posted Sunday 13 March 2011 @ 8:40 pm PST
by Gary Westfahl
Almost fifty years after the Mariner 4 space probe first established beyond any doubt that the planet Mars was barren, and almost certainly lifeless, humanity still clings to its visions of an ancient, advanced, but decadent Martian civilization, a mythology persuasively crafted long ago by that masterful science fiction writer who called himself an astronomer, Percival Lowell. Grudgingly adjusting to the contemporary realities of science, films like My Favorite Martian (1999) and Mars Needs Moms must now posit that intelligent Martians and their structures are lurking just beyond the range of Pathfinder rovers, or beneath the planet’s surface, carefully concealing their existence on Mars just as they keep their periodic visits to Earth a secret. It seems clear that, unlike the fanciful Mercurians, Venusians, and Saturnians of earlier science fiction that the people of Earth have calmly abandoned, we need these Martians. A question for the serious-minded to pursue is: why?
Thankfully, there are no answers to this serious-minded question in Berkeley Breathed’s delightful picture book Mars Needs Moms! (2007), for its playful, childlike Martians – who might have come from any planet – are merely instructive foils for a little boy named Milo, who increasingly tends to see his mother as nothing more than a heartless disciplinarian who makes him eat broccoli and take out the trash. He starts changing his attitude when he chases after the Martians who kidnap his mom and take her to Mars because they “grow motherless from the ground like potatoes” and hence need mothers for “driving to soccer” and “cooking and cleaning and dressing and packing lunches and bandaging boo-boos.” When Milo breaks the helmet he needs to breathe on Mars, his mother puts her own helmet on his head, willingly sacrificing her own life for her son; but she survives after Milo successfully urges the Martians to get her another helmet, and the boy happily accompanies her back to Earth with a new understanding of what is “special about mothers.” It is a simple, charming story that parents will love to read to their small children, and small children will love to hear; furthermore, whenever a story finds an appreciative audience, Hollywood will love to exploit it.
Unfortunately, contemporary producers have learned to make many sorts of films, but they can never handle a “simple, charming story.” Today, everything has to be portentous; everything has to be a matter of life and death; audiences must be constantly bludgeoned to feel extreme emotions by thundering sound effects, cloying music, and other tried-and-true devices. And whenever they are handed a work of science fiction, screenwriters feel particularly compelled to “improve” their source material by providing additional support for the conclusion a young scholar reached over twenty years ago, that science fiction is a genre steeped in the conventions of melodrama. So, having previously observed the appalling melodramatization of another charming story for younger readers, Steven Gould’s Jumper (1992) (review of 2008 film here), I was unsurprised to see that Breathed’s book had been similarly distorted, in manners worth exploring because they relate to the reasons why people are still making movies about Martians in the twenty-first century.
First, charming stories are wise enough to entertain readers without introducing the implacably evil villains that are rarely encountered in everyday life, but Hollywood deems them necessary in order to add some excitement; thus, Jumper was provided with its idiotic “Paladins,” and Mars Needs Moms has its “Supervisor” (Mindy Sterling), the sinister ruler of Mars, described as being like “the school lunch lady, only with the power to shoot you on sight.” Indeed, this Martian has Milo’s mother (Joan Cusack) abducted and taken to Mars for the sole purpose of killing her, and if you think that doesn’t make any sense, you’re absolutely right, despite the film’s convoluted justifications. But her plans are actually explained by a second requirement of melodrama which this film fulfills: that the lives of heroes and their allies must be constantly in peril. Accordingly, just as the Paladins keep trying to kill David Rice, the Supervisor is also intent upon slaughtering Milo (Seth Green) and the human friend he meets on Mars, Gribble (Dan Fogler), again for reasons that do not bear examination. But this provides a pretext for scene after scene of sympathetic characters being pursued by Martians wielding ray guns or escaping from yet another death trap, the sorts of events that constitute another defining trait of melodrama (also observed in Jumper). It goes without saying that watching Milo rescue Gribble from imminent death at the hands of a Martian firing squad does not exactly accord with the warm, gentle spirit of Breathed’s book.
Granted, something had to be done to expand the brief story of Mars Needs Moms! to produce a ninety-minute film, but these precise amplifications not only transform the book into a melodrama but also draw upon our conventional images of Mars, much more so than Breathed himself does. Building on Lowell’s theory of a dying civilization desperately building a worldwide network of canals to bring water to its cities, Martians are always depicted as older and wiser than humans, but growing more vulnerable and hence in urgent need of assistance from their youthful planetary neighbors, taking forms ranging from Earth’s natural resources (H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds ) to its nubile young women (the films Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster  and Mars Needs Women ). But the proper answer to their dilemma, as shown in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), its sequels, and countless other works, is for a resourceful human to come to Mars to overthrow its corrupt rulers, solve all its problems, and place the planet back on the road of upward progress. And while I will divulge no details about its dénouement, all filmgoers will quickly figure out that this is the role Milo will be forced into, as his heroics will inevitably bring about the downfall of the Supervisor and the creation of a new government led by more benign Martians like Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), the rebellious young woman who befriends Milo and Gribble.
As I argued in another vaguely remembered article that this film brings to mind, these stereotypical Martians consistently resemble parents – sometimes good parents, sometimes bad parents, sometimes aging parents that simply require a helping hand from their children. What this film does, then, is to make Breathed’s idiosyncratically juvenile Martians into the standard decadent Martians who must be reformed and reinvigorated by means of contact with humans; in other words, Hollywood (surprise, surprise!) has taken something unusual and original and crammed it into a Procrustean bed of stale, predictable expectations. (Even Breathed’s brilliantly goofy-looking, multi-colored Martians are replaced by the standard physiology of alien “Greys.”) And we can now explain why the American people have stubbornly refused to discard the Martians of legend that science has so resoundingly repudiated: in a society that celebrates youthfulness above all other virtues, that allows people to continue acting like children well into their dotage, we overgrown juveniles naturally continue to feel a powerful need for alien parents – who will either intervene to protect us from harm (like Klaatu, the unacknowledged Martian visitor in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still ) or validate our persistent immaturity by indulging in decadent behavior demanding our corrective action (like the Supervisor of this film). Thus, while this film clumsily reduces the emotional appeal of Breathed’s mother and father, it strangely underlines the emotional appeal of humanity’s symbolic mothers and fathers, its imaginary Martians.
It is also instructive to recognize precisely how humanity manages to revive this stagnating Martian civilization, which is not entirely due to Milo’s intervention. For long before he arrived, Ki had been inspired to launch her own understated revolt against the Supervisor’s domination – painting colorful graffiti on the drab walls of underground structures – by watching footage of a comedy sketch from the 1960s wherein two hippies convert two policemen to the joys of Flower Power. As a result, she enlivens the film with jargon from the 1960s and illustrates her triumph over the Supervisor by filling Mars with psychedelic colors; also, as a reference to the era’s counterculture that only a few people who lived at the time will recognize, Gribble’s Martian friend Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon) and other male Martians bear a strong resemblance to DC Comics’ abortive effort to celebrate hippiedom, the mannequin-turned-hero Brother Power the Geek (1968). Surely, the 1960s are being identified as the true origin of the overthrow of the Martian establishment because that was when America first embraced the ideals of eternal youth and never trusting anyone over thirty. (It is unfortunate, though, that instead of concluding their film with a genuine anthem from the era like the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” , Mercy’s “Love Can Make You Happy” , or Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” , the filmmakers chose Queen’s jarringly inappropriate “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a 1979 tribute to the sound of 1950s rock’n’roll.)
Yet one might also detect a certain amount of cynicism in the decision to celebrate this era and another earlier decade in American history, the 1980s, when Gribble first came to Mars as a child. (For attentive viewers, it is explained that Martian “hatchlings” appear every twenty-five years, requiring the kidnapping of another terrestrial mom; therefore, if Milo’s mom is being abducted in 2011, it follows that Gribble’s mom was similarly abducted in 1986, bringing her pursuing child to Mars.) For while Mars Needs Moms was made primarily for today’s children, the filmmakers also realized that those children would generally be accompanied to the theatres by their parents and/or grandparents, who would also be the people actually purchasing the tickets. So, while Milo reflects the interests of today’s children, like superheroes and zombie movies, the character of Gribble allows the film to introduce references to the 1980s (Cabbage Patch Kids, He-Man, Ronald Reagan, the film Top Gun ), pleasing all the parents in the audience, while Ki channels the language and lifestyle of the 1960s to please all the grandparents.
Still, one aspect of the film’s story predates all of these decades, namely, its sexual politics. Like Breathed’s book, the film defines motherhood strictly in terms of what stay-at-home mothers were supposed to do in the 1950s: feeding children, washing clothes, vacuuming the house, and so on. Further casting aspersions on independent working women, the evil Supervisor governs a Martian matriarchy in which all young men are literally thrown in the trash; she set up the whole rotten system, she later explains, because women like her did not have “time to raise hatchlings” and the men wouldn’t help because they were always “dancing and playing.” Firmly rejecting her feminist agenda, Ki leads a movement to restore men to positions of authority and, in her personal life, this smart, capable woman seems inexplicably prepared to subordinate herself to her new romantic interest, the immature and bumbling Gribble, joining him and his spider-like robot assistant (now configuring itself as a baby) in a final tableau of mother, father, and child – a traditional nuclear family. (And in the end credits, the Supervisor receives her comeuppance, as her robotic mother-substitutes are tossed in the trash and she is forced to personally change a baby’s diapers – a traditional woman’s job.) It is hard to imagine what sorts of theatergoers are supposed to embrace these old-fashioned developments; perhaps the film’s canny marketers decided to toss a bone to any great-grandparents who might happen to be in the audience.
Sadly, having created the new characters of Ki and Gribble to enhance the film’s cross-generational appeal and accompany Milo during his thrilling adventures on Mars, Mars Needs Moms allows them to dominate the story, so that the key character of Milo’s mother receives relatively little attention. For that reason, her final gesture of motherly love doesn’t really have any emotional impact because we hardly know this person at all. (Breathed’s 38-page picture book tells us far more about the woman than this 90-minute film.) Rushing to bring Gribble and Ki back into the picture, the film even omits the book’s most evocative line, the mother’s declaration to Milo that “I’ll love you to the ends of the universe”; instead, all she is given time to say is the blander “I love you” before the film gets back to the action. But this is hardly the first time that filmmakers, intent upon keeping their crowd-pleasing rollercoaster ride in motion, lose sight of the reason they were attracted to their story in the first place.
Still, if Mars Needs Moms fails to capture the special magic of its source material, and instead takes filmgoers into some very familiar Martian territory, this may to a large extent be inevitable. For as I watched the monkey-like behavior of the male Martians, imitating all of Milo’s gestures, I was strangely reminded of the similar antics of the very first cinematic aliens, the Selenites of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902). Perhaps these are the only kinds of aliens that films can really provide – colorful imitators of human beings, recalling our best friends, fierce enemies, good parents, and bad parents, and attractive precisely for that reason. Percival Lowell told a good story about Mars, and it is in a way a tribute to his creative powers that filmmakers in the twenty-first century remain strongly inclined to depict his sympathetically decadent Martians long after this comforting scenario has been proven impossible. They may be absurd, but we know these Martians, we like these Martians, and audiences continue to enjoy seeing these Martians on the screen. And even when the customer is wrong, the customer is always right.