Title: Mars Attacks! (1996)
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Pam Grier, Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Tom Jones, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Lisa Marie
Back in 1994, Tim Burton directed Ed Wood, a film that pays loving homage to science fiction and horror film director Edward Wood Jr., a director better known as ‘the worst director who ever lived’. One look at his movies and you’ll agree, Ed Wood wasn’t the best filmmaker in the world. But any film buff will tell ya that all the things that make a film like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957) a ‘bad movie’ are the very same elements that make it a completely watchable film. I like seeing those strings hanging from the toy flying saucers, I like seeing the set falling apart as the actors walk through it, I like those random scenes of Bela Lugosi doing things that had nothing to do with the story, I liked the unnecessary, yet wildly entertaining voice over. These are the elements that give Plan 9 From Outer Space its charm, because even through all that, at its core, there’s a message, it says something, it’s good intentions cannot be ignored. It’s in that spirit that Tim Burton made Mars Attacks!, a film that Ed Wood would have made himself if he was still alive and had 70 million dollars to spare.
Mars Attacks begins in the dark recesses of space, as we follow an armada of thousands of Martian spaceships headed directly towards earth. We are then presented with the many characters that we’ll follow throughout the movie, characters who will no doubt converge at some point in the story. So we get Louise Williams (Pamela Grier) a bus driver and stern mother of two. We get Byron Williams (Jim Brown) an ex-boxer who is trying to get back with his wife and kids before the Martians attack. We get Jack Nicholson playing two roles, one as the president of the United States, and another as a gambler/empresario whose looking to open up his new hotel and casino, which by the way looks like a giant flying saucer. Basically, we meet a bunch of characters all living different lifestyles, who have to deal with the fact that these Martians do not come in peace, they come to take over! They’ve come to attack! Is humanity doomed to destruction by little green men?
I watched Mars Attacks in theaters way back in ’96 when it was first released and I remember feeling really strange after seeing it. I’d seen it with my parents and I remember them saying something like “I don’t feel like I saw a movie”. My reaction was a bit different. I remember thinking it was undoubtedly a strange movie and I remember leaving the theater with this weird feeling of ‘what did I just watch?’ But I also couldn’t deny I had enjoyed it. I like Tim Burton when he does films like this one, films where he doesn’t give a crap what anybody is going to think, he just does what he finds entertaining, which is often times goofy and offbeat. I mean, can you deny that Beetlejuice (1986) is one of the weirdest movies you ever saw? No you can’t; but you can’t deny that it’s quite entertaining either. Sadly, Burton isn’t making films like these anymore, right now, his films play it safe. Though recently, Frankenweenie (2012) did manage to bring back some of that old Burton weirdness I love so much, I miss the old Tim Burton, the one who would wallow in his weirdness. I haven’t seen a truly risky Tim Burton film in a long while. I wish he’d do it more often; Burton works best when he does his own thing, left to his own devices. Mars Attack has that feeling going for it. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to go all the way bonkers. This is a big budget film that’s purposely showing its b-movie sensibilities, which of course spells awesome for me.
How bonkers is this movie? Well, for starters the movie is based on a series of Topps trading cards composed of 55 trading cards that came out circa 1962. These little cards would show gruesome depictions of Martians eradicating the human race. These might be little trading cards that fit into the palm of your hand, but they sure packed lots of gruesomeness! So much so that Topps had to cancel the trading cards out of public outcry! So these cards had an edge! I don’t think they were entirely aimed at kids, though I’m sure it was the kids that bought them. The film retains some of that gruesomeness without going into ‘R’ territory. This is why we get to see people smashing giant Martian brains, with green ooze slipping out and Martians doing all sorts of weird experiments on humans; like giving Sarah Jessica Parker the body of a Chihuahua, so these Martians have a meanness to them! The cards also had a bit of a sexual vibe going for them which on the film translated to Martians checking out playboy magazine. The film retains the spirit of the cards, sometimes while watching the movie you’ll feel like you’re watching a snapshot coming straight from the Topps card series.
Another element that makes the movie interesting is that almost everyone is famous in one form of another! This is a star studded cast filled with cameos left and right. Thing is that most of these cameos are extended, they aren’t five minute cameos. Instead, you get to see quite a bit of each of the actors who appear on the film. I liked that about it, we go from Jack Blacks white thrash family, to Michael J. Fox’s stale marriage to Sarah Jessica Parker, to the President of the United States deciding if he should nuke the Martians or not. It’s one of those movies with a lot of stories going on, but at some point they all come together. Jack Nicholson is absolutely amazing here as a businessman/gangster called Art Land, “I’m not a crook, I’m ambitious, there’s a difference!” He’s this sleazy drunkard who wants to open a new hotel; boy Nicholson really got into that character! He made me laugh on a regular basis, I was surprised to see him so game in a movie of this nature. Even Tom Jones shows up to kick some Martian ass! Natalie Portman plays the president’s daughter in one of her earliest roles, it's always fun to see artists who have become great (like Portman) doing their earliest stuff. Here we also get to see Jack Black taking his first baby steps as an actor.
Tim Burton’s always displayed an admiration for stop motion animation, his first short ever was a stop motion animated feature called ‘Vincent’. Burton’s also produced and directed various stop animation films like Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and most recently Frankenweenie, so it didn’t surprise me when I found out that Burton originally wanted to bring the Martians to life through the use of stop motion animation Unfortunately, the studio wanted to cut down the budget of the film so stop motion animation was eliminated from the project, plus, the special effects crew convinced Burton they could pull the effects off with computers, so Burton went with the CGI. Gotta wonder what the film would have been like had Burton used stop motion animation. So anyways, overall, with this kind of film you either get it or you don’t, it’s a love it or hate it movie. If you love 50’s science fiction films, trading cards, comic books, and the plain bizarre side of life, chances are you’ll get this movie. The rest of the world just won’t get it, which is probably why this film underperformed at the box office. It didn’t lose money, but it didn’t make a significant profit either. But who cares about all that noise, the movie is fun times. At its core is an anti-war message: while fear mongers want to nuke the hell out of the Martians, the humble people of the world want to save the earth by other peaceful means. I highly recommend Mars Attacks! to those who enjoy a good laugh.