An Ode to Mars Attacks!

The ’90s look at the ’50s is perfect for today.

Mars Attacks!
Mars Attacks!
Warner Bros.

On Thursday, Future Tense will host a screening of Mars Attacks! at 6:30 p.m. in Washington. It will be followed by a brief conversation with astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

When I heard about the most-recent stories of people spotting flying saucers, the first thing that came to mind was a meme: “I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens.” This time, it was fighter pilots from the USS Theodore Roosevelt who saw something on their screens while flying over the Atlantic in 2015. Pilots from the USS Nimitz saw something similar while off the coast of San Diego in 2004.

It’s important to note these weren’t direct sightings, so software glitches in the weapons systems should be considered as more likely … oh, never mind. I’m not going to win this argument through logic. But apparently this is what we’re talking about. In June, George Stephanopoulos seriously asked our commander in chief about the incidents. Trump’s clarifying response: “I want them to think whatever they think. They do say, and I’ve seen, and I’ve read, and I’ve heard. And I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particular.” There hasn’t been witnessed such a mix of presidential buffoonery, aliens, and straight-up absurdity since Jack Nicholson’s performance in Mars Attacks!

The 1996 movie Mars Attacks!, directed by the legendary Wizard of Weird, Tim Burton, is a loving parody of campy ’50s sci-fi alien-invasion B-movies, inspired by a series of trading cards released by Topps in 1962. The War of the Worlds (the 1953 one, not the Tom Cruise vehicle), The Thing from Another World, and other classics are products of their time, reflecting the paranoia of the Cold War era, when America was locked in battle with the existential threat of communism. In 1949, President Harry Truman announced the Soviets had detonated an atomic bomb. The Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage in 1951. Sputnik would pass over America in 1957. It’s understandable that those ’50s B-movies exhorted us to “keep watching the skies!” In later decades, that paranoia seemed quaintly misguided at best, or at worst the very thing that would kill us all. After the détente of the ’70s, President Ronald Reagan heightened fears again. Accordingly, movies from the ’80s are replete with nuclear-apocalypse themes, like The Day After and Miracle Mile. Mars Attacks! was a response to this history.

Mars Attacks! and the other 1996 movie to which it will inevitably be compared, Independence Day, are also products of their time. By the mid-’90s, the Soviet Union was defeated, and Russia seemed on its way to democracy. In that interregnum between the Cold War and Sept. 11, it was possible for America to look back on the ’50s and enjoy the win, in a way I don’t think we feel today. But whereas Independence Day made the cinematic case for our inevitable, glorious victory over foes, Mars Attacks! invited us to laugh at how silly we were in the ’50s, sending up that decade amid a parade of absurdities.

In doing so, Mars Attacks! gave an uncommon but more realistic answer to the question underlying every alien contact movie: Why would such a technologically superior race bother to engage us at all? We have a difficult time comprehending how one-sided such an encounter would be, but the physics is simple. Every time one of the city-size flying saucers in Independence Day zips from “hover” to “Earth escape velocity,” it expends more energy than our entire global civilization could generate in 500 years. What resources do we have that aliens would want to steal? And how would we really stop them, anyway? For aliens capable of moving vehicles through interstellar distances, it would be no problem to annihilate the entire human race in one fell swoop: engineered bioweapon or neutron bombardment to do it neat, a good, old-fashioned asteroid strike if they’re in a hurry. If destruction were their real intent, we would never know they were even there, let alone have the opportunity to punch them in the face like Will Smith does in Independence Day.

Mars Attacks! is uncommon for intuiting this technological one-sidedness. In it, humans are not a threat to the Martians. Our nuclear weapons have no effect on them; in fact, they are redirected to comic purposes. Meanwhile, we are powerless against their ray guns. The Martians aren’t really here to destroy us or enslave us or steal our resources. We are nothing but a source of cruel, absurd amusement to them. The movie starts with a stampede of cattle on fire and includes scenes with Martians toppling the Easter Island statues like bowling pins and a flying saucer tipping over the Washington Monument in such a way as to fall on a troop of Boy Scouts (somehow still on a field trip during an alien invasion). The Martians delight in seeing how many times they can brazenly lie to us and still get us to be willing victims. Their experiments seem designed for maximum absurdity, such as sewing Sarah Jessica Parker’s head onto the body of a Chihuahua, simply because they can. This is Tim Burton showing off his weirdness and creativity, but in the process Mars Attacks! provides a rare answer to the question of why aliens are on Earth: to goof on us. And kill us. Both, really. It’s a theme rarely explored in alien movies. Even in Predator, the aliens hunt humans precisely because we are to be taken seriously. It’s a much more nihilistic premise than that of Independence Day, but it’s also a lot more realistic than the idea that alien invaders hadn’t upgraded their anti-virus software. Really, why else would they land here?

Although Mars Attacks! was a parody of the paranoia and political warnings of the ’50s, I think it has relevance for our present and future. The wars of tomorrow will not be won or lost on the glorious battlefields of yesterday. Whether the threat is aliens or something more terrestrial, we must be prepared to accept what it is our adversaries want from us. In the movie, the Martians have a simple agenda, just one too absurd for the leaders to accept or comprehend. Professor Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) in particular repeatedly denies the true intent of the invaders, lamenting, “It doesn’t make sense!” In the end, he (ahem) heads off in a saucer. In general, the first characters to go were those who couldn’t adjust to the cognitive dissidence posed by the Martians. Eventually, this being a feel-good Christmas movie, the humans win, The War of the Worlds–style, thanks to the Martiancidal effects of Slim Whitman music. It’s an absolutely weird ending to a goofy movie, but one with lessons for today: In absurd times, you’ve got to fight crazy with crazy.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.