Mars Attacks! is Tim Burtons homage to the 50’s and 60’s science fiction movies he grew up watching. It’s based on a trading cards set released by the Topps in the 60’s. Mars Attacks! ranks as the biggest financial failure in Burtons career, and it has got pretty mixed reviews all around. However with its top notch cast, over the top performances and quirky humour, it has gained a well earned cult status among fans.
Mars Attacks! continued Burton’s love-affair with Ed Wood. It was his first attempt at wild and crazy comedy since Beetlejuice and while it’s not quite as good as that film it’s certainly not a failure. It certainly deserved more success in America, but at least it did do a lot better in Europe.
The convoluted plot manages to semi-spoof Independence Day (even though MA! was actually written before that film) with it’s alien invaders attacking a culturally broad range of characters across America, led by the President. The opening credits invite us to the sight of ’50’s style flying saucers converging on Earth in a scene that, like the rest of the movie, manages to be awesome and tacky at the same time. The first half-hour is slow, but not too boring. When the aliens finally land, and vaporise everyone present, the film kicks into overdrive and we are treated to hilariously inventive scenes of world-wide destruction, totally unnecessary experiments on human captives and cruelty to animals. The ending is extremely silly, although not as illogical as ID4’s Mac-compatible alien computers.
Visually, this is as good as anything Burton’s done, even if it is deliberately cheesy-looking in places. The Martians (the best thing in the movie) are brilliantly computer animated ‘toons that are surprisingly likeable in their callous mayhem. All we ever hear them say is ‘Ack-ack!’ and the reasons for their invasion is never given. Misunderstanding, hatred of humans – who cares? Compared to them, the humans are so boring and/or obnoxious that they deserve to get fried.
The big stars are mostly wasted in their cardboard parts, though it is fun seeing them killed in a variety of ways. Sensibly, in a Burton film, the eventual heroes who save the world are the outsiders and misfits (and Tom Jones!). Jack Nicholson is good as the President with a fondness for making impassioned speeches. His second role, as a Las Vegas real-estate dealer, is notable only for what seems to be an impression of Beetlejuice. Of the remaining cast, the standouts are Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker (as, respectively, a pompous scientist and dumb reporter who end up in a ‘heady’ romance); Annette Bening, as a hippie chick; Natalie Portman, playing the Winona Ryder role as the President’s daughter; Lisa Marie as an alluring Martian Girl and Lukas Haas as the long-haired misfit who discovers what kills the Martians.
The suitably creepy music marks a welcome return from Danny Elfman, and the script has some good ideas, even if the dialogue isn’t up to much. It’s the visual gags that made me laugh. Like Ed Wood, it’s clear that Burton doesn’t have a clue how to make a normal Hollywood movie (although he does have the benefit of working with better actors and technical people than Wood ever could). Plot and structure are totally unimportant, he’s into visual storytelling, which is what movies are about, after all.
MA! is no ID4, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a shame that it followed in the wake of that overhyped entertainment. As flawed as it is, Mars Attacks! is another shining example of how Burton cannot make a bad movie even if, as here, he tries to. And how can anyone really hate a movie that includes such visual delights as destroying a dog, Martians inhaling a nuclear blast, and the Houses of Parliament being blown to smithereens?
Jack Nicholson as President James Dale & Art Land
Glenn Close as First Lady Marsha Land Annette Bening as Barbara Land
Pierce Brosnan as Professor Donald Kesler Danny De Vito as Rude Gambler
Martin Short as Press Secretary Jerry Ross Sarah Jessica Parker as Natalie Lake
Michael J. Fox as Jason Stone Rod Steiger as General Decker
Tom Jones as Himself Jim Brown as Byron Williams Lukas Haas as Richie Norris
Natalie Portman as Taffy Dale Pam Grier as Louise Williams
Sylvia Sidney as Grandma Florence Norris Jack Black as Billy Glenn Norris
Christina Applegate as Sharona Joe Don Baker as Richie’s Dad
and Lisa Marie as Martian Girl
Featuring Roger L. Jackson as the Translator Device Voice
and Frank Welker as the Martian Vocal Effects voice
Together the cast of Mars Attacks! has gathered 26 Oscar- and 57 Golden Globe nominations! It is one of the greatest All Star casts in the past few centuries. However for many, the real stars of Mars Attacks are the martians themselves. Ack ack!
If you want to experience a fun time leap to the earlier days of internet, visit the original official Mars Attacks! movie page all the way back from 1997.
To talk about the movie, visit our Mars Attacks forum by clicking here
Here is a page with pictures of the original trading cards.
Here are some great Mars Attacks quotes. You can listen to the outlined ones.
Richie Norris: Wow, he just made the international sign of the doughnut.
Gen. Decker: Intellectuals! Liberals! Peacemongers! IDIOTS!
First Lady: I’m not allowing that thing in my house.
President Dale: Sweetie, we may have to. The people expect me to meet with them.
First Lady: Well they’re not going to eat off the Van Buren china.
President Dale: Why can’t we work out our differences? Why can’t we work things out? Little people, why can’t we all just get along?