MARS ATTACKS! (1996) was inspired by a notorious set of Topps bubblegum cards that showed Martians inflicting unspeakable atrocities on helpless Americans but fails to be anywhere near as memorable. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, Tim Burton seems to think that having Pierce Brosnan’s character be a pipe-smoking scientist just like those old 1950s movie is inherently funny, even when the character’s not doing anything funny. Likewise, everyone assuming the Martians come in peace (“An advanced civilization is, by definition, not barbaric.”) is supposed to be comedic, but it’s no different from endless movies that play the same point straight (e.g., Independence Day). It’s also way, way too late for the scenes of the Martians disintegrating people and smashing cities to have the shock value the cards did decades earlier. Despite an impressive cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annete Benning, Danny deVito, Michael J. Fox, Jim Brown (him taking on the aliens mano-a-mano is a genuinely funny bit), Rod Steiger and Pam Grier (who plays her role so straight, it seems to come from another movie). “Look, the Martian leader is making the international sign for ‘donut.’”
Then again, watching ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978) demonstrates that Burton, even when making a bad movie, is a good movie-maker. This ham-fisted comedy (which contrary to my memory, does not involve aliens) is not well-made, and it’s not So Bad It’s Good — it’s just bad. Still, I got some stuff done while working on it, so it works out. “That was a cherry tomato!”
M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002) is something of an oddball invasion movie. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix learn the crop circle on their farm is one of hundreds appearing all over the world, followed by aliens who lurk in the shadows, make creepy sounds, and occasionally attack (why they’re targeting one farm in the back of beyond is not explained). All of which is effective horror-movie stuff, but the actual invasion only takes up a fraction of the film — it’s as if the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS spent most of the running time waiting for the Martians to attack. As the arc of the film is really former priest Mel Gibson regaining his lost faith, this approach might work, but the climax is anticlimactic (the aliens die when exposed to water, which makes Earth a really bad planet to target) and the stuff about faith isn’t as deep as Shyamalan might have thought. Still, better made than many I’ve watched for this book. “This is why we’re not watching TV — people get obsessed.”
Case in point, DUSTWALKER (2019), an unremarkable Aussie movie in which inhabitants of a small desert town discover ET parasites turning some among them into zombie-like killers. It does make me reflect the implications of location — Klaatu landing in Washington guarantees top-level government and military response whereas films in isolated small towns (It Came From Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) mean the community is usually on its own.
To its credit, WAR OF THE WORLDS: The True Story (2012) expresses Wells’ agnosticism better than the George Pal film did but it’s otherwise unimpressive. A supposed video interview with reporter “Bertie Wells,” mixed with archival footage, this isn’t bad visually (impressive tripods but almost never interacting with people) but it amounts to a condensed audiobook of the original novel. The Palm movie had more spark and the manta-like flying vessels are cooler than any of the tripods I’ve seen on screen in other takes on Wells. “God is not an insurance agent.
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