Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beetlejuly: Mars Attacks!

If I had to think of an alternate title for Mars Attacks!, I would probably call it BIG HEADED ALIENS KILL PEOPLE. That's basically the entire movie in a nutshell. Not to say that the movie is bad, in fact, it's far from it, but Mars Attacks! is a movie that I haven't rewatched until recently and to be honest, it's not one of my favorites. Don't get me wrong, I still like the movie, probably as much as Burton's Alice in Wonderland (we'll get to that one someday), but when you get down to it, it's just aliens mercilessly killing people, nothing more than that. The film is based upon a trading card series by Topps and the idea to bring the card series to the big screen came when Jonathan Gems (the guy who wrote the script for the Beetlejuice sequel that never got made) pitched the idea to Tim Burton in 1993. Burton was originally offered two trading card series to make into a movie, Mars Attacks! and the just as popular Dinosaurs Attack!, but Burton chose Mars Attacks! because he thought that a Dinosaurs Attack! movie would be too similar to Jurassic Park. The film was to be a homage to the classic B movies of the 1950s and the original intention was to use stop motion for the alien creatures in a similar style to Ray Harryhausen. But the film's budget got out of hand and Burton and his crew called in Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to animate the film's aggressive quacking aliens. This movie has a huge cast, probably bigger than the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past movie. There's Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny Devito, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jack Black, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, Lisa Marie, even the great voice actor Frank Welker who provides the voice of the martians. And Sylvia Sidney (Juno from Beetlejuice) makes an appearance as a senile, yet lovable grandmother who's love for Slim Whitman ultimately proves vital in the martians' defeat. Mars Attack! may not be a favorite of mine, but it's still entertaining and fun to watch and harkens back to classic sci-fi movies of the past, like Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and most prominently, the many versions of War of the Worlds. 

I'll start off by saying that I like the look of the martians, big brains and all. You can really tell that the people at ILM observed the trading cards carefully and added every last detail to their extra terrestrial bodies. The aliens have bulging eyes, flowing capes, large craniums and faces resembling skulls. The quacking noise they make when they talk can get under some people's skin, but I didn't mind it. Aliens from other worlds always have some different form of communicating and this was really no exception. As stated before, the original intention was to make the aliens stop motion, similar to the late great Ray Harryhausen. Burton contacted Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas to make the stop motion, but he was busy shooting James and the Giant Peach and eventually, the stop motion plans fell through. Nevertheless, ILM did an excellent job of making the aliens look "fake" and "out of place" and in many ways, they look like stop motion puppets instead of creations in a computer. The aliens are some of the most heartless creatures I've ever seen on screen. They stop at nothing to zap humans with their laser guns and at times, they play with the humans, tricking them and zapping them dead when they least expect it. They treat Earth like a playground, killing humans every second they get and destroying buildings like kindergarteners destroy towers of blocks. They use lasers to replace the president heads of Mount Rushmore with martian heads, disguise themselves as beautiful women and even try to assassinate the president, played by Nicholson. These beasts are relentless and don't care who they have to harm to get their way, just as long as they cause as much chaos and destruction as possible. Not even a nuclear bomb can stop these guys, they take that bomb and use it like a helium balloon, using it to pitch up their voices. What unstoppable, heartless machines these guys are!

Many of the film's main players meet their end at the hands of these aliens. I LITERALLY mean that when I say it, for just about every character in this movie is either fried by an alien laser or killed off in the aliens' reign of havoc. I'm willing to bet that some of the actors were put in this movie solely to get killed off, very much like Alfred Hitchcock would do with his movies. Jack Black is in about 3 scenes of the movie before he bites the dust and Michael J. Fox is in about 10 minutes (overall) of the film before he gets turned into a deep fried green skeleton. Sarah Jessica Parker's is taken to the alien mothership where her head is placed on the body of her chihuahua and her chihuahua's head is placed on her body. Pierce Brosnan's character is also brought to the mother ship and becomes bodiless, but that doesn't stop him from expressing romantic interests in Parker's character. Glenn Close gets a chandelier dropped on her, Danny Devito gets flame broiled, Martin Short gets bamboozled and in attempts to make peace with the aliens and their leader, Jack Nicholson gets himself impaled, much to the aliens' satisfaction. In fact the only people who really survive are the kids, one of which is played by a young Natalie Portman. This is back before Portman hit it big with the newer Star Wars films as well as Black Swan, but she's not bad in this movie. She plays the rebellious teenage daughter of Nicholson and Close, but she still wants to help out when the aliens strike and she eventually prevails when both her parents are killed off. The only adults to survive are the ones played by not so well known actors, and to be fair, their not bad either. Jim Brown, a running back for the Cleveland Browns portrays Byron Williams, a man who works at a casino, has a wife and kids and a determination to get home to them, even in all the alien conundrum. He teams up with several others and using their quick thinking and tactics, they are able to take out several of the aliens. They even use the aliens' own laser guns against them. How brilliant that the humans use the aliens' own weapon to defeat the aliens themselves. It's refreshing to see the humans finally overpower the aliens and turn them into mush. It goes to show that no matter how powerful the enemy may seem, the good guys can always take them out, using the power of their braincells.

Sylvia Sidney portrays Grandma Florence and even if her mind is in another place, she still is a likable, lovable grandmother that helps in the destruction of the aliens. Along with her grandson, they discover that Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" can make the aliens' heads explode and as they drive throughout the town blasting the music, it puts an end to many of the aliens and saves the city from total destruction. Eventually, the military broadcasts the tune all throughout the globe, ridding Earth of the aliens and saving it at last. Grandma and her grandson, Richie are then given medals of honor by Portman's character for their discovery on how to defeat the aliens and a mariachi band plays The Star Spangled Banner on the shattered remains of the capitol. It's a humorous ending to a dark humor movie, but one that has nice stuff to look at and enough sci-fi to satisfy any sci-fi appetite. Mars Attacks!, while not one of my all time favorites is still an enjoyable movie with eye candy and appealing imagery every minute or two. I doubt anyone will be bored with it and I think the kiddies will enjoy every morsel the film has to offer, but I really don't have all that much to say about it myself. I guess the only other thing I should mention is that it marked the return of Danny Elfman to Burton's films and his score for this film, while not his best is delightful in some areas and worth a listen, if you can find the isolated soundtrack. I should also mention that there is a brilliant homage to Earth vs. The Flying Saucers in which a flying saucer crashes into the Washington Monument, just like a flying saucer did in that film. I've heard Ray Harryhausen wasn't fond of this, but he eventually came to appreciate the tribute and become good friends with Burton. Still, the saucer crashing into the Washington Monument is a brilliant sight in the movie and a triumph for ILM.

If you're a sci-fi person and want to kill an afternoon by watching a sci-fi flick you haven't seen before, give Mars Attacks! a try. It's not the best, but it's far from the worst. It's action packed and far from boring. Tune in next time and we'll take a look at Burton's return to the world of macabre in a retelling of a classic tale.

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