Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The History of Mars Attacks

In 1996 Warner Brothers released Mars Attacks. It featured more big-name stars than it knew what to do with, so it killed most of them off- none of the top-billed actors lived to see the end credits. This aside, it was very much a Tim Burton movie- the photo-realistic (at the time, anyway) rendering of a completely ludicrous B-movie situation was oddly creepy, and had the familiar Burton mix of merriment and the macabre (Jack Nicholson’s death scene is particularly memorable). The eerie, skeletal Martians and their array of cheesy but terrifying weapons and vehicles were ludicrous and straight out of a cold-war era 1950’s communism-parable invasion movie. However, the characters within the movie accepted this situation with po-faced seriousness, and as the script was unafraid to serve up horrible deaths to them, the audience was forced to take it seriously too. A quick scan of the net shows that this movie traumatised quite a few youngsters during its original run.

The inspiration behind the film came from an unusual and far more disturbing source- it may in fact be the only movie ever made based on a set of trading cards. In 1962, the company Topps, who specialised in baseball cards and bubblegum, released Mars Attacks, a series of cards that featured science fiction scenes. Topps had previously scored big with a civil war series of cards popular with the kids due to their high gore content. The idea of the Mars Attacks cards was to up the gore while presenting a loose retelling of a ‘War of the Worlds’ type invasion story, updated with 50’s sci-fi staples like flying saucers, ray-guns, marauding robots and giant insects.

The art was by Norm Saunders, a man known for many a lurid cover during the pulp-magazine era. These covers hinted (usually inaccurately) at the wonders within- scantily clad broads writhed in the grip of hideous monsters and unscrupulous Nazis, and square-jawed heroes and detectives shouldered open doors to come to their rescue. Saunders brought to the Mars Attacks cards a kind of hideous and gritty comic-book realism.

The plot wasn’t much to write home about- Mars is about to self-combust due to a build-up of internal pressure, so the big-brained Martians send thousands of warships to clear some new real estate for themselves on Earth. This they achieve with a violence that is genuinely astonishing. Flying saucers with mysterious heat-rays deal death onto army bases, topple skyscrapers, burn entire herds of cattle, leave Washington and New York in flames, slice passenger planes in two and make human torches of individual civilians. The scenes of death and destruction feature gory close-ups of humans with pained and agonised expressions that are occasionally quite unsettling. The Empire State building tumbles, trapping thousands of workers in a hellish blaze while hundreds more kill each other in the panic to leave the city by car. The cockpit of a fighter plane becomes a ‘’flaming coffin’ for a valiant pilot foolish enough to try to intercept a saucer.

Throughout the story, the sense of hopelessness is palpable. People hide out in basements until forced by hunger to leave their homes and walk streets where marauding bands of Martians exterminate humans on sight. Any brave attempt to resist or fight back is rewarded only with instant and horrible death. Martians capture beautiful girls to perform sadistic experiments on (there is a card depicting a dying mans’ removed heart being shown to him by his grotesque surgeon) in order to learn how to more effectively dispose of us, something at which they are extraordinarily creative. Saucers with giant shovels clear the streets of people and crush them against walls, Martians shrink humans to nothing or make frozen statues of them, and gargantuan robots walk the streets crushing humans beneath their spiked heels. Any prisoners captured by the Martians are no use to them due to the language difference, so they are strapped to the exhaust ports of their enormous machinery to be blown to oblivion. The diabolical scientists of the Red Planet have also devised a way to enlarge insects, and soon the world is overrun with a new horror. The US army is overwhelmed by a horde of homicidal spiders and the Eiffel Tower is consumed by a monstrous caterpillar- all in lurid comic-book Technicolor. And all the while the masters of the invasion watch and laugh from Mars.

Finally, the combined military of the ‘world’ (though only WASP American soldiers are shown) gets its act together and sends rockets to Mars to counterattack. This part of the story is gloriously ludicrous- because of a forcefield around the planet that prevents orbital bombing, soldiers wearing military helmets under their glass spacesuit helmets (why?) parachute to the surface and enter the Martians domed cities to deal out some vengeance. And yes, the cities have monorails (all ‘futuristic’ domed cities from the 60’s have monorails). The soldiers use their weapons to rip open the Martians huge, exposed brains. Nice. Actual earth tanks with US symbols on them (!) roll across the sands of Mars and smash their civilization into the ground. Eventually, the stars and stripes is hoisted on Mars and the soldiers leave just before geological forces tear the planet apart. All in all, it’s an enjoyably silly and unapologetic end to an otherwise harrowing tale.

Unsurprisingly, the cards were pulled from shops due to parental complaints. They are extremely rare nowadays, and a full set is worth around 2,500 US$. Scans of the cards are easily found on the Internet, and many of the images still have the power to shock. Due to the cult nature of Mars Attacks, in the 80’s a similar series was released called Dinosaurs Attack, which similarly featured a fanciful sci-fi premise, ridiculous amounts of gore, and scant regard for scientific or paleontological facts. Perhaps the most disturbing descendant of Mars Attacks is Don’t Let it Happen Here, a‘patriotically’ themed set of cards with artwork depicting scenes of hideous torture, terrorism and human rights abuses in countries other than the US. Scenes include an Iraqi man having his tongue cut off for speaking on television against Saddam Hussein, the Tokyo underground nerve gas killings, and young women in Bangladesh being scarred with sulphuric acid for rejecting suitors, a crime which, according to the card, is endorsed by their government. Presumably the reader is expected to think ‘thank God I live in America where nothing bad ever happens!’

Trading cards are not a phenomenon that ever really caught on outside the States. Just don’t get me started on Premier League Stickers…

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