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After his initial string of quirky hits Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman, Cal Arts whiz kid Tim Burton went into a commercial slump with Ed Wood, an equally inspired comedy perceived as "too esoteric". 1996's farcical All-Star extravaganza Mars Attacks! was clearly meant to put Tim back on top, but instead became another debacle, this time not only with the public but the critics as well. Burton would later do far worse, mainly with the re-do of Planet of the Apes. But Mars Attacks! may be the most-maligned of his films -- mainly because it only earned a fraction of its budget back.
Mars Attacks! was apparently made for a very select audience -- namely ME. I find it consistently smart, hilarious and delightful in almost every aspect. It zeroes in on the alien invasion formula in ways that just make me smile. Burton's riotous movie about Edward D. Wood, Jr. may not have caught on with the public because it grossly overestimated the general interest (and perhaps knowledge) of the Director in Angora. The fan base for far-out takeoffs of old science fiction movies is also somewhat limited, a drawback that I suppose Warners expected to be neutralized by Burton's stellar ensemble cast. The problem is that Burton's previous comedies were based on simple story ideas illustrated with wonderfully creative visuals -- and their strong leading characters were likeable, if not downright adorable. Mars Attacks! is based on a crazy pack of bubble gum trading cards that featured exploitative gore not tolerated in films of the time -- people burned alive, trembling women 'threatened' by rapacious skull-headed Martians -- you know, the subtle approach. The movie reruns the alien invasion playbook as it might be envisioned by an old Mad magazine. The humor is scattershot and the many characters don't have a single focus. Critics thought that the movie simply squandered its talented cast.
The jokes play off of older sci-fi invasion movies and lampoon the idiocy of new ones, like the previous year's Independence Day. That cornball mass of plagiarism takes itself ridiculously seriously and panders to audiences with its patriotism theme: the stalwart U.S. President (a pilot like the Bushes) fires up his armies like Henry V. Mars Attacks! takes the opposite viewpoint, envisioning the government and its President as incompetent clowns. A flag should have dropped right there, as this attitude seems awfully similar to that of the ill fated 1941. That movie made fun of the war panic after Pearl Harbor and trashed American notions of patriotism. No wonder that the public didn't find it amusing. Spielberg hasn't attempted a real satire since.
Here's just the set-up for the multi-threaded plot; listen good because I'll repeat nothing. Sneaky, skeletal-faced Martians determine to exterminate the puny Earthlings inhabiting this desirable planet. When President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) is told that thousands of flying saucers have the Earth surrounded, he ignores the advice of the hawkish General Decker (Rod Steiger) and lays out a welcome mat, as advised by Science Advisor Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), glad-handing press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short) and suck-up General Casey (Paul Winfield), a clear marker for Colin Powell. President Dale's disaffected daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman, adorable) isn't impressed, and the snooty First Lady Marsha (Glenn Close, riffing on Nancy Reagan) merely expresses disgust at the Martian Ambassador's cadaverous looks.
The government and the media go into action when the Martians relay landing coordinates just outside of Las Vegas. General Casey is chosen to perform gracious greeter duty while General Decker fumes that he's being ignored. New York news anchor Jason Stone (Michael J.Fox) is upset that his ditzy wife Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker), the host of a brainless talk show, is given equal status in the network coverage. He's also upset that Nathalie appears to be carrying on a flirtation with Donald Kessler. In Vegas, crooked hotel promoter Art Land (Jack Nicholson again) tries to corrupt Byron Williams (Jim Brown), an honest ex-fighter. Byron works the floor of an Egyptian-themed casino to convince his ex-wife Louise (Pam Grier) that he's reformed and will be a good father to his two boys. Art's alcoholic wife Barbara (Annette Bening) is into New Age spiritualism. Having decided that the Martians are here to save the environment, Barbara anticipates the landing as the chance for corrupt humanity to redeem itself.
The Norris family of Middle America are gun toting trailer trash. Dad (Joe Don Baker) proudly sends his moronic older son Billy Glenn off to the army. Neither he nor his lazy wife Sue Ann (O-Lan Jones) is aware that Billy Glenn is going off to "Martian Landing Duty". They shake their heads in shame at their other son, the inoffensive Richie (Lukas Haas), the only family member who shows an interest in Granma Florence (Sylvia Sidney).
When the Martians land, the planet is thrown into chaos. Promising peace, the Martians wipe out the first reception gathering with blasts from their ray guns. Nathalie is captured and taken prisoner by the lascivious Martian Ambassador. Foolishly concluding that the massacre was a "cultural misunderstanding", President Dale allows a second landing -- on Capitol Hill. After a failed Presidential assassination attempt by an alien disguised as a sexy woman (Lisa Marie), the Martians launch a wholesale attack. The United States fights back -- or watches helplessly as the Beltway, Las Vegas and Richie's hometown are blown to bits. The First Family is in the White House when the little green men shoot their way in. Trapped in a Vegas casino, Barbara, entertainer Tom Jones (himself), a rude gambler (Danny DeVito) and Byron Williams fight their way to an airfield, and possible escape!
Mars Attacks! gets off on the wrong hoof with an unfunny gag about a burning herd of cattle. It's taken directly from the Trading Cards, but unless one wants an unpleasant horror spectacle, that isn't a wise direction to go. The original cards are obsessively sick/perverse, and were prime material to be confiscated and destroyed by appalled parents. The movie as made adapts and softens most of the Cards' crazier material into knockabout comedy mode. I find almost everything in the film to be charming in the extreme. Jonathan Gems' script gives every character a funny mannerism to play. We like the sweet, cute and principled characters played by Lukas Haas, Sylvia Sidney, Jim Brown and Pam Grier. Annette Bening is particularly adorable, and it's fun to see future big stars like Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jack Black strut their stuff while scoring satirical points.
The script takes no coherent political position -- it's all for fun. Our 'good' characters are all for peace and love but the film takes its broadest pot shots at an Oval Office committed to do-nothing pacifism -- a stance that doesn't align with any recent administration, not even Clinton's. The hilariously happy-faced Martin Short brings in a sleazy Presidential sex angle (rather prophetic, that) with "The Kennedy Room", a secret White House sex retreat complete with Lounge Music and fish tank visuals lifted straight from the make-out comedy version of Casino Royale. With generals fighting for the President's attention and the First Lady making a royal ass of herself, the only sane person in the Executive Branch appears to be the moody First Daughter, Taffy. Just the same, the movie expects us to think it's hilarious when red and blue Martian death rays annihilate the entire Legislative Branch. TV viewers everywhere are shown cheering, even Granma Norris: "Ha-ha! They blew up Congress!" It's just sad -- and the kind of joke that would appeal to today's mean-spirited Tea Party extremists. The conservatives will in turn be incensed by Burton and Gems' gleeful mud-throwing at the known-nothing values of the moronic Norris family. If you want to get the audience on your side, it's not wise to hold up an honest mirror to them.
Some jokes are more obvious than others, but Mars Attacks! frequently hits perfect pitch, as when Louise's mischievous boys prove to be top-gun Martian killers, or when a silly inter-lingual communication device translates the Martian Ambassador's message as, "For dark is the suede that mows like a harvest." I think it very touching that, in the ruins of Washington, D.C., First Daughter Taffy Dale would flirt with the introverted Richie Norris, he in his day-glow Outer Limits T-shirt and she rising to the occasion as the only semi-official personage left alive in the Federal Government. A band of Mariachis (guesting from Ed Wood?) is the only music group that could be scraped together for the occasion. Now is that a perfect picture, or what?
The special effects take us directly into cartoon land, a cross between Wallace Wood illustrations from 50s Mad magazines and specific exaggerations gleaned from Warners Duck Dodgers cartoons. The flying saucers come straight from Ray Harryhausen but their silly folding landing gear and other paraphernalia are goofy cartoonaroonie stuff. Considering the state of digital effects in 1996, the Martians are wonderful little pop-eyed buggers, that look like they were painted by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Just for fun, the color of skeleton that remains when you get zapped by these guys depends on what kind of ray you were hit by, a green blaster or a red one.
The effects are often breathtaking, especially when set off by Danny Elfman's eerie, commanding score, an affectionate blend of Bernard Herrmann and martial themes. The set pieces are often awesome, as when Rod Steiger draws a bead on a retreating saucer with a machine gun, or when the sick-o Martian surgeons swap heads and bodies between a screaming Earth woman and her pet Chihuahua dog. It's phenomenally stupid and conceptually outrageous, and the special effects make it all work. Tim Burton doesn't use CGI for everything: an impressive crashing saucer is a large organic model, and an exploding Big Ben in London is a beautiful work of miniature art glimpsed far too briefly.
What doesn't work? (I'm naturally rejecting the popular notion that the answer is the whole movie.) Jack Nicholson isn't given enough of substance in either of his roles. His President quickly becomes an irritating idiot, and we only wish he were put out of his misery sooner. But Nicholson's Art Land is even worse, a total flop. The character lacks any point whatsoever, except perhaps to take advantage of footage filmed of the demolition of a real Vegas casino-hotel. Burton and Nicholson seem to have decided to have Art Land imitate the screwball mime gags of Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, right down to small details. It's not funny at all. For all we know, Nicholson thought Keaton so effective as Betelgeuse that he wanted to do it himself ... ?
When it comes down to it, I guess this is all a matter of taste. For every movie made, the perfect audience of one is waiting out there somewhere; I guess I should be happy that Tim Burton made Mars Attacks! for me personally! I do have to say that the theater audience I saw it with loved it, and laughed and cheered at appropriate places. As it turned out, my 11 year-old son happened to see it before me. The next weekend I rushed back with him and his older brother to see it for myself. "Am I going to like it?" I asked. The boy thought a moment, and said, "Well, if you don't like it, I won't understand why not." See? With a testimonial like that, everybody else has to be wrong, just like they were wrong about the wonderful Joe vs. the Volcano. Hey, where's the Blu-ray of that? Thanks for giving us Mars Attacks! in HD, Warner Bros., although I'll bet the recent success of Burton's Alice in Wonderland has something to do with it.
Warners' Blu-ray of Mars Attacks! is a bright and punchy HD encoding of this exciting, funny sci-fi comedy spectacular. The uncompressed Master Audio gives us a great concert of Danny Elfman's score. It actually gets the film's first big laugh, backing up the absurd overkill joke of thousands of "shiny hubcap" saucers gaily saucering their way towards earth in formations that resemble groups of bowling pins. Yes, officer, it was me, laughing all the way through the title sequence.
Mars Attacks! was one of Warners' first DVDs released in 1997; that old disc still looks darn good. It had a few cute extras, including a "Martian language" gag dialogue track. This new Blu-ray has no extras at all, which testifies to the film's status as an orphaned, friendless comedy.
So hey, where's the love for Mars Attacks! I'd like to publish some responses below. I'm especially interested in understanding why people didn't like it. Well, a little interested!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mars Attacks! Blu-ray rates:
Shaun K. Chang, 9.06.10:
I found your Mars Attacks! review very provocative. I thought back to the movie and about the things I liked and didn't like about it. I overall liked it. It's funny how you noted that some conservatives might not like the movie -- I actually (from that conservative viewpoint) liked it because it showed people who fought back and didn't rely on the government to rescue them. I also found Independence Day entertaining but I agree with you that its notion of patriotism is forced and phony at times. It aims for sentiment without having any subtlety or depth a la John Ford. My only real complaint is "How the heck did Pam Grier and her kids survive the finale?" They kind of got short shrifted at the end of the film. I get the feeling there's a "director's cut" version of Mars Attacks! that might feel more cohesive than the rest. Nevertheless, count me as someone who likes the movie.
Steve Shuttleworth, 9.06.10:
Thanks very much for such a well written and positive review of the movie. Its audience is, at least, double what you describe -- as I have enjoyed it since seeing it in the theater upon its release. And thanks for not giving away the surprise ending ... with Slim Whitman!
I don't know if you were a SCTV fan, but they had a skit that included Slim with Indira Gandhi in their version of Evita, but I firmly believe that an author, playwright or screenplay writer can't lose by including Slim's silken vocals somewhere in his or her work.
Jon Paul Henry, 9.07.10:
I went to see this movie when it came out mostly because I love Sci-Fi, but also because it looked like it had that MAD magazine vibe to it. I was not disappointed. One of my favourite scenes is still close to the end, the post-apocalyptic emergence of Tom Jones and pals from a cave. If memory serves there are cute animals as well (?) sharing in the good fortune of the planet in being saved from monsters. I hope there really is such a scene in the film, because I've remembered it fondly for years; does the Jonester also sing at this point? Over the credits?
I just loved it to bits from the moment I saw it, and thought it was clever not only in terms of its script, but as well in the way it poached and used visuals from dozens of other sci-fi films. I always thought too, that it could be used as a training film for the Armed Forces in how to respond to alien invasions. As for politics, the Presidential couple in this flick are not as gleefully brainless as the ones in Being There, but they run a close second.
You are not alone; I too remember seeing it with an audience that hooted and hollered (though it was far from a full house) and had a great time. Personally, I never understood why the film didn't do dynamite box office.
Eddie Holub, 9.08.10:
Hi Glenn, I enjoyed your review of Mars Attacks! and yes, it IS Tim Burton's best film. I laugh all the way through it. How can you criticize martians that are Dukes of Hazard fans? I think what I like best about it is that it doesn't play cute with the animals. They get zapped right along with the humans. And if a bad movie like Alice in Wonderland results in Mars Attacks! being released on Blu-ray.........I say, Hooray for Alice in Wonderland, even though I have no intention of ever watching it again.
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