Playing with a Full Deck?
In 1964, two films were released with essentially the same plot: the United States accidentally sends the order to use atomic weapons against the Soviet Union and is unable to correct the mistake. While Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe was a gripping suspense drama, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove uses the same material as a superb arena for satire and black comedy.
1996 brought a similar situation: Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day is a thrilling spectacle brilliantly updating the alien invasion of War of the Worlds. Now, Tim Burton finds the invasion scenario fertile ground for a wild and wacky farce, with a galaxy of well known stars led by Jack Nicholson playing broadly against a cartoonish backdrop.
Tim Burton’s new film Mars Attacks! is based on the infamous trading cards first released by the Topps company over 35 years ago. Just about the time when Lumet and Kubrick were poring over script ideas for their visions of armageddon, outraged mothers were demanding the recall of this series of bubble gum reading material that showed a typical invasion from the Red Planet in graphically titillating detail. Though the cards quickly disappeared into bonfires, the cherished memories lived on in the heads of those 11-year-olds lucky enough to have passed a few packs of the cards around the schoolyard. In 1984, Renato Glasso, Inc. issued a limited edition reprint of the cards, which quickly sold out to collectors. Eventually recognizing the cult value of their property, Topps has been promoting the campy fun of the series increasingly for the past several years.
The film itself is gloriously weird from start to finish. The (sometimes literally) eye-popping special effects are not only just as impressive as those in any other film released this year, but also much more creatively and fancifully designed. The hideous Martians are so thoroughly deceitful and black hearted while executing their diabolical plans that they come off as almost cute, while the human race is portrayed as such a bunch of dunderheads that you don’t mind catching yourself occasionally rooting for the enemy.
The plot should be familiar to just about anyone (Alien meets planet. Alien conquers planet. Alien loses planet.), and so free reign is given to the plot to playfully romp in whatever direction it wants. The stars merrily send up every disaster movie cliche, and that spirit of fun comes across marvelously. This is easily Burton’s funniest work, a candy-colored campfest that’s hard to resist.
SPOILER WARNING! If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want any surprises ruined, read no further…
While the bubble gum that once accompanied them makes a cameo appearance, you may be curious as to how the film stacks up compared to the cards themselves? Here’s the play by play:
Number 1: The Invasion Begins
Shows Martian warriors marching aboard saucers, ready to conquer Earth due to the fact that “atomic pressures had been building up beneath the surface of Mars for many years.” Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems chose not to show the aliens until later. The only shot on Mars shows saucers rising from a hidden underground base. Or maybe they take off from the moon – Mars seems awful close.
Number 2: Martians Approaching
Burton’s credit sequence takes place over this scene of an armada of saucers approaching Earth. However, the saucers in the film are not as sleek looking, more closely resembling the models in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Number 3: Attacking an Army Base
Remember Pearl Harbor! The Martian saucers first attack an unnamed military base, setting fire to barracks from the air, then cutting down “officers and privates” with “strange rays which were unknown to our civilization”. Burton’s Martians first attack at a desert summit meeting.
Number 4: Saucers Blast Our Jets
I may have missed something, but the film only has one jet fighter destroyed by the saucers – unlike Independence Day, which made dogfights a major theme.
Number 5: Washington in Flames
The film also depicts the siege of Washington, often as a send-up of similar scenes at the climax of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (the saucer weapons also resemble those in this classic).
Number 6: Burning Navy Ships
Number 7: Destroying the Bridge
Number 8: Terror in Times Square
The film bypasses the conflict at sea, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the attack on New York’s long lost grindhouse district. Instead, we get to see a full scale attack on Las Vegas.
Number 9: The Human Torch
The film lovingly depicts this gruesome disintegration effect several times, even going so far as to match the color of the charred skeletons with that of the ray that produced it.
Number 10: The Skyscraper Tumbles
Saucers turn the Empire State Building into a Towering Inferno, then blast it apart. Just before quittin’ time, too! ID4 took this scene, too. Burton instead crushes Jack Nicholson’s hotel tower – a less spectacular event.
Number 11: “Destroy the City”
One of the gorier cards depicts the Martians passing by heaps of burning corpses. The film tends to skirt around blatantly graphic gore, dressing it up in candy colors when it gets too close.
Number 12: Death in the Cockpit
Another airborne casualty. See card #4.
Number 13: Watching from Mars
While we see the Martian overlords monitoring events from the saucers several times, Burton and company missed an opportunity here. This hilarious card depicts cocktail-sipping Martians back home watching the destruction of the Capitol Building on their big screen TVs.
Number 14: Charred by Martians
Who else? The scene of Lucas Haas racing along in his pick-up are the closest we come to this scene of saucers chasing down a young doctor driving home from a house call.
Number 15: Saucers Invade China
Not surprisingly, Burton skips over this racist depiction of the Red Menace taking on the Yellow Peril. “Believing the attacking saucers were the will of angry gods, the Chinese peasants made little effort to escape the slaughter.”
Number 16: Panic in Parliament
The second international scene shows Martians burning through the roof to bedevil “England’s top government officials”. A close-up of a chunk of stone bashing a Lord in the head enlivens the proceedings. Except for one brief scene of Martians attacking the French, Burton concentrated on the domestic front.
Number 17: Beast and the Beauty
Martian breaks through a window to snatch a snoozing blonde in a sheer nightgown right out of her bed. Perhaps Burton recreated this scene with the otherwise underused Christina Applegate, but left it on the cutting room floor.
Number 18: A Soldier Fights Back
Burton also depicts a scene in which a foolish grunt charges the enemy and is easily picked off.
Number 19: Burning Flesh
Similar to #9, only this time the invaders turn their atomic ray guns on an ambushing gang of juvenile delinquents.
Number 20: Crushed to Death
Although Burton also shows robot arms projecting from beneath the saucers, they’re not used to crush crowds against the walls of brick buildings.
Number 21: Prize Captive
A screaming blonde, who looks like the same girl from card #17, gets harassed again by a “curious” Martian. This time, her attacker is “startled by the woman’s antics”, and she escapes.
Number 22: Burning Cattle
Burton opens the film with the strange sight of a herd of stampeding flaming cattle. Though he never explains the event, letting the surrealism stand on it’s own, the card clues us in to the fact that the bad guys are attempting to destroy Earth’s food supplies.
Number 23: The Frost Ray
Number 24: The Shrinking Ray
To pad out the set, Topps began to bring in some pretty esoteric ideas. The shrinking ray puts in an appearance in the film, miniaturizing Rod Steiger.
Number 25: Capturing a Martian
While admiring a burning building, a Martian is caught in a huge fishing net by Earth fighters. While this might have been a riot on screen, this is just another scene that got away.
Number 26: The Tidal Wave
Aliens had already caused a huge tidal wave in The Abyss, so Burton wisely passed over this obvious “filler” card.
Number 27: The Giant Flies
Number 28: Helpless Victim
Number 29: Death in the Shelter
Number 33: Removing the Victims
Number 34: Terror in the Railroad
Number 35: The Flame Throwers
Number 37: Creeping Menace
Number 38: Victims of the Bug
Number 39: Army of Giant Insects
Number 40: High Voltage Execution
Number 41: Horror in Paris
Number 42: Hairy Fiend
Number 43: Blasting the Bug
Number 44: Battle in the Air
Number 45: Fighting Giant Insects
To pad out the series, Topps created a series within a series. The Martians create an army of giant insects to do their fighting for them, while recreating many of the same gruesome scenes from previous cards. The Martians only make token appearances on these cards, and Burton wisely ignored this detour.
Number 30: Trapped!
Number 31: The Monster Reaches In
Deja vu! The Martian’s favorite pin-up girl is made a target of their pet bugs also. Couldn’t they make her a redhead once?
Number 32: Robot Terror
The Martian giant robot makes a major appearance in the movie, following the art on this card closely.
Number 36: Destroying A Dog
An outrageous favorite, in which a Martian turns his death ray on a loyal pet, “destroying it as the young boy cried out in horror.” In the film, the President of the United States stands in for the young boy.
Number 46: Blast Off for Mars
Number 47: Earth Bombs Mars
Number 48: Earthmen Land on Mars
Number 49: The Earthmen Charge
Number 50: Smashing the Enemy
Number 51: Crushing the Martians
The Earthbound feature never reached this awesome conclusion. After knocking off the giant bug subplot, Earth fighters somehow cobble together a fleet of spaceships, fly to Mars and, after softening ’em up with a few nukes, proceed to wreak horrifying retribution upon the Martian populace. Perhaps we’ll see this carnage in the sequel.
Number 52: Giant Robot
Hey, they’ve got one of those nutty robots on Mars, too. A bazooka (!) blast is enough to finish this one.
Number 53: Martian City in Ruins
Number 54: Mars Explodes
Just hours before “atomic pressures” destroy the planet anyway, Earthmen find the time to kill every last Martian. Worth the trip, boys!
Number 55: Checklist
Hmmm. Guess this is where they put the end credits. Cue Danny Elfman with the music, somebody!