Skip to content →

A documentary from Mars

JANUARY 6, 1997 – Review – Mars Attacks, director Tim Burton

This film is supposed to be a comedy. Maybe. I’m convinced it’s really a documentary in disguise. Let me make the case. The night I watched it, there were very few moments of laughter.

Except when the Martians fried Congress. The audience loved that. And anyone who knows the politics of the current, Newt Gingrich congress in the U.S., couldn’t help but love it too.

(There is a strong case to be made, in fact, that Newt hails from the Red Planet. But that’s another story).

Mars Attacks seems at first to be a silly spoof of science fiction. But as the flying saucers systematically, and with terrifying accuracy, blast every standing structure in Las Vegas, blur your eyes a minute and you’ll see instead US B-52s doing the same to Baghdad in 1991. This isn’t science fiction. This is just a picture of Western imperialism at war.

Or watch as the little invading soldiers, march through town after town, carrying a loudspeaker that blares out “We come in peace”, and then proceed to fry any human who gets in their way. Could be United Nations’ “peacekeeping” troops in Somalia.

Or it could be Columbus “discovering” America – and proceeding to virtually wipe out the indigenous populations on the Caribbean islands.

Or it could be Cortez, introducing himself to the Aztecs, and then laying siege to the 200,000 who lived in what is today Mexico City, and starving them to death.

The material for the movie’s “silly spoofs” is disturbingly close to home in the present and past of western imperialism.

But the movie spoofs more than that. There is the red-neck general who knows of only one way to deal with an attack from Mars – “nuke ‘em.” This has been the chorus of the far-right from China to Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf.

You can’t help but smile when the monosyllabic invaders turn the general’s intercontinental missiles into a type of party favour.

There is the college professor, grown up into a senior adviser to the president, who in the end is shown to know absolutely nothing. The professor’s fate is to flirt with the equally empty-headed talk-show host, and end up as a hostage with her in a Martian space craft – the professor liberated from his body, and the talk-show host’s body switched with that of her dog.

How terrible – using human bodies for scientific experiments. Yes, it is terrible, but you don’t have to go to Mars to find examples of it. Think of the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. And in the Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of US and Canadian troops were injected with untested drugs (including pesticides!) which have resulted in the horrible, lingering illnesses known as “Gulf War Syndrome.”

And then there is Jack Nicholson, who plays two roles. He leads as the president of the US, who in the face of the invasion of the planet, has recourse only to sound bites. His second role, hidden from the audience for a while, but revealed half-way through, is as a sleazy, corrupt, drink-sodden real-estate speculator out for cheap thrills and big bucks.

Oh, excuse me, I’ve mixed him up with Bill Clinton.

By the end, it is clear that when the world is threatened, forget them all – by the end of the flick they’re all fried.

But the world is saved. By an elderly impoverished granny with some very bad taste in music, by her hick grandson, by a 60-year old failed heavyweight boxer who survives by playing pharaoh to the rich in Las Vegas, and by two black kids with a ghetto blaster.

And by Tom Jones.

If you blur your eyes, you can see in this motley crew the outlines of what is in fact our future – the poor, the oppressed, the working class.

I’m not sure whether Mars Attacks is a good film or not. I wouldn’t go see it twice. But I am sure that it is a documentary, and not science fiction.

© 1997 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Published in Archive