MARS ATTACKS! begins with card #22 in the series, Burning Cattle. Cattle being set on fire is but a precursor to the horror that will be inflicted upon humanity, for the Martians - whatever their unknown but nefarious purposes - have chose to attack earth!
Soon the President James Dale of the United States (Jack Nicholson: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE RAVEN, THE TERROR, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, THE SHINING, WOLF), is looking at grainy black and white photographs of Martian spacecraft. The photos were taken - ahem - by the Hubble telescope. So we've got a fleet of Martian spacecraft orbiting earth, sure, but what does it mean? Dale starts with the most important man in the room, his Press Secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), who thinks it's a fabulous bit of PR for the administration to tell the world about these wonderful alien visitors!
General Decker (Rod Steiger: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE KINDRED, END OF DAYS) is certain that the spacecraft represent nothing less than a full scale invasion and we have to strike now! With nuclear force!"
President Dale sounds out General Casey (Paul Winfield: DAMNATION ALLEY, STAR TREK THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, DEAD OF NIGHT). Casey isn't onboard with Decker's assessment. "Do we know they're hostile?"
Decker: "They have us surrounded with thousands of warships!"
Casey: "Do we know they're warships?"
President Dale doesn't like the indecisiveness. He's a politician first, president second, and so he consults his science advisor, Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan: NOMADS, THE LAWNMOWER MAN, DANTE'S PEAK, JAMES BOND: GOLDEN EYE), and asks him a question that no scientist in their right mind could possibly answer with any credibility.
Instead of simply saying, "I don't know." Kessler states that since the Martians are technologically advanced, they must be peaceful by definition. Not a definition I can find, but there you have it. Finally Prez Dale returns to his most important man in the room, his Public Relations advisor, who bubbles enthusiastically about the potential for great publicity. Dale goes with the decision that appears to paint him in the nicest light and...
We welcome the Martians with open arms!
This is widely announced to the world as Jerry Ross believes it is a photo-op unpareil! They even have a scientist who, having never even heard of the Martian language or was aware of their existence, has never-the-less invented a Universal Translator.
It... it has a few bugs.
Meanwhile, life goes on as usual as the rest of the world takes the stunning news into account and determines how they are going to deal with it.
Fashion show TV Hostess, Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker: ED WOOD) wants that dashing pipe-smoking scientist, Dr. Kessler on her TV show and gets him, outgunning her boyfriend, Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox: CLASS OF 1984, THE FRIGHTENERS), star newsreporter for GNN (if anyone sends me an email asking why I didn't mention - Ugh! - Teen Wolf, I swear I'll hunt you down!).
Outside of the beltway, away off in Kansas to be exact, Richie Norris (Lukas Haas: LONG TIME DEAD, THE TRIPPER) returns from his job at the donut shop to his mobile home where his Pop (Joe Don Baker: THE SHADOW OF CHIKARA, CAPE FEAR ), is running a stopwatch on Richie's older Army enlisted brother, Billy Glenn (Jack Black: ENEMY OF THE STATE, KING KONG ) as he grabs parts from the table and assembles a rifle. Billy Glenn is being re-assigned to Martian detail.
Richie really doesn't get along with his Ma, Pa, and bro, but he loves his befuddled Grandma Florence (Silvia Sydney: DAMIEN: OMEN II, BEETLEJUICE). And Grandma Florence, whose mental state is - to put it kindly - less than adequate, loves her only focus in life, the music of country yodeler, Slim Whitman. Let's hear Indian Love Call! One! More! Time!
Meanwhile out in Las Vegas, business folk are trying to figure out the angle on the Martians and how they can profit from it.
Art Land (Jack Nicholson again), a chain-smoking, booze-swilling pitchman, is buying a new hotel/casino and Martian tourism would be just the kick in the pants his business could use. He's married unfortunately, to a daft brush named Barbara (Annette Bening: IN DREAMS), who believes in every homeopathic, holistic, new age, aging hippie crap you can throw at her. If it's depressing, hopeless, and destroys humanity, her tolerant, loving heart is all for it. After all, she's never experienced the real thing.
Byron Williams (Jim Brown) is an aging former boxer working a local casino in Pharoh drag and squelches out a living as a low-rent celebrity. Divorced but still in love with his ex back in Washington D.C., Louise (Pam Grier: THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM, GHOSTS OF MARS, BONES), Byron needs fewer hours and more money for his ex and their two sons. Louise meanwhile, who also still loves Byron, works as a bus driver and is running herself ragged keeping track of her arcade video game playing sons. And we're back in D.C. just in time to see what these Martians actually look like as they broadcast a signal to us.
Their most prominent feature is a massive brain prefaced with a skull face. Their language sounds like robot dogs barking and they so repulse the first lady, Marsha (Glenn Close: JAGGED EDGE, FATAL ATTRACTION, MARY REILLY, THE STEPFORD WIVES ), that she refuses to let them in her house: Which would be the White House. Which really isn't, of course, her house. Dale and Marsha's daughter, Taffy (Natalie Portman) is nearing adulthood and so is going through her jaded affectation period, where the world is boring and trivial and the future is hopeless. Even the imminent arrival of the Martians doesn't raise much enthusiasm from her. Nor does their subsequent attack.
So the Martians arrive and we wouldn't have much of a movie if everything didn't go to hell in a handbasket as the Martians start tearing humanity a new one. The movie is called, after all, MARS ATTACKS! and includes a helpful exclamation point at the end of the title.
While it's obvious to everyone that the Martians are cruel and bloodthirsty, Dr. Kessler wants to understand "Why" the Martians attacked us. Jerry Ross agrees.
Is it a cultural thing? What can we do to appease the Martians so they won't kill us anymore? How can we convince them that we mean them no harm? Oh what can we do so that the Martians will like us again? Perhaps if we communicate to their ships and tell them that we won't hurt them? Hmmm. Where have I heard that kind of talk?
The Martians laugh at our peaceful overtures as President Dale assures them that they have nothing to fear from us. The Martians lie, arrange a second meeting, and attack us again. President Dale still refuses to return the attack, choosing to ignore the Martian problem and focus on his campaign promises. That's why he was elected after all.
MARS ATTACKS! is not everyone's cup of tea. I know lots of folks who don't like it, and these same folks are usually dismissive of Director Tim Burton's other comedies like The Adventures Of Pee-Wee Herman, and BEETLEJUICE. Of course, if you are on par with Burton's sense of humor, then you are going to love this brightly lit candy-colored ride. There is a true carnival atmosphere in nearly every frame of this film and though the inventiveness never stops, Burton wasn't able to get everything from the old 1950s collector card series in here.
Yes, this movie isn't based on a different movie, book, legend, video game, or even a comic book. The whole movie is actually based on a series of collector cards from the 1950s! The cards were the creation of Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell, and Norman Saunders.
MARS ATTACKS! is a funhouse ride with ridiculously goofy Martians and whacked out cartoonish characters. In fact, there is so much here that could have gone wrong in less capable hands, but thanks to a loving story and script by Jonathon Gems, brilliant set design by Nancy Haigh (BARTON FINK), Art Direction by John Dexter (SLEEPY HOLLOW, HULK, PLANET OF THE APES , LEMONY SNICKET A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END), and costume design by Oscar winning Colleen Atwood (MANHUNTER, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SLEEPY HOLLOW, PLANET OF THE APES , LEMONY SNICKET: A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, SWEENEY TODD), it works. Together they create a great junk jewelry world where such shenanigans are possible.
It's spaceships! Aliens! Robots! Cruel and bizarre experiments on humans, and a showstopping scene with Martin Short and Lisa Marie! MARS ATTACKS! gets a little too cute for its own good at times. It is stuffed to the gills with cameos for one thing. Some work, like Tom Jones, and some don't, like Danny DeVito. I usually like Danny, but his role in this was way too pointless and padded.
Still, I can't stop watching it and it gets Four Shriek Girls from me.
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