Mars Attacks!

Much as I enjoy Mars Attacks!, I have to concede that hyperactive parodies of cheap 1950s science fiction films aren’t for everyone. Indeed, a quick look at Rotten Tomatoes reveals some very divided opinion with many critics complaining about plot, characterisation, pacing and more. But to me, many of these criticisms miss the point somewhat.

Based on a series of Trading Cards, Mars Attacks! is an anarchic tribute to the B-Movies and exploitation films of the 1950s, and one that manages to both pastiche and parody these films without losing sight of what makes them fun in the first place.

The film has a substantial cast and quite a diversity of characters, most of which are caricatures and quite broadly played. Jack Nicholson puts in a great performance as the US president, as does Glen Close as the status obsessed first lady. Pierce Bronson provides a wonderfully stereotyped English Scientist who convinces the president of the Martians’ peaceful intentions.

The list goes on, with solid performances throughout and a cast of major names, all of whom fully understand just how silly this film is, and just how disposable their characters are.

But it’s the martians that are the real stars of this film. Although hyper-intelligent and unbelievably advanced, the little green men have employed their vast array of destructive technology to lark around like a bunch of malicious schoolkids. They are more than happy to halt the carnage for an, often puerile, joke and display a malicious sense of humour that really is disturbingly funny.

And the weapon that finally defeats them is comedy gold.

Mars Attacks! is quite a chaotic film in which style takes precedence over substance and every scene is looking towards the next joke. And, once the film gets started, the jokes come thick and fast with plenty of highlights and memorable one-liners. It’s not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a film that knows its audience, consistently delivers and is a huge amount of fun.

It’s also the only film, as far as I’m aware, in which Tom Jones helps save the world.

Coffy

Back in my misspent youth, I watched — and accumulated — something of a stack of cinematic oddities. Exploitation films, cult films, independent films, and some stuff that I can’t begin to attempt to categorise. Since having kids, many of these have languished on high shelves because finding the time to watch them has become something of a challenge.

While putting together my recent Five Things post, however, it occurred to me that I do now have time to revisit some of these films. And what better place to start than Coffy?

Pam Grier plays the title character, a nurse whose younger sister is hospitalised by a heroin overdose. With the law apparently unable to take action, Coffy sets out to bring down the underworld. By herself.

And that’s pretty much all there is as far as the plot is concerned. That said, a simple plot well executed is better by far than a narrative that becomes bogged down in excessive complexity.

Coffy is an incredibly well executed film, and one that keeps you gripped for the entirety of its running time.

Jack Hill, who wrote and directed the film, launched his career with Roger Corman’s AIP studios and while he neither moved beyond the exploitation genres nor made a lot of films he was a demonstrably better filmmaker than many of his genre peers. This is most clearly apparent with with Coffy which he wrote with Pam Grier specifically in mind. He’d previously worked with Grier on both The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House but I doubt even Hill had realised what a superb performance she
would deliver as a shotgun-wielding vigilante determined to take down the whole of the underworld.

The film, of course, nods towards all of the genre cliches that you would expect but manages to rise above the average Blaxploitation film with some superbly outrageous fashion choices, spectacularly over the top action scenes and lashings of nudity and plenty of violence, some of which is surprisingly and disturbingly brutal.

What really makes the film stand out, though, is the fact that Hill is able to to reverse many of the stereotypes of the time by putting a female character at the centre of the film. Coffy is not just a nominal lead, either, but she is also both determined and proactive and not looking for help from anyone.

This, combined with a script that managed to also comment on race, corruption and the damage cause by drugs made Coffy a huge success, both financially and critically, and the film that established Pam Grier as a genre icon.