once a Heavy weight Boxing Champion, now works in Vegas. They are by far the most honorable, loving and genuine characters in the movie and the ones you end up rooting for in the end. When everything else in the film is a lark, you want nothing more than a happy ending for this family.
But it’s not all touchy feely stuff, let us not forget the fantastically depicted carnage. Holy shit, is this fun stuff to watch! Martians bowl through Easter Island statues, crush mobile homes with their colossal Martian manned robots, and in my personal favorite gag, crush a troupe of cub scouts with the Washington Monument. See, you don’t get this kind of flesh pulping fun in crap like “Independence Day”. One of the aspects I admire about “MARS ATTACKS!” is how the Martians use the phrase “We Come in Peace” and “We are your friends” to gain our trust several times over in order to implement surprise attacks. Once, killing off several military leaders and countless innocent spectators and the second time killing off Congress. It worked so well int he past that later in the film we see Martians roaming a burning landscape, guns drawn still claiming that they come in peace and blasting anything living they come across while exclaiming “Do Not Run! We Are Your Friends!” It’s a great joke, but it’s a goddamn chilling one as well.
By film’s end, Earth is saved by a decent young man who went out of his way to save his Grandmother from her rest home which was under siege and, unbeknownst to them, unlock the secret weapon that will destroy the Martian threat and save what remains of planet Earth and it’s inhabitants. It’s one of the most absurd deus ex machina’s I have ever witnessed in cinema, but in a campy, B-Movie send up such as this, it feels perfectly fitting.
Finally, when Earth is reduced to a smoldering husk of it’s former self, it’s the underdogs who survive. The blue collar workers, those who risk life and limb to save the helpless, and Tom Jones. And in this I see hope. Early in the film, before the Martians reveal their true intentions, Annette Bening’s character states to at her AA meeting that she thinks the Martians have come to save us. And in a way, by destroying the institutions that have always held us back from truly progressing, leaves us with a clean slate to start from. In a way, they’ve given us a second chance and left our world int he hands of the misfits. The survivors.
“MARS ATTACKS!” is one Hell of a flick. Sharply intelligent, subversive and damn funny. This is one film well deserving of it’s cult status. highly recommended!
Four and a Half out of Five Dumpster Nuggets