marsattacks-feat

Adventures in Flickcharting: Mars Attacks!

Sometimes I see a movie that I don’t really feel that inspired to write about (usually because I liked it well enough but didn’t feel too strongly about it), but this year I want to make a conscious effort to write more for the blog and I also have been wanting to incorporate Flickchart more into my posting somehow. Flickchart is a website for ranking movies: it gives you two movies and you choose which one is better (or which one you like more – the best vs. favorite discussion is an old standby among die-hard Flickcharters and one I won’t get into just here except to say that I personally rank on Flickchart according to what I like/enjoy the most, not according to what I think is the best). Over time and many rankings, it builds a list of your favorite movies based on your rankings. One thing I really like about Flickchart is how it presents you with two films that you never would’ve thought of in the same context at all and forces you to really think about them in relation to each other. I don’t really believe anymore in the value of the minute rankings it ends up with, but as a macrocosm of taste and as a method of thinking about films in a context you otherwise wouldn’t, it has worth.

With due props to my friend Travis McClain who has pitched this format and uses it sometimes for his own reviews, I’m going to try this series charting how a newly-watched movie enters my Flickchart. When you add a movie to Flickchart manually, it goes up against a series of films strategically spread throughout your chart. For example, in the first ranking, it will go against the film in the very middle of your chart. If the new film wins, it will go against the film equidistant between the top and the middle. It continues like this until it finds its correct spot in your list. In my case “correct” is kind of a general term, because my chart is kind of messy once you get below about 500. But the point of this approach in this series is to compare the new film with the existing films as I go along, which will hopefully give me something to write about those films that I don’t have too much to say about.

First up – Tim Burton’s 1996 alien invasion parody Mars Attacks!

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The Film

In this spoof on low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, especially Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (from which the Martian spaceships are directly lifted), spaceships clutter the sky over Earth. The US President (Jack Nicholson) attempts several diplomatic meetings, each one agreed to by the Martians, who then proceed to blow everything to hell. Eventually the situation devolves into all-out zany war.

When we watched this, I thought it was the last film standing between me and seeing all of Tim Burton’s feature filmography. But I forgot about Dark Shadows. So I’m still one dubious film away from adding Burton to my 100% Club. I enjoyed Mars Attacks!, mainly for the anarchic glee the Martians seem to take in shooting everything up. You’d think after the first time, the humans would’ve realized that the Martians couldn’t be taken at their word to honor diplomatic procedure, but nope. I also enjoyed seeing pretty much every actor in Hollywood cameo in this thing – it’s really ridiculous, and I didn’t know most of them were going to be in it when we started. I should point out that I also have a lot of fun with the kind of bad sci-fi this film is sending up, including an un-ironic love for Plan 9.

How It Entered My Flickchart

Mars Attacks! vs Branded to Kill

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The first matchup is the most important – it determines whether a film will move its way up in the top half of the chart or drop into the obscurity of the bottom half. That said, moving into the bottom half of my chart isn’t that bad a deal, because I watch far more films that I like than that I don’t like, so the middle of the chart isn’t really the tipping point between liking and disliking for me. Branded to Kill is a Japanese New Wave film by Seijun Suzuki, one of three Suzuki films I’ve seen and definitely the weirdest so far. It’s like a cross between a gangster film and Un chien andalou. I don’t get it, but I do like it, and it gets a lot of style points, which help it beat Mars Attacks! Mars Attacks! is a lot of goofy fun and it’s more narratively comprehensible, but I can’t pass up the evocative style of Branded to Kill.

Branded to Kill wins, and Mars Attacks! gets an initial ranking of #2951 (out of 3375).

Mars Attacks! vs Buffalo Bill

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Next up, it goes against a 1944 biopic of Buffalo Bill Cody with Joel McCrea in the title role. I don’t remember a lot about this movie, but I do remember it being routine and, well…unmemorable. There are a lot of films on my chart in the low 2000s that I simply don’t remember too well. They end up congregated together, waiting for rewatches to pull them out of hazy limbo. I have very little impetus to rewatch this one, though, so I’m going to go ahead and pick Mars Attacks!. At the very least, Mars Attacks! is plenty memorable, from the production and character design to WTF moments like switching Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with that of her dog. I’m not sure I really LIKED that part, but it was memorable and unexpected, which is enough to give it the edge here.

Mars Attacks wins, moving up to #2532.

Mars Attacks! vs Successful Alcoholics

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Oh, here’s an interesting one. There’s an ongoing debate among some Flickcharters about whether short films ought to be ranked alongside features. I’m a big fan of short films and I do rank them, but I also acknowledge that it’s sometimes difficult to compare them to features. Successful Alcoholics is a longer short film (about 25 or 30 minutes) from a few years ago starring T.J. Miller and Lizzy Caplan as a couple defined, at least at first, by their jubilant and constant imbibing. The film is a perfect example of the short film format, jumping in just like a short story, allowing for true character development along with a great sense of humor. Now that I think about it, it should probably be higher on my chart. And yeah, it’s better than Mars Attacks! It may be short, but it’s extremely successful at what it does.

Successful Alcoholics wins, leaving Mars Attacks at #2532.

Mars Attacks! vs Bunohan

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Bunohan, aka Return to Murder is a Malay film I saw at the LA Film Festival a few years back. I picked it out of the program knowing very little about it, but its synopsis of a varied set of brothers coming back to their home town of Bunohan (which means “murder”) intrigued me. One brother is a struggling Muay Thai fighter, another an assassin sent to kill him, the third a successful but cold-hearted businessman, and when they reunite in Bunohan, they’re divided on what to do with their family’s land, plus they’re tied up in gang activity, plus there’s a whole thing with their father, plus there’s a bunch of sociopolitical background due to Bunohan being located on a contested national border. I’ll be honest, I was a bit more tired than I would’ve liked going into this film, and it did have some intriguing concepts throughout, but it came across as quite muddled and messy.

Mars Attacks! wins, moving to #2321.

Mars Attacks! vs Superman

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Ah, the original Superman! Well, original if you don’t count the 1940s Fleischer shorts, which are pretty awesome in their own right. Incidentally, I happened to see most of Superman III on cable a few weeks ago (my husband likes to watch random movies on cable), and that is…something. But this is not about Superman III, it’s about Christopher Reeves’ first time in the Superman tights, and it is pretty solid. I don’t have a particular attachment to it, which is why it’s pretty near the middle of my chart, but I’ll take its heart and mythos over Mars Attacks‘s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink silliness.

Superman wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs The Man With the Golden Gun

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From one franchise to another, with James Bond taking over from Superman. I’ve seen all the Bond films except for A View to a Kill and Quantum of Solace, and The Man With the Golden Gun is pretty much in the middle. I like the villain in it, which is a big part of any Bond film. We’re starting to hone in on the proper placement for Mars Attacks! now, as I ended up choosing The Man With the Golden Gun largely on virtue of it being a Bond film. Not that I’d have chosen any Bond film over Mars Attacks!, because there are some that are most definitely worse. But I enjoy Bond enough that a decent one like this gets the edge, even though I don’t remember too many details about it.

The Man with the Golden Gun wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

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In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (based on the novel by Mark Twain), a modern day mechanic gets bonked on the head and wakes up to find himself in King Arthur’s Court. In this version, the mechanic is Bing Crosby and he (obviously) sings, and this is (obviously) a musical, and a very Technicolor lovely one, too. I enjoy Technicolor candy musicals, so even though this one is less memorable than some, I opted to choose it over Mars Attacks!, which has a pretty manic color scheme of its own, but, well, doesn’t have music. So.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs City by the Sea

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I’m pretty sure I watched City by the Sea solely because I was in a post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer binge and Eliza Dushku is in it. I watched a lot of terrible movies doing that, but City by the Sea is actually pretty good. The story really concerns Robert De Niro as a straight-and-narrow cop who has to investigate his own son (James Franco) for murder – Dushku has a supporting role as the son’s girlfriend. I never hear anyone mention it, despite Franco’s current buzz-worthiness, so either it’s worse than I remember or it’s unjustly forgotten. I’ll believe the second and give it the benefit of the doubt over Mars Attacks!, but barely.

City by the Sea wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs Dumb and Dumber

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So I went through and did these rankings a while ago (this post kept being put on hold for other things), and now I’m not entirely sure I chose correctly in this instance. Really, what’s happened is we’re getting very, very close to where Mars Attacks! should be on my chart, so the matchups are getting harder and harder to distinguish. Dumb and Dumber is not my kind of movie, but I think it may do what it does slightly more successfully than Mars Attacks!, which is more my kind of movie, but does have moments and subplots that lost the edge of satire and went a bit too far off the rails. Also, how sweet is that alternate poster Flickchart pulled up for Dumb and Dumber?

Dumb and Dumber wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs Ice Age

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The Ice Age franchise was run into the ground by the second entry as far as I’m concerned, and the first one isn’t any great shakes, but what it does have is Scrat – the squirrel character who dominates the advertising for the franchise, and rightfully so. He’s a delightful throwback to old-school Looney Tunes-style mania, and I love every second he’s on screen. The rest is less memorable, but I’m willing to give it the win for Scrat. If only Sarah Jessica Parker’s half-dog had been as adorable and hilarious, Mars Attacks! might’ve stood a chance.

Ice Age wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs Star of Midnight

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All right, here’s one that really should be higher, because this matchup was much easier than the previous few. Star of Midnight is a 1935 b-level mystery starring William Powell (in between Thin Man films) and Ginger Rogers (in between Fred Astaire films), and while it doesn’t achieve the heights of either the former franchise or the latter partnership, it’s a fun little comedy-mystery that makes the most of its star power. It handily defeats Mars Attacks!, which has fun, comedy, and star power, but fails to be as delightful.

Star of Midnight wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! vs The Killers (1964)

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And this last matchup is also fairly easy, though not nearly as easy as it would’ve been had we been talking the 1946 version of The Killers (which is a great noir aside from bring near-instant stardom to both Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster). This 1964 version kind of fascinates me, though, since it’s based on the same spare short story by Hemingway as the ’46 version, but is almost totally different in style, tone, and even content. The focus on the actual killers, as per the title, is interesting and prefigures the more psychologically nuanced anti-heroes of later decades. Both films may be ultimately slight and kind of silly overall, but The Killers gets the nod for being more thought-provoking.

The Killers wins, leaving Mars Attacks! at #2321

Mars Attacks! finishes at #2321 out of 3375

Final Ranking

And that’s the final ranking. A few notes. This ranking may be in the bottom third of my chart (Flickchart tells me the equivalent star rating would be 1 1/2 stars out of 5, and that it’s in the 31st percentile of my chart), but that’s not as negative as it sounds like it would be. Because I generally like most things I watch and because I’m relatively good at self-selecting things I’m going to like, my chart is heavily weighted with films I at least enjoyed. You have to get down close to #3000 before I start actually disliking films. You can also see from several of my descriptions that a lot of films in the middle of my chart are not quite in the right place – it’s currently difficult on Flickchart to get the middle and bottom of your chart in order (that’s supposedly going to be easier in the new version they’re working on now). It’s possible that Mars Attacks! would end up slightly higher or lower if I got everything ranked properly, but I doubt it would more more than 100 or so spaces in either direction. Close enough to get the idea!

My Souvenir: I loved the part when Jack Nicholson as the President of the USA launched into this inspiring, reconciliatory speech about how the Martians should join WITH Earth instead of fighting against it. The rise in the music is just about straight out of Independence Day (which was released earlier the same year), and he takes it all the way, right to “can’t we all just get along.” Literally. Keep in mind that at this point the Martians have already timbered the Washington Monument, burned up the Taj Mahal (while getting a touristy photo, of course), bowled over the Easter Island heads, and strewn havoc throughout Las Vegas. Also keep in mind that they have accepted diplomatic overtures at least two or three times, and then proceeded to disintegrate everyone in sight. But maybe it’ll work this time! Whether a satire on seemingly eternal American optimism (optimism that was more possible, perhaps, in the flush ’90s than now) or merely a parody of more earnest invasion flicks, the scene is hilarious. Close runner-up: The fact that “Indian Love Call,” which I mostly know from its Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy incarnation in Rose-Marie, is the secret weapon. How random and weird and wonderful.

I’m not totally convinced this approach worked that well in this post, perhaps thanks to Mars Attacks! immediately going into the bottom half of my chart, which is kind of a morass of films that I’m indifferent to or don’t remember very well. Still, it was an interesting experiment, and I’m going to try it again soon with a film that ended up in the top half of my chart, which should generate more interesting match-ups.

  • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    Nicely done! Having done this myself, I know how exhausting it can be to actually write and format a piece like this, so kudos for slogging through the legwork. I can definitely sympathize with your concluding point about not feeling like it worked the way you wanted on account of facing the bottom half of your chart instead of the upper half, where you’re more enthusiastic about the pool of randomly chosen opponents.

    Having just read this post, though, I can tell you that I never felt any of that fatigue. That, too, is a credit to your writing because this kind of thing can become a chore to finish reading. I was never tempted to skip on down, even though I’d only seen a handful of opponent movies.

    You hit on something in your remarks about Mars Attacks! in your Souvenir section that has been on my mind for quite awhile now, and that’s the peculiar brand of American optimism of the Clinton 90′s. Our invasion/disaster movies of that era have a near naivete that I find I miss, especially now that we’re in the era of destruction porn. Mars Attacks! may actually be the most perfect microcosm of its ilk, because not only is it such a film, but it’s a brilliant satire of those films, meaning that we get both a display of those themes and a commentary on them.

    It was a time when the idea of an outside enemy laying waste to all our landmarks and infrastructure, and committing mass murder, was the basis for excitement, when in the end we would emerge triumphant using a combination of sarcastic catchphrases, clever visual effects, and the philosophical equivalent of the Care Bear Stare. And sometimes, we would swap Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with that of a chihuahua. BECAUSE WE COULD.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      If you knew how many weeks I’ve been working on it on and off….That’s a big reason why I didn’t just rerank it after I realized it probably should beat Dumb and Dumber – I’ve added enough other films in the meantime that I would’ve had to do everything all over again! I figured they were close enough.

      I’m glad that the post worked from a reader’s standpoint. Of course, you’re an avid Flickcharter yourself, so I’m curious how it plays to someone who hasn’t used Flickchart and isn’t already familiar with the mechanics and foibles of the service. Hopefully there at least some interest to it.

      The bit about the optimistic ’90s didn’t really occur to me until I was writing that paragraph, but I was just thinking how ludicrous it was that the president kept believing the Martians would just…stop. I know it’s exaggerated for effect, but it’s still kind of strikingly naive in a way that I don’t think would even happen ONCE today. And the thing is, you wouldn’t make a satire of that today, because that naivete itself seems so foreign in a way. For satire to work, the thing being satirized has to be true at some level.

      Thanks for also commenting here even after we had the long convo on Twitter about this post. :)

      • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

        For much of last year, all of my Letterboxd diary reviews included not just the list of each match, but commentary as well. My average writing time was about an hour per movie, though that also included copying and pasting from Letterboxd to Flickchart. I also had to go back and erase the HTML Title and rewrite it as TITLE because Flickchart doesn’t support HTML. That was often the most obnoxious part, actually. And, of course, in Letterboxd, I didn’t include screen caps, which I’ve done in blog pieces.

        So, yeah, factoring in your work time and the time you spend trying to make sure Karina doesn’t ingest something unsuitable to her digestive system, I can kinda guess how laborious this was. Even working straight through, I would guess conservatively about three hours.

        You are, of course, right on the matter of my familiarity with Flickchart inoculating me to sifting through the play-by-play of the format and I’m afraid it’s up to someone else to indicate to you how the post reads without that insight.

        One last thing: You had remarked in that aforementioned Twitter conversation about meaning to focus more on the movie being ranked (in this case, Mars Attacks!) but finding yourself saying more about the opponents. I can appreciate that. My suggestion would be to maybe get away from summarizing the opponents and simply cut to the pros and cons. You do risk losing some of the personalization in the process, though, like the quip about how many bad movies you saw in your post-Buffy binge. It’s a balancing act, that’s for sure, and all I can say is that I empathize with you!

        • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

          I think if I had more stuff to actually say about the film under discussion (i.e., Mars Attacks!), it would’ve been more even. I tried to find ways to indicate things I liked and didn’t like about Mars Attacks! within each matchup, but I had to really work at it, and I think I only partially succeeded.

          I do like the personal side notes, and in some cases (like with Successful Alcoholics), I can’t pass up the chance to promote the randomly matched movie. Of course, that’ll go down over time, because some of the same ones will come up again because of the way Flickchart chooses the ranks. I’m still thinking on how to mitigate the repetitiveness that could result from that. We’ll see.

          Also, the difficulty of just doing pros and cons is the same one I tend to have trying to write comments on Flickchart itself. They all end up in the form “Film X has this going for it, but Film Y has this and thus Film Y wins.” Every single time. It’s in just about every one of these matchups, too, but at least there’s a bit more substance as well. I’d like to move away from that construction all together. It’s so easy and admittedly useful that it’s difficult to eschew.

          • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

            Don’t. I. Know It! :P

  • http://unpublishedforareason.blogspot.com/ Hannah K

    I haven’t had the motivation to do one of these posts on my own, but I really enjoy reading them. I haven’t seen many of the movies it went up against, but I loved reading your thoughts on them anyway. This isn’t a terribly substantial comment, other than to say I look forward to reading further installments in this series.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      I welcome comments of any level of substantiation. :) Seriously, though, I wasn’t sure how this post was going to go over – I thought several times about just shelving it until I had a film hit better matchups (from my perspective), but I’m glad I went ahead and finished it. It’s a good first draft for the series, I think, giving me some good ideas for how to improve it in later entries.