Mars Attacks! (1996) / Sci Fi-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and brief sexuality
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sylvia Sidney, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Natalie Portman, Lukas Haas, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Lisa Marie, Paul Winfield, Jack Black
Small role: Ray J, Joe Don Baker, Christina Applegate, Barbet Schroeder
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Jonathan Gems (based on the Topps trading card series)
Review published October 27, 2013
Tim Burton (Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands) takes on comic science fiction in Mars Attacks!, a big-screen narrative version of the cult Topps trading card series from the early 1960s, in which Martian in flying saucers are seen mounting an invasion of Earth, tapping into prevalent fears, zapping humans and animals with their flesh-destroying ray guns and stealing away women. As such, though set in modern times, the film takes a decidedly spoof-y look at science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, with nods to such classics as The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. As with Independence Day, also released in 1996, Mars Attacks! is mostly a setup to images of various monuments being destroyed by aliens, with Burton following his critically acclaimed Ed Wood with a schlocky sci-fi film that seems as it could have been inspired by Wood himself.
Jack Nicholson (Wolf, Hoffa) plays the President of the United States, who, as a world leader, must hastily choose how to confront the visiting Martians, who are hovering over Earth in an armada of flying saucers. They look intimidating, but one of Earth's leading scientists (Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies) assures him that, as the Martian civilization is far more advanced than ours, they will surely be more "civilized", and peaceful. The Martians land, and initially speak words of peace, but they suddenly begin to annihilate every human in sight. The film covers how the alien invasion affects a wide array of people from all walks of life in several locations, including Washington DC, Las Vegas and the Midwest. Most of the characters are quite smarmy, to the point where you may be rooting for the Martians to kill many of them off before the end.
As with all of Tim Burton's works, Mars Attacks! doesn't lack for visual imagination, or inspired sight gags. However, also, like most of Burton's films, there is a tendency toward an uneven tone, and Mars Attacks! is possibly the guiltiest in this regard, blending silly slapstick with vicious violence in ways that erode the effectiveness of both. As it is a comic-book type of film, the characters are little more than broad caricatures, which, despite a very stocked cast of well-known actors, makes it not really a film one would watch for the acting. The actors are but momentary distractions, and none of them get enough screen time to make a particular dent, especially since nearly all of what we know about them is their name and occupation. In this way, it is reminiscent of one of Steven Spielberg's rare misfires, 1941, which dressed up a lot of very appealing actors, who had nowhere to go after their initial introduction on the screen. Despite the overstuffed cast, Nicholson is given two roles, with his secondary one as some sort of rootin'-tootin', faux-cowboy, lush businessman in Vegas.
Burton tries to deliver all of this with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but without ample setup before tossing us in the middle of the mayhem, we have no viable vantage point through which to view the comedy as particularly funny. Not that there aren't any laughs -- any film that has the temerity to use Slim Whitman's music as a major plot point is bound to generate laughs just from the absurdity of it all. While a comedy with ample kooky characterizations, satirical situations, and lots of other-worldly effects would seem right up Burton's alley, all he can manage are a few scattered laughs, some hammy performances, and lots of oddball narrative dead ends.
As a spoof, it's all over the place. Not that old sci-fi films need a spoof; they're pretty campy and unintentionally funny for today's audiences all on their own. Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems (White Mischief, The Treat) also send up, quite broadly, Washington DC, military brass, Vegas lounges acts, local yokels, and various news sources, but do so in ways that are either too obvious or too over-spoofed to stand out on their own. Even the Martians, who look quite cartoonish, especially when compared to the real-life actors that surround them, are supposed to garner a few chuckles from the element of surprise in their killings and experimentation with humans, but it all comes across as rather brutal or grotesque. Seeing heads transplanted between humans and Chihuahuas might have seemed like a funny, surreal sight gag on paper, but it plays out like a mildly horrific turn of events when you see it on the big screen.
Despite its many flaws, I've been surprised to learn over the years that there is an audience out there that finds many of the things funny in this film that I do not, and many of the action scenes exciting that I think miss the mark substantially. To each his/her own, I suppose, as I consider it Burton's worst movie -- yes, even worse than Dark Shadows, albeit that's a close call. Perhaps if you think that changing actors and scenery every couple of minutes is enough to keep your interest level high, and you snicker whenever you see some semi-comical character get eviscerated, this might be the kind of movie that works for you. As for me, if I find great actors far from compelling, a plethora of jokes that elicit few honest laughs, special effects that look tacky and unconvincing, and some major action sequences that threaten to lull me to sleep rather than raise my pulse rate, I'd find it a misfire under any circumstance.
©2013 Vince Leo