Talk about bad timing! Cashing in his massive commercial credits from the one-two punch of Batman and Batman Returns, director Tim Burton decided to follow-up his box office dud (but critical darling) Ed Wood with an adaptation of the Topps trading card series Mars Attacks! Crafted by frequent collaborator Jonathan Gems and undermined by a studio - Warners - that systematically removed much of the world destroying circumstances over budgetary concerns, it was meant to be a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World like tribute to the b-movie sci-fi schlock of the '50s. What it ended up being was an afterthought for a moviegoing public overdosing on post-Independence Day alien invasion mythos. That's right, after years in development, Burton et al were trumped by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's 4 July actioner, leaving Mars Attacks! to a small cult of considered cinephiles. It deserves a much more meaningful place in the director - and the overall genre's - creative canon.
When life outside the Earth is discovered, it's a boon for certain individuals, including reporters Natalie Lake and Jason Stone, government official Professor Donald Kessler, Vegas real estate wannabe Art Land and his recovering-alcoholic gal pal Barbara, and patriot nimrod Billy-Glen Norris and his flag waving father and mother. For others, it's a burden. This includes sitting President James Dale, his Nancy Reagan-esque wife Marsha, and their dour daughter Taffy. Equally effected are White House Press Secretary Jerry Ross, eager to battle General Decker, and his far more passive counterpart General Casey. Along the fringes, former heavyweight champion boxer Byron Williams and his estranged spouse Louise, Billy-Glen's brother Richie and grandmother Florence, as well as entertainer Tom Jones, find themselves locked in a struggle to stay alive as the little green men turn into major league monsters, intent on destroying the population of the third planet from the sun.
Mars Attacks! is a very misunderstood movie - and mostly for reasons far outside what's on the screen. What could have been a kooky cavalcade of splatter and slapstick, mimicking the gory Topps trading cards while adding the unusual perspective of its Goth goof guide behind the lens was instead watered down and weakened by a financier frightened of such a combo's box office potential. Tossed were several sequences (including the mass destruction of Manhattan and the systematic smashing of other famous places) as well as many of the more gruesome ideas. Without said spectacle to work with, Burton was forced to fill in with more bumbling burlesque character stuff - and since his players where nothing short of cardboard cut-out archetypes (dim President, warmongering General, New Age airhead, etc), the epic was soon anemic. If you want to know what the original film might have looked like, take the last act sequence where the "ack-ack" aliens level the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and the stone idols of Easter Island and you get some idea of what the original Mars Attacks! was after.
Now, it all seems so underwhelming, kitsch combined with superstar egos where the part practical/part CG effect Martians are more memorable than anything else onscreen. Giving Jack Nicholson a chance to flop as both President James Dale and casino "entrepreneur" Art Land may seem daring, but the truth is more Dr. Detroit than Dr. Strangelove. Indeed, many in the cast seem unsure of their place or particular meaning to the movie's narrative. Similarly, stunt casting like Tom Jones (wonder if he gets to sing a signature song...) Sylvia Sydney, Jim Brown, and Pam Grier indicates the hectic Hellsapoppin' exploitation vibe Burton was going for, but for some reason it's always set within the veneer of a big budget Hollywood sprawl. Even the more macabre elements - the Martian experiments onboard ship, for example - as tossed aside quickly in order to avoid an MPAA stand-off and a series of angry complaints from various parental/political watchdog groups. Indeed, Mars Attacks! often feels like a film that had all its anarchic potential drained out of it (see Spielberg's 1941 as precedent).
Yet there are enough joys to be unearthed here to make the overall experience worthwhile. Burton truly enjoys the wacky world of his space invaders and every time we focus on the invading forces, the film comes magically to life. Sure, it may be too bizarre to fit in with the rest of the storyline, but we definitely enjoy our time with these marauding extraterrestrials. There are some performances that work as well, including Sarah Jessica Parker as a vapid fashion journalist, Michael J. Fox as her gung-ho "serious" journalist boyfriend, Pierce Brosnan as a perfectly English scientist, and Martin Short as an oversexed White House Aide. In fact, the latter gets one of the most memorable moments when a dream-like Lisa Marie becomes his ultimate carnal dream date/nightmare. Taken in parts, pieced back together minus the mugging and endless stretches of pointless ensemble padding, Mars Attacks! is a delightful outline for a fantastic, first rate sci-fi action comedy. As it stands, it's a memorable misstep.
Here's the problem with the new Mars Attacks! Blu-ray release - HD does the film little service. In fact, some of the elements that made the movie so fun the first time around (the cartoonish Martians, the color wheel blasts of primary color) come across as garish and a rather fake most of the time. Indeed, when the White House is under attack and aliens are dying left and right, their bright green blood spatter patterns look like first generation CGI. Among some minor technical issues (noise reduction OD, wavering detail levels), this is the biggest issue with the 1080p, VC-1 transfer. Whereas the theatrical and initial DVD experience seamlessly integrated the big brained baddies in to the image, here we see the movie magic in all its dated designs. The overall effect is still light years ahead of the old digital format, but for those looking for a flawless visual treatment of this title, the home video hunt continues.
As with any over the top spectacle, one expects a certain level of sonic splash from Mars Attacks! , and for the most part, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix fits the bill. There is some directional drive during the many laser battles and the sense of spatial atmosphere in the many shipboard sequences. Dialogue is always easily discernible and Danny Elfman's sci-fi spoof score comes across with all its faux Theremin majesty. But there's not the real bang we demand for our Blu-ray buck, the sonic sturm and drang such movies mandate.
None, sadly, Even in the latest home video format, Mars Attacks! is treated like a cinematic red-headed stepchild.
Like the many movies it tries to emulate, Mars Attacks! is a guileless guilty pleasure. Until the day someone like Zack Snyder steps up and decides to make a real version of the trading cards complete with corpses and flash-fried dogs (all done in jittery, overly detailed slo-mo, mind you), this is the adaptation we have to deal with. While it's nice to play 'might have' or 'could have' been, what we are left with is something entertaining but empty, an Irwin Allen disaster romp without enough of the famed producer's patented cheese. Earning a Recommended rating, it remains bravura Burton, a stepping stone to bigger (Sleepy Hollow), if not always better (Planet of the Apes remake) things. While we can cast culpability on Roland Emmerich and his anabolic apocalypse designs, Mars Attacks! only has itself to blame. What could have been great ended up only being partially gratifying.