There’s only so much a movie whose source material is a Topps collectible card game can do. We usually think of movies starring a laundry list of celebrities with non-connecting storylines that later come together to create the big picture as some cliché Oscar-bait, but Mars Attacks! (1996) is one of the few exceptions.
There are plenty of WTF Moments in this movie, but one, in particular, shocked me to the core as a child watching this movie in the late '90s on a clunky CRT TV in my basement.
Mars Attacks! begins with a family in Kansas witnessing a spaceship departing from their home. After lighting cattle on fire, the spacecraft returns to Mars and then comes back to Earth with several hundred crafts in tow. The president is alerted of this phenomenon and a team of scientists led by Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) team up with some military men to plan the first contact.
Within hours, a translation machine is made, the army is deployed to a Nevada desert, and people of all walks of life are watching the first contact with bated breath.
Over the speakers of the translation machine, the Martians claim that they “Come in peace.” The audience is overjoyed, until they suddenly have a reason to fear. A dove is released to celebrate this new found peace, and within seconds of it taking flight, the Martian ambassador shoots the dove with a laser. Pandemonium breaks out, people are turned to slime-colored skeletons, others run in fear, and, most importantly to this WTF Moment, Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her pet Chihuahua are kidnapped by these invaders.
The movie continues to show countless Americans slaughtered by Martians while the Martians do whatever the hell they want. Though pockets of people are fighting back and winning, there’s not a whole lot that can beat these extraterrestrials. Some punches here, some shots of a gun there, and most importantly, the sultry tones of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” is ultimately what saves the human race. Once the Martians hear the opening warble of Whitman’s voice, the alien brains explode within seconds.
The movie ends with Tom Jones emerging from a cave on Lake Tahoe to sing “It’s Not Unusual” to a bunch of animals and dead Martians.
There are several other subplots throughout the movie, including a Las Vegas casino where Tom Jones is performing, Jack Black being in the army, and Jack Nicholson being the U.S. president, which all sound far-fetched (minus the Tom Jones part, really), but it all comes together when you watch it.
However, no campy movie is complete without a WTF Moment in which the audience can see exactly what the invaders are doing with their hostages. The camera follows a Martian doctor holding a case filled with liquid. In the background of the ship, we see preserved pigs and cows, clearly no longer of Martian interest. Eventually, the camera falls on the body of Nathalie (Parker) in metallic underwear and matching go-go boots. Other alien doctors are covering her face as they finish up experimenting on her. Once the aliens move, we see Nathalie’s dog’s head crudely fused to her body, dog head barking. Nathalie’s head, preserved in a jar, screams once she sees what was done to her body and beloved dog.
Later on, we see Nathalie’s head attached to her dog’s body as she flirts with the disembodied head of Donald Kessler (Brosnan). They confess their crushes for each other as Kessler’s free-floating heart pumps in the background and Nathalie wags her tail in delight.
Their storyline ends with these two heads rolling around on the Martian ship, confessing their love, and kissing as the spacecraft they’re stuck on sinks into Lake Tahoe.
These scenes are a three-for-one WTF Moment. Body swapping has always been a thing in classic horror and alien movies, and mixing homage and parody together, director Tim Burton made the perfect scene of confusion, shock, and grossness. As a concept, it’s not too terrible, but to see these two characters continue to attempt to live a normal life on a spaceship as floating heads with no bodies, the audience can’t help but wonder exactly what the hell Nathalie and the Professor are trying to get out of their relationship.
Mars Attacks! may not be one of Burton’s more popular movies, but to me, it’s one of his better ones. Being able to take a children’s card game and make it into a film that sparked a whole new generation of fans for the franchise is a feat in itself. All accomplishments aside, I’m forever going to associate this campy alien flick with Sarah Jessica Parker’s head letting out a scream as she sees her little dog’s head stapled on her own body.