"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Mars Attacks!" more than superficial comedy

"Funny lookin' critters, aren't they?" Joe Don Baker says of the Martians in "Mars Attacks!"
These Martians were originally supposed to be presented using "stop-motion." "Stop-motion" is a laborious undertaking but it can have interesting results. The original "King Kong" was a showcase. The name Ray Harryhausen comes immediately to mind.
"Stop-motion" may have been on the drawing board for "Mars Attacks!" but it was not used. A more economical choice avails itself for Hollywood. That choice: computer animation. Indeed, computer animation (or CGI) was quite the cat's pajamas when it first came on the scene. After a while it became tired, which in my opinion is where it sits now. It worked fine for the 1996 "Mars Attacks!" cinematic release. It was the same year as "Independence Day."
The two movies seem remarkably similar in spite of different purposes. "Mars Attacks!" intended to be funny. I would argue it wasn't mere farce. It wasn't just a series of impulsively created gags. There was a thread of seriousness to it which I hope other moviegoers detected.
I would summarize that theme as pacifism
The Jack Black character was created as the ultimate GI Joe type of military fanatic. The military was supposed to protect our interests in "Mars Attacks!" Consistent with this is the Rod Steiger character, an absolute caricature of the Patton-like military leader. He assumes the worst about the Martians.
All the tanks and guns of the U.S. military were powerless vs. the "funny lookin' critters."
There seem to be three heroes in this movie, none of whom use aggression to get the favorable resolution. Lukas Haas as "Richie Norris" is the complete opposite of the Jack Black character. They're brothers in the movie. Richie is a calm, nerdy, thoughtful guy who runs a donut stand. He's very committed to his grandmother who ends up another of the three heroes. She emerges this way unwittingly with her music tastes.
Music! "Mars Attacks!" is somewhat like "War of the Worlds" in the sense that an unexpected adversary of the invaders emerges. Neither movie shows the military having any power. In "War of the Worlds" it's the bacteria, "the smallest living creatures" (irony intended), that do the vanquishing. In "Mars Attacks!" the force is similarly unlikely. It's the kind of music grandma likes.
Sylvia Sidney plays "grandma." What kind of music? She plays it on vinyl records. Think of Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call." Yodeling saves the world. Richie learns of this by accident when attending to his grandma. The tables are quickly turned on the Martians.
Then at the end, we see the movie's third hero, played by Natalie Portman, bestowing honors. We have learned through the course of this movie that Natalie's character, "Taffy," completely lacks the pretentiousness of her parents who happen to be the president and the First Lady. It's hard to believe she could even be their daughter. She seems to be the calm and pacifistic type just like Richie. She and Richie keep their heads while everyone around them seems to be losing theirs.
Richie's simple love for his grandma is his bedrock.
"Taffy" has the presidential chef bring her pizza. She seems alienated like she's bothered by all the pomp around her. "Grandma" is a kind-hearted character who isn't totally attuned to reality. She lives in a nursing home.
Richie, Taffy and Grandma seem on a different page from nearly all the movie's other characters. It's as if they are in a different, saner reality. Yes, they are pacifists. They don't even think of an overt aggressive response to the Martians who really just seem like props in the movie. The three take care of their priorities, being gentle and sensible, and we get the assurance that things will work out fine.
Belligerence loses. It's not the guns that win, it's the bacteria in "War of the Worlds" and the yodeling in "Mars Attacks!" The invaders don't belong here. They'll be taken care of.
"Mars Attacks!" sticks with me a lot more than "Independence Day." I have written before about "Independence Day," that it doesn't wear well with repeated viewings. It goes from being an interesting spectacle to seeming ridiculous. The implausible aspects jump out at you. I don't like seeing an exotic dancer cast as sympathetic. How would anyone know how to fly that old captured UFO? It's as mystifying as "Rambo" hopping into that Russian helicopter and knowing where all the buttons are! That's Hollywood!
It has been suggested that "Mars Attacks!" is like a Mad Magazine satire of "Independence Day." Surprisingly, "Mars Attacks" did not do well at the box office in the U.S. Fortunately it did better in Europe.
Tim Burton was a creative brainchild. I think the movie is superbly crafted. The story is effective. The A-list of actors couldn't have done better. Those name actors must have known this was a significant project.
I'm surprised the movie got just mixed reviews. Roger Ebert made an odd comment, that the movie's creators gave the impression they were above the subject matter, whereas such movies succeed best when the creators have their sleeves rolled up with total belief - something like that. He was implying that the subject matter was something like schlock.
But I don't think that was the intent or the reality. I think the intent was to show an invasion scenario with comedic overtones that in the end was done in by the unlikeliest force. The three heroes as identified by yours truly would seem the unlikeliest. Yet they set an example with how they carried themselves. They kept their composure amidst all the madness. It's pacifism on a pedestal.
Everything represented by the Jack Black character came crashing down. Make love not war.
Jack Nicholson gets to play two characters: President "Jimmy" Dale and sleazy Las Vegas hotel developer Art Land. Annette Bening plays a character modeled after Ann-Margret in "Viva Las Vegas."
I should have acknowledged the Jim Brown character earlier in this post. Brown ought to be featured onscreen more often. As I reflect on "Mars Attacks!" the thought has crossed my mind that maybe the whole story was a fantasy in the mind of the Brown character. The story allows him to feel a renewed purpose in his life, to feel some of his past glory again, to thump his chest as "the heavyweight champion of the world" and to get back with his family from which he has been estranged.
Brown's character, "Byron Williams," is a once-great prize fighter now reduced to being a casino greeter. He helps a group escape the Martians. We assume he's dead but for some reason he has escaped their clutches, maybe because he humored them by boxing them? Did they just want to fight a little? He makes it back to his family's home of Washington, D.C. in a very climactic final scene. His character is a very gentle one. He refuses an offer from Art Land to rough up a guy who has crossed Land. Once again it's pacifism.
Let's add the Brown character as a hero in this movie. So many elements worked well together in the movie. Tom Jones plays himself in a most endearing and entertaining way. He sings his signature "It's Not Unusual." He flies the plane while Brown distracts the Martians with his boxing. Bening is on the plane.
We get so attached to all these characters.
"Mars Attacks!" has been described as black comedy and political satire. Also, as a parody of sci-fi 'B' movies. I'm disturbed by all the attempts to describe this movie in merely farcical or "spoof" terms. Such terms cheapen it. It was a uniquely inspired sci-fi story with obviously comedic overtones, but with an undercurrent of seriousness about pacifism, restraint and sensibility as alternatives to panic.
The Steiger character epitomizes the most undesirable character traits. "Taffy" scolds him in the movie, as he has just become too loud.
Way back when, actor Steiger was offered the role of Patton that was eventually taken by George C. Scott. Legend has it Steiger rejected the role because he felt the movie would glorify war. Which it did. "Patton" was made in 1970 when Steiger's attitude was very common. We should stick with it.
Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox continue the A-list nature of the "Mars Attacks!" cast. The chemistry is perfect.
The concept for the movie began in 1993. It was weighed alongside "Dinosaurs Attack!" But the latter seemed too similar to "Jurassic Park."
An old trading card series planted the seed for "Mars Attacks!" It's the kind of story one might expect growing out of the Cold War, a strange time that was the backdrop for my youth. We feared "the other." We felt a military buildup with readiness was a must. We feared the Russians like we might fear the Martians.
I would compare "Mars Attacks!" more to "War of the Worlds" than "Independence Day." Substitute the yodeling for the bacteria.
My generation poked fun at Slim Whitman for a time after he'd become well-known with a TV album. My generation mocked many things and I hope we've grown out of it.
"Mars Attacks!" has staying power that in my mind far surpasses "Independence Day." Pacifism lives!
Kudos to "liberal" Hollywood.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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