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Earth vs Martians vs Martians vs Devlerlich

Posted by Dirck on 17 June, 2013

To start what is apt to become a long series of quasi-reviews of films and partial responses to film critics, I’m starting with far too much to really attempt all in one go.  The critic I’ll be leaning on today is El Santo, a self-confessed fan of genre and exploitation film and a remarkable scholar of same; there are films I have no interest in watching that I’d still sort of like to see, thanks to his reviews.  He is, in fact, just about my favourite film critic.

Film favourites also appear here, although we may play a few bars of the old Sesame Street song and sing quietly, “One of these things is not like the others.”  Because speaking of one is difficult without speaking about the others, the unchewable lump I’m gnawing on today is composed of War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks, and Independence Day, and those links will take you to El Santo’s elegant reviews of each if you’re unfamiliar with them.

War of the Worlds, if you’re unwilling to click that link, is the 1953 original film version, not any of the differently-terrible ones which have appeared since the most recent turn of the century.  I’ve seen two of them, and I wish the period one had been better in some way (acted, written, funded) because that’s the one I wish Spielberg had made.  The one he was attached to very nearly overcomes the presence of Tom Cruise (pause for a shudder), as during the whole flight from the Martians his portrayal of a panicky, worried Joe Lunchbucket dad who is monumentally out of his depth is believable to the point that one almost forgets the terrible pre-Martian segment where he’s established as a Joe Lunchbucket dad (with amazing teeth).  Once the flight ends, and your warning for this is the appearance of Tim Robbins, it turns into a stupid action movie, with a Joe Lunchbucket dad who hasn’t eaten properly or slept in a couple of days performing heroics with hand grenades, pointing out the unnoticed but obvious state of the attackers, and generally getting a spotlight shone upon him.

The 1953 film is, in common with the Cruise object, rewritten for a contemporary setting.  This is, as El Santo points out, fair enough since the original story was also contemporary to its day.  The whole point of the ending is that humanity’s technology is orders of magnitude short of the challenge posed by the invaders, and as much as I wish for a good period movie version I accept that the average audience won’t be as moved by the sight of lancers, horse artillery and ironclads being swept aside as they will by the current cutting edge military technology being shambolized.  Since 1953’s cutting edge included the unspeakably unstable YB-49 Flying Wing I’m just as pleased because there’s a ton of stock footage of the thing in action.  The updating also brings in atomic power, and that allows for my favourite unintentionally funny part of the film, in which our hero Dr. Clayton Forrester hauls out a Gieger counter to examine the “meteor”; the blocking of the scene and the relative heights of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson make it look like he’s got a very accurate bra-detector.

Mars Attacks and Independence Day are both, in essence, remakes of War of the Worlds.  The former is a much looser interpretation but much more open about its lineage to those who know what to look for– the Martians’ ray-guns produce two different colours of blast and make a very specific noise.  El Santo points out that the main reason for the success (artistically) of Mars Attacks is that the director both understood and loved the old films upon which it was based, of which War of the Worlds is merely the foremost.  I’m not a wall-to-wall Tim Burton fan, but I agree whole-heartedly with El Santo that he nailed the required tone throughout Mars Attacks.  There are plenty of nods to both the original bubble-gum card source, the most startling of which is the initial scene, and to science fiction films of most ages; I’m reminded as I write this that The Andromeda Strain was technically an alien invasion story.  While the most obvious touchstone for the saucers is the vessels run up by Ray Harryhausen for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, there is also a little tip of the hat from Burton to the studio that was backing him– when they deploy their landing gear, the subconscious makes an effort to apply a set of enormous black canvas high-top sneakers to them.

Independence Day on the other hand, while sticking a little closer to the storyline of War of the Worlds, strays from it in exactly the wrong ways.  Let me tinker a synopsis that will fit both films (beware the dread spoiler): aliens appear, begin to destroy things shortly thereafter, prove human military technology is helpless against them, and resist nuclear bombardment; some captured technology proves to be of limited value in discovering a means of defeating the invaders, but an infection turns the tide at the last moment.  Sounds about right?  It was the near shot-for-shot similarity of the nuclear attack in Independence Day that made me realize what I was looking at, and once the realization was there, I was even sadder about watching the damn thing.

El Santo castigates it properly for having a very small percentage of the running time given over to the actual blowing up of stuff, but there are some pretty long stretches of square-dancing, running to and fro, and slightly unlikely science chatter in War of the Worlds too.  I suspect if one examined in percent terms the alien on-screen time of the two films, Independence Day wouldn’t lag that far behind… but it’s a much longer film, so the relative similarity is overtaken by the absolute yawning immensity of Independence Day‘s empty bits.

For all the bad science and protracted dullness Independence Day offers, though, I think the concluding deus ex machina is the stake in its heart.  I join not only El Santo but legions of like-minded SF buffs in deriding the whole computer virus solution to the problem the aliens present, demanding as it does the deeply unlikely combination of humans piloting an alien vessel (and the aliens seem to have a lot of prehensile somethings when Will Smith punches one out), alien operating systems accepting any code from an earth computer, alien ATC not realizing they’re admitting a Trojan horse, and the crew of said horse getting out alive, but I add an extra note to that polyphony of raspberry.  Independence Day‘s greatest sin is to entirely reverse the conclusion of War of the Worlds— Wells and his sensible followers showed the helplessness of human ingenuity in the face of such a foe, but Independence Day proclaims that human ingenuity is quite sufficient to defeat a force which can cross interstellar gulfs, built artificial objects the size of moderate moons, decline the demands of gravity, generate forcefields which are impenetrable in one direction, and generally do feats of engineering we’re all but forced to call magic.  Since all of the preceding had been, as in the other two films, an excellent case against human ingenuity’s chances, it’s eventual triumph is less a come-from-behind win than a poke in the audience’s eye.  “You believed all that stuff we were saying? Chumps!”

Looking at box office success, we find that the little green gremlin which afflicts so many real-world efforts to visit Mars may also have a brief in the sabotaging of films about the red planet.  War of the Worlds is one of three films of the 1950s which El Santo credits with slamming the door on big budget sci-fi films until Stanley Kubrick pried it open at the end of the ’60s, and Mars Attacks grossed more than it cost but not the multiples of its cost that Hollywood seems to think is required to count as a success.  I wasn’t around to see how War of the Worlds was received in the theatres, but I did get to Mars Attacks in its first run and of the three dozen people in the showing my wife and I attended, only ten of us seemed to get the jokes; this does nothing to encourage my view of humanity as a whole.  I could say the same about the relative success of Independence Day at the box office, since it did make back several times its cost, but I seem to recall that it did most of its business in the first week or two, before disappointed word of mouth had a chance to circulate.  Alas, unlike War of the Worlds’s effect on A-list sci-fi in the 1950s, there is no sign of Independence Day having done any harm to the notion of gigantic brainless blockbusters.

Creepy, inhumanly shaped, and it made horrid noises too!.

Creepy, inhumanly shaped, and it made horrid noises too!.

How the hell did they get Edith Head to stand still for this picture?

How the hell did they get Edith Head to stand still for this picture?

To wrap up, I want to take issue with El Santo himself, who says “the creature costumes {in War of the Worlds} are not nearly as good as the model war machines or the optical effects associated with them….”  I beg your pardon, sir!  While the behind-the-scenes interviews on the DVD suggest that the Martians had a very limited ability to hold together under the influences found on a film set, it was still a profoundly alien piece of work.  We’ve done better since, of course, but for the time, I think the creature stands up to what scrutiny the film provides every bit as well at the machines.  After all, they could have gone a much different route….

Today’s pen: Waterman Executive
Today’s ink: Rohrer & Klingner Verdigris
Pens spotted in the films: Nothing I could readily identify, although I want to have another look at the lab scene in War of the Worlds when Forrester brings in the captured technology.

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2 Responses to “Earth vs Martians vs Martians vs Devlerlich”

  1. I have a policy against watching any movie with Tom Cruise so I didn’t see that one. I didn’t see the original either, actually, but I listened to the original radio broadcast, which is really great. Orson Welles was a slick fella.

    I actually liked Independence Day, but most of the “science” is ridiculously implausible, beyond the implausibility of most sci-fi movies.

    • I though the city-detonating portions of Indepenence Day were good, but when the effective climax of the film is also the end of Act I, there’s a problem. I enjoy the similarly loud and nearly as hollow Battle Los Angeles a lot more, because it remembered to space out the kaboom. When I’m flipping through channels and tune to ID just as Air Force One is leaving the ground (which is invariably the case) I always utter a sigh, as I’ve missed the good part.

      I’ve never paid to see the Cruise object, as I’ve a similar general policy, and having a look at it at all was a serious struggle with approach/avoidance conflict. It almost fooled me into thinking he was tolerable; thank goodness Tim Robbins saved me from that error!

      I can’t remember whether I heard the Mercury Theatre production before or after I saw the 1953 film– they’re very close to one another in my personal timeline. The local public library had the radio show on LP and my parents indulged me in the use of the good hi-fi so it was a very immersive experience, and I try to recreate it at least once a year. Now all I need is to lay my hands on the musical that Richard Burton was involved with….

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