Three Guilty Pleasure Sappy, Stupid Science Fiction Movies - Independence Day, Buckaroo Banzai, and Mars Attacks!
When people bring up great Science Fiction Movies, the more scholarly among them like to talk about cerebral stuff like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Matrix. While these movies are great for the tweed wearing, pipe smoking, brandy sipping crowd, the guy sitting in front of the TV in his Ninja Turtle jammies with a twelve pack of Budweiser sometimes requires something a little less challenging.
At times we secretly like movies that we are ashamed to talk about in good company. Those of us who fancy ourselves brainy try to flaunt our intellectual prowess discussing Sartre and Camus with snobby bookworms at the local teahouse, but then return to the secluded sanctuary of our homes to watch Beavis and Butthead reruns with the drapes tightly drawn. Now and again the brain just needs a break.
To provide some repose for your overtaxed gray matter, I am reviewing here three campy, hokey, utterly ridiculous, nonsensical, sappy, absurd, often befuddling movies that serious, stone faced science fiction buffs would cast a glowering scowl of disapproval upon, but I believe are ultimately satisfying in their own dumb way. Having reached my 50s as a middle aged man who has been battered, beaten down, and run through the ringer several times I am past caring what the eggheads opine about what I watch. I think I have earned the right to enjoy stupid stuff if and when I want to, and to share it with the world if it pleases me to do so. No longer will I skulk behind the shutters channel surfing in secret for something brainless to please my jiggling beer belly, which is pretty much my cognitive center these days. Instead, I'll throw the curtains open and proudly display these guilty pleasures for all the world to see, and to the devil with the reaction.
I'll start with what is probably the most socially acceptable of the three, the movie you might bring up at some socialite's dinner party, then quickly qualify it with "wasn't that cute?" as if it was definitely beneath you, but you were forced to watch it for research purposes with a roomful of preschoolers.
Here are a few quick facts to supplement my rambling, irrelevant, often incoherent anecdotes that will follow: Independence Day was released in 1996. It grossed 800 million worldwide, so it wasn't a box office flop at all, as were the other two guilty pleasure movies I will be discussing here. It scores a 60% review on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie had a rather illustrious cast, including an up and coming star in Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum of Jurassic Park and The Fly fame; an actor that will appear more than once in this article.
To summarize Independence Day's particularly pedestrian plot in a nutshell, apparently invincible aliens invade Earth, destroy a few cities as easily as squashing bugs, but are finally defeated by methods that strain the limits of credulity. Will Smith tells funny, but predictable ET jokes. The President of the United States makes a very campy, most un-Lincolnesque speech that is strangely inspirational. The most humble and unlikely character ultimately winds up being the one to save the planet, of course. It all goes down according to formula. Everybody celebrates in the end, and a few feel-good, patriotic tears leak unwillingly from my eyes. What can I say? - I only cry at the dumb movies. Somebody dies of a horrible disease - not a drop. Mother and daughter are miraculously reunited after 40 years - completely dry eyed. A thoroughly unbelievable alien invasion is extraordinarily repelled by the human race acting in inconceivable solidarity - somebody get me a hankie.
I first saw Independence Day in the theater shortly after its release, but at that time I wasn't impressed at all. I didn't see much that rose above the mundane in this film, with its over-simplistic, all too predictable story line and rather exaggerated, melodramatic acting.
But then, as I rewatched the movie via the endless loop in which it is played on movie channels like AMC, I began to discover the meaningful behind the mediocre, a kind of calculated campiness guiding the overused cinematic devices that at first glance might fail to inspire. It is almost as if Independence Day's creators had deliberately intended to pack this film with as many celluloid cliches as possible, and in so doing had created beauty out of the banal. These days, as I watch Independence Day while going about about the mundane, uninspired chores of my own life, particularly while ironing, I can't help but become mesmerized and transfixed, and usually wind up watching until the end in spite of myself.
See the World Destroyed...Again!
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
The thing I remember the most about Buckaroo Banzai - whose full title certainly is a mouthful of a movie if you're going to list it in its entirety, is that people just didn't get it. A lot of the 20 somethings I was hanging around with in those glorious youthful days of 1984 thought they were supposed to take it seriously, and missed the point. Fortunately, a buddy of mine clued me in in advance that I was supposed to laugh when I watched, so I enjoyed this film the very first time I saw it. If you, however, haven't had the good fortune or misfortune of watching Buckaroo Banzai yet, I will warn you in advance that it's a little weird.
To start with, every earth-invading alien in Buckaroo Banzai is named John. We have, for example, John Whorfin, John Smallberries, John Yaya, and John Bigbooté; whose name is always mispronounced as John Bigbooty, in spite of its owner's vehement protests to respect the snooty accent on the end. The John aliens work their mischief through a sleazy front corporation, Yoyodyne propulsion, which is contracted to build bombers for the US government. From this locale they aid and abet the evil Dr. Emilio Lazardo, who busts out of a home for the criminally insane after receiving a care package from his friends at Yoyodyne that contains, among other things, Fiddle Faddle and some kind of device to help him break out of prison. I have lost the identity of this jail-busting contraption in all the memory clutter 32 years thereafter, and couldn't find it in any online plot synopsis either. There is very little written on the subject of this misunderstood, unappreciated film, but lines like Lazardo's "laugh while you can, Monkey Boy," delivered with comedic brilliance by John Lithgow, made me rewatch it several times.
Dr. Buckaroo Banzai - physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician, working alongside his band of Hong Kong Cavalier "Blue Blazers," and his girlfriend Penny Priddy, set out to help rescue Planet 10 from its impending invasion by the alien Red Lectroid "Johns" working under cover at Yoyodyne. The plot is what one might expect from a brainless science fiction movie; forces of good and evil arrayed against each other to either disrupt or maintain the natural balance of the Universe. What makes Buckaroo Banzai different is its tongue in cheek humor and its colorful, weird, definitely out of the ordinary, skillfully portrayed characters.
There are a few famous actors in the film who used Buckaroo Banzai as a springboard for more commercially successful ventures. John Lithgow, who plays the role of Dr. Emilio Lazardo, would go on to more notable enterprises such as Harry and the Hendersons and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Jeff Goldblum, who would later lose body parts in The Fly and run from ravenous, rampaging velociraptors in Jurassic Park, portrays Dr. Sidney Zweibel, a neurosurgeon colleague of Buckaroo who has a taste for Western wear. Finally, the title role is played by Peter Weller, an actor who seems to excel in straight faced roles where he exhibits very little emotion. He continued to subsequent fame as RoboCop.
The "loyal cult following" tag is often applied to flicks, such as Buckaroo Banzai, that bomb at the box office but are later resurrected on DVD after a clamorous hue and cry by folks with a warped imagination, such as mine. Buckaroo Banzai's 71% Rotten Tomato score indicates its popularity with critics, but calling it a box office bomb is probably giving it too much credit. The film grossed 6.2 million in North America and went almost immediately into circulation in second run locales such as military bases, condemned leaky-ceiling nickelodeons, and the like. I saw it in a Navy base theater, running double feature with The Pirates of Penzance.
Until now, were you even aware of Buckaroo Banzai?
The mother of all science fiction box office flops has to be 1996's Mars Attacks! - a movie I associated with the word "bomb" before I had even seen it. The film's negative reviews seemed to be its primary method of publicity, in fact, but that hasn't stopped me from getting a chuckle or two every time the red planet invasion lands in my living room in those stupid silver flying saucers.
Mars Attacks is the very definition of cast of thousands. The roster of famous actors that populate the film is almost too long to list - Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny Devito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Jack Black, Christina Applegate and of course my favorite; 60s singing sensation Tom Jones. I have no clue why all of these already famous performers would line up to be in this very campy, exceedingly silly movie, but perhaps the attraction was the opportunity to work with acclaimed director Tim Burton, he of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure fame, another guilty pleasure favorite of mine.
As is the case in all three movies discussed here, in Mars Attacks! aliens once again invade the world. This time, however, there is no attempt to supply them with high tech, intricately detailed, exquisitely animated spaceships. Instead, they arrive on Earth in wobbly flying saucers that appear to have no aeronautic capabilities whatsoever.
The very appeal of Mars Attacks! to me are the things that probably garnered it such crappy reviews out of the gate - overly melodramatic acting, absolutely laughable space ships and laser guns that could have been penned by a clever five year old, and the utterly ridiculous method by which the Martian invaders are finally defeated.
The Martians' Achilles Heel proves to be a song called "Indian Love Call," a 1952 hit by yodeling cowboy Slim Whitman. Once while waxing nostalgic, a former coworker of mine who was old enough to remember the glory days of Slim Whitman professed to me her fondness for this tune. "That's what makes the Martians' heads explode in Mars Attacks," I told her. She thought this was very funny.
If you are sitting at home watching Mars Attacks! with a deadpan, disapproving scowl, shaking your head at the unbelievability of it all, then I think your imagination must have been surgically removed at some point, or was deliberately suppressed by electroshock treatments. I'm not saying you have to think it's amusing, I'm just saying don't mistake it for something it is not, which is a serious science fiction film.
Mars Attacks! grossed a respectable 101 million at the box office, but that probably wasn't enough to pay the salaries of all of the film's big name, big dollar actors. It was considered a bomb in the United States, but was better received in Europe.and elsewhere. Director Tim Burton has called it a Mad Magazine version of Independence Day, which was released the same year, without his foreknowledge. The critics have not been too kind to the film; giving it a cumulative score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Did Mars Attacks! attack your sense of dignity?
What is your opinion of Mars Attacks!?
Songs to Make Your Head Explode from Mars Attacks!
A Synopsis - Science Fiction and Comedy Don't Easily Mix
I think the lesson to be learned for future filmmakers here is that Science and Fiction and Comedy are a tricky mixture and don't always seamlessly combine to produce box office magic. It could be that hard core science fiction fans are just a bit too geeky, a trifle limited in scope, and don't appreciate what they consider to be a serious genre being infused with head scratching humor. This is what Buckaroo Banzai and Mars Attacks! both attempted, and they were not immediately appreciated. On the other hand, even though Independence Day did not take itself too seriously either, it disguised its subtle parody of the genre enough to strike gold at the ticket counter.
That being said, all three films have stood the test of time. Buckaroo Banzai has achieved a cult-like adoration, Mars Attacks! gets frequent showings on cable movie channels, and Independence Day is a regularly rotated staple on AMC, with a sequel soon to be released. Sappy and Stupid do work in Science Fiction, but often require a long term investment, and depend upon the existence of fat, balding, pot bellied men like me, watching at home in our beer stained skivvies, for their continued proliferation.