Before the titles a farmer in his tractor is asking a neighbour about his barbecue but he’s not having a barbecue. Soon they find out where the smell of meat is coming from as a herd of cattle stampede down the road on fire. It certainly sets the tone for the rest of this Tim Burton film and it’s followed by a title sequence that has one of my favourite film themes by Danny Elfman. It’s one of those tunes that really gets me pumped up for a big show. The film itself is certainly a big budget star-studded spectacle and is a fun homage to 50s science fiction films.
President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) is informed that there are disc shaped craft surrounding the Earth and is shown photographs of the craft from satellites. His press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short) is very excited about announcing this to the public but the hawkish General Decker (Rod Steiger) sees this as major security threat. This very sensible view is side-lined by a scientist Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) who is dogmatically tied to the idea that advanced technology and high intelligence suggests a peaceful race just as advanced morally as they are technologically despite the very obvious evidence to the contrary from the only example of an advanced technological species we know about.
They announce the aliens to the public and we see the different main characters. In a donut shop in Nevada we have a quiet geeky emo type with long hair (Lukas Haas). His family live in a trailer park except for his senile grandmother Florence (Sylvia Sidney) who has dementia and gets people’s names wrong and she lives in a care home. His father (Joe Don Baker) is a slob with small-minded views and his mother (O-Lan Jones) and brother Billy Glen (Jack Black) are much the same. Billy Glen has volunteered at the local army base for Martian duty. There’s an ex-boxer Byron Williams (Jim Brown) working in a casino in Las Vegas dressed up like a pharaoh and his wife (Pam Grier) and two sons live in Washington DC. He’s only in Vegas for the work to support his family. Also in Vegasis Art Land (Jack Nicholson) a casino owner and his hippy new age wife Barbara (Annette Bening). Art is obsessed with getting his latest casino running but Barbara is excited by the Martians thinking they have come to save us from ourselves
Kessler goes on cheesy chat show to talk about the aliens with Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker). Nathalie’s boyfriend is a new reporter Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox) and he’s pissed that Nathalie is getting this exclusive interview. It becomes clear why when Kessler starts flirting with Nathalie. Suddenly all the TV signals get cut off and then they receive a transmission from the Martians. The alien design is amazing and though we did not get the cards they were based on over here in UK they do look pretty close from what I’ve seen. The Martians are short and skinny with a head that looks like a skull with big brain bulging out the back. They have big bulging eyes in their lidless eye sockets. The Martian leader quacks his announcement and concludes his speech by tracing a circle in the air.
President Dale is talking to a bunch of senior military staff and scientists about the Martians now that they have seen them. The First Lady Martha Dale (Glenn Close) is revolted by them at first sight but Kessler goes on about how we are probably just as hideous to them. There’s a scientist with a translation machine but what it translates the strange quacks into is nonsense that barely makes any more sense but it sounds just as ominous as it does hopeful.
The Martians transmit landing co-ordinates for the first official meeting in the Nevada desert near a town called Parumph and Decker wants to gets the troops there in force. Kessler advises that they don’t want to seem aggressive so the President puts the wimpy General Casey (Paul Winfield) in charge and tells him to invite a select audience. On the day they have few hundred invited guests and a bunch of hippies hanging around at the back of those seated. Barbara has found herself a perfect place to watch the whole thing from a hill over-looking the landing site. The media are of course there and both Nathalie and Jason are on top of their outside broadcast vans transmitting live.
All eyes are on it as a saucer comes out of the sky and lands right where they said they would. A ramp unrolls from the ship and the Martian ambassador marches out with an escort of armed men. General Casey greets him, putting out his hand to shake and the translation machine turns his greeting into Martian quacks. The ambassador replies and after a minute the translation announces the reply “We come in peace.” The crowd applaud and one of the hippies releases a white dove which flies over the heads of the crowd and over the ambassador. The ambassador whips out a gun and blasts the bird out of the sky then he blasts General Casey, burning off his flesh and just leaving a pile of red bones then other Martians open fire on the crowd. Billy Glen picks up a gun and helmet from a skeleton in a truck and goes to attack the Martians but the gun doesn’t work so he picks up a flagpole and goes to attack them with it but he gets blasted in full view of the TV cameras and his family watch him die. Nathalie gets thrown from her van and Jason jumps down from his van to go to her, crawling on the ground to avoid the blasts from the Martian weapons and the shots fired back by the army. He manages to get to her and grasp her hand but there’s a blast of a Martian weapon and Nathalie discovers she’s just holding a severed a hand and all that’s left of the rest of Jason is his skeleton. The Martians carry Nathalie’s unconscious body on to their ship and take off
President Dale is watching from the Whitehouse with his wife, his daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman), Kessler, Ross and Decker. Decker says that it was exactly what he feared but Kessler is trying to find excuses for the Martian’s behaviour, something that they did that offended them. Taffy comments that maybe bird means war to them. Martha thinks they should be destroyed and Decker is happy that at least one person sees it his way but once more he gets ignored in favour of Kessler’s idea trying to contact the Martians again. President Dale sends a message apologising for any misunderstanding and begging for another chance to meet. When the Martian leader and the ambassador read the message it gives them a good laugh.
Next day they get a message from the Martians apologising for what happened and asking to meet Congress and with idiotic naiveté they agree and get it all set up. There are crowds waiting outside the Capitol building and this time Decker is in charge of the security. President Dale and his family have to watch on TV because the Secret Service insists that it’s not a good idea for the President and congress to be in the same room for security reasons. Kessler is in Congress watching the Leader of the House introduce the Martian ambassador and his two man escort. He takes the speaker’s podium and everyone is nervous when they see him reach into his cloak but he just pulls out his speech on a metal strip. He doesn’t bother with reading it through and instead reaches into his cloak and pulls out his gun and blasts half of Congress and his escort blasts the other half. Kessler pleads with the ambassador for the sense in the violence and destruction and he gets hit over the head by a gun and knocked out. Outside Decker orders his troops to open fire on the spaceship but it really has little effect on the Martians who carry Kessler’s body onto their ship and take off.
Now they know that the Martians are hostile little arseholes and there’s no Kessler to defend their actions this time. Decker thinks he’s going to get the go-ahead to launch a nuclear strike on the Martians. Instead Dale is only interested in reassuring the public that everything will be run as normal and once more Decker is frustrated.
A strange tall woman with a striking hairdo (Lisa Marie) gets picked up by Jerry Ross outside the Whitehouse and he brings her inside to give her a tour of the place. She never says a word, just constantly chews gum but Jerry is capable of talking for both of them. Her walk is strangely pneumatic. Jerry takes her to the secret Kennedy suite. He pours drinks and kisses her. He tries to get her to take her gum out of mouth but accidentally tears her lip open revealing that she’s wearing a mask and underneath it is a Martian. The Martian kills Jerry by clobbering him over the head with a statuette. It makes its way to the President’s bedroom and pulls of its mask. In its purse is a Martian gun and its about to kill Dale when their dog barks at it waking them up. The Martian shoots the dog and then at shoots at the bed but Martha and Dale duck out of the way. The Martian gets shot dead by a Secret Service agent.
The failure of Martian agent to kill Dale infuriates their leader and he orders a full-scale invasion. This invasion by these little buttheads has a lot of similarity to the dark humour of Gremlins. They deface Mount Rushmore, bowl over the heads on Easter Island, and while they pose in front of the Taj Mahal for a photograph a saucer blasts it.
In Las Vegas Barbara is packing and wants to leave but of course Art wants to stay and talk to group of investors. While he talks to them the investors can see Las Vegas being destroyed through the window behind him. He doesn’t know what trouble he’s in until a saucer appears outside the window and destroys the whole building. Tom Jones is on stage singing with his band and backing singers when suddenly the lights go out. When they come back on the three singers have been replaced by three Martians dancing to the music. Tom takes one look and runs off the stage warning the showgirls backstage to get running too. He gets chased by one of the Martians but escapes into the gaming hall where he runs into Byron who has just met Barbara. Barbara wants to get out of town and she has a plane but no pilot since Art got killed. Fortunately Tom can fly a plane. A gambler (Danny DeVito) recognises Tom and asks him for an autograph but the Martians blast their way in and start killing people. With another casino employee called Cindy the five of them make their way out of the casino. Byron sees a Martian about kill an old woman sitting at a slot machine and Byron punches it, breaking its helmet and killing it. They grab its guns and make their way out.
At the Whitehouse everything seems normal and there a guided tour of schoolchildren including Byron and Louise’s sons Neville and Cedric. Their tour guide gets blasted dead right in front of them and soon the Martians are swarming all over the place and blasting people and the Secret Service are fighting back. Neville and Cedric hide behind a dead Martian until the fighting moves away then they pick up the Martian’s weapons. In the hall the Secret Servicemen are getting Martha, Dale and Taffy somewhere secure but they get attacked by Martians and Taffy gets split away from them and Martha gets killed by a falling chandelier. Neville and Cedric take on the Martians and that lets them get Dale to the relative security of the war room.
In the war room Dale is depressed. He gets call from the French president who is having meeting with the Martian ambassador. Dale tries to warn him but he hears the familiar sound of the Martians killing everyone. This really depresses Dale and Decker uses this time to give him the order to sign to use the nuclear weapons. They fire a missile at the leader’s ship but before it gets there the Martians launch a dinky little device that intercepts the missile and absorbs the full blast. It flies back into the ship and the leader puts it to his mouth and inhales the blast which gives him a squeaky voice and the Martians all fall about laughing.
The Martians break though into the war room led by the ambassador. Decker fires his gun at them ranting about how the US military will take them down. The ambassador fires a different type of weapon at him and Decker shrinks to the size of a cockroach, still ranting away in a little squeaky voice and the ambassador steps on him squishing him dead. The Martians kill everyone, just leaving President Dale who steps out and gives a big speech about how powerful they could be if Earth and Mars joined forces. This seems to get to the ambassador who has a tear in his eye and he holds out his hand to Dale who accepts it. Then the hand breaks off and crawls over Dale and down his back where a large metal spike comes out of it and stabs him through the chest. He falls down dead and the Martian flag comes out of the spike and the ambassador and his men salute it
In Kansas the Martians destroy the donut shop and Richie races back home to tell his parents that the Martians are attacking but they already know and are getting armed. Richie asks about his grandmother but they don’t care so he leaves to go get her. Just as he drives off this huge Martian mecha appears operated by a Martian pilot in its head. It picks up the trailer with Richie’s parents and smashes it into another trailer. It drops the trailers and starts sprinting after Richie’s van. Richie manages to keep ahead of it and leads it into a load of overhead electric cables that trips up the machine and kills its pilot. Richie gets to the care home and it’s under attack by Martians. Three Martians are wheeling up a huge Martian gun right behind Grandma Flo who is listening to music on her headphones and is oblivious. Richie gets there and calls out to her and she turns her head pulling out the headphones. The sound of Slim Whitman singing the Indian Love Call fills the room. The Martians’ heads start quivering like a jelly and exploding to the sound Whitman’s country style yodelling. They wire up a sound system in Richie’s van and as they drive around the sound kills the Martians. They get to the radio station and start blasting out Indian Love Call over the airwaves
Back in Vegas they lose the gambler on the way to the airport and he gets killed by a Martian who is in turn killed by Barbara. At the airport Tom and Barbara get the plane started while Byron and Cindy go open the hangar door. They find out that there’s a squad of Martians just outside. Byron tells Cindy to get in the plane while he distracts the Martians. He marches right up to Martians and challenges them to a fist fight and he beats several of them but they rush him en masse and as the plane takes off they see him being over-powered.
Soon the sound of Indian Love Call is being used to slaughter the Martians and their whole attack fleet is totally destroyed. Taffy presents Grandma Flo and Richie with the Congressional Medal of Honour for saving the Earh. Tom, Cindy and Barbara get to the caves full of happy tame animals and Tom sings It’s Not Unusual. Just for and extra happy ending treat we see Byron is alive and he gets to Washington DC to be greeted by Neville, Cedric and Louise.
This film is a real fun romp and it manages to get a few nice digs at the science fiction genre. In some ways it seems like perfect family fare but it can be very dark at times which might be too much for younger children. The film design and musical arrangements are just fantastic and I loved all the Martian designs.