Things are getting weird out there — and that's saying something after the past few years. Somehow, humanity has survived an ongoing global pandemic, international warfare, the effects of climate change, and more, but now we're looking at a potential threat from beyond. After three different unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were shot down across North America, with varied reports on each and claims that some of them had technology beyond our current means, it was hard for many people not to immediately assume we were being invaded (or at least scouted) by aliens. While President Biden and top Air Force officials have since debunked these ideas with reports that the flying objects were made right here on Earth, people are still stirred up and thinking about the possibility of alien invasion, possibly more than they have in decades.
In 1996, two huge movies came out about alien invasions. One was Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day," an explosive crowd-pleaser about coming together as a species in the face of extinction; the other was Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!," and it was exactly the opposite. If "Independence Day" is a patriotic and idealistic take on alien invasion, "Mars Attacks!" is the realistic reminder that humans can barely stop fighting one another long enough to realize they have a common enemy. "Mars Attacks!" was chided by critics and audiences at the time for being too cruel and too violent, with human protagonists that were too stupid, but in 2023, it feels all too timely.
A Blast From The Past
"Mars Attacks!" is one seriously strange movie. It's both inspired by a set of graphically violent collectible cards (think "Garbage Pail Kids" with disembowelment) and 1950s science fiction. While the alien invasion stories of the 1950s were unsubtle allegories for fears of communism, they were also pretty tame and followed the rules of the Hays Code, ensuring that "good morals" and such prevailed. The heroes would be heroic, the villains would be defeated, and America would look like the guardians of the world. "Mars Attacks!" is not that movie. This is a movie where an alien kills the president's dog and the First Lady (Glenn Close) throws the poor Golden Retriever's skull at the alien in self-defense.
"Mars Attacks!" is star-studded and lured in audiences with a cast that includes Pam Grier, Annette Benning, Jack Nicholson in a double role, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, and even lounge singer Tom Jones as himself. Combined with a PG-13 rating and advertisements that played up the silliness of the Martians, it looked like a funny, slightly satirical take on something like "Independence Day." This was 1996, after all, and people were still living in a bubble of optimism that wouldn't be popped until just after the turn of the century. Burton's cynicism was far too much for audiences who thought the future was going to be bright, but in retrospect, he was just pointing out the inevitable truth that humans, even/especially the ones in power, can be exceptionally stupid.
Utter Incompetence In The Face Of Extinction
Pretty much everyone in a position of power in "Mars Attacks!" is a blowhard or an idiot (or both). The president (Jack Nicholson) is an old-school nationalist who enjoys the seat of his power and ignores his teenage daughter (Natalie Portman), while the First Lady is more concerned with the decorating decisions of Eleanor Roosevelt than anything else. By the time it comes down to just the Martian leader and the president to meet, Nicholson gives his best speech about how we should all just "get along," then is genuinely shocked when the alien kills him anyway. Members of the news media are too wrapped up in their appearance or their love lives to actually give a damn about the news, and the wealthy try to capitalize on the alien invasion with marketing schemes. Everyone either wants to get laid or make a quick buck and in the meantime, the Martians do some serious destruction.
There are a handful of survivors that manage to endure after the Martians destroy most of civilization, though it's mostly through sheer dumb luck because a teenager discovers that music makes their heads explode. While that might seem like a pretty harsh indictment of humanity, it's also worth pointing out that we haven't been able to unite to take care of any major problem, really. Even if the world's scientists team up to produce a vaccine to save millions of lives, some humans are going to refuse. Humanity's greatest threat to survival isn't an alien invasion, a pandemic, or even climate change: it's ourselves.
Looking Back To See How To Move Forward
By the end of "Mars Attacks!", all of society has to be rebuilt. There's a slightly hopeful ending as some of the survivors discuss the future, but they shouldn't have to go through the struggle of rebuilding at all. The people in charge should have done their jobs and protected the interests of all of humanity, not just their voters or campaign donators. What we can take away from "Mars Attacks!" is that while many people like to idealize both the 1950s and the 1990s as idealized versions of the past where humanity was just somehow better, we weren't. As Simon Pegg's Gary King tells the alien invaders in "The World's End:" "Face it, we are the human race and we don't like being told what to do!" Humans are stubborn, petty, spiteful creatures, but we also can be better if we know that and still try anyway.
While many of us have lost our faith in institutions and are coming to realize that Burton was actually onto something in "Mars Attacks!," what's important is that we don't get defeated or let the stupidity win. We can rebuild before everything is destroyed by the weather, disease, or aliens, but we'll have to work together.
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The post Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! Used the Past to Predict Our Present appeared first on /Film.