This film was loaned to me by my brother, who was surprised I hadn’t seen it yet; since today is his birthday, I thought it would be appropriate to review his selection today. I’ll admit to having had just a small amount of wariness, as this is after all a Tim Burton picture, and I haven’t often been a fan of Burton’s work; however, I figured if anything was tailor-made for Burton’s sensibilities, it’s an over-the-top retro invasion sci-fi comedy.
Mars Attacks! began life as a series of trading cards put out by Topps in the 1960s; after some adults grew concerned about children buying cards with the graphic and violent images, they were cancelled, only to be brought back in the 1990s. In 1996, a movie inspired by the cards and their pulp sci-fi style was released. It was the same year as Independence Day, and though Mars Attacks! was released several months later, it still took a beating in the box office. Part of that may have been due to people seeing the other alien film earlier in the year, and part of it may have been due to Mars Attacks! being a parody/homage to 1950s science fiction. Films with a pulp fiction sensibility (regardless of genre) — such as The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and John Carter — have a tendency to do poorly at the box office and become cult classics at best. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head would be the Indiana Jones series, and that’s at least partly because very few people recognized it as such. Like its pulpy brethren, Mars Attacks! has had more success on home video and cable than at the box office. And watching it, it’s not hard to see why it has held on.
It’s because of the inclusion of Tom Jones, of course.
The film is absolutely loaded with stars. Some of them were already big names, some would become big names later. It’s honestly a little surprising that even Burton (then arguably at the peak of his career) managed to get so many people together. But he got them, and they’re all clearly having fun with their roles. Jack Nicholson is the biggest name, and he plays two roles in the film; it’s one of the rare cases where dual-acting actually works, and it’s probably because his secondary role as Las Vegas hotelier Art Land is his usual Nicholson scenery-chewing performance. His role as the President of the United States is a bit more subdued, with the character more concerned with courting public opinion than in taking precautions against the Martians. His first lady and daughter are played by Glenn Close and Natalie Portman, and the three form a believable, if emotionally distant, family. Advising the President as the Martians make contact are his press secretary (Martin Short), a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) and two generals, one fairly friendly (Paul Winfield) and one warhawk (Rod Steiger). Winfield has the smallest role, but even he gets an amusing moment. Martin Short isn’t let loose quite as much as he could be, but has his moments, and Rod Steiger is a lot of fun to watch especially as he starts arguing with Nicholson — watching two hams go to war is always fun.
It’s even better when Steiger is obviously using Nicholson for inspiration.
Brosnan’s scientist serves as exposition for both the audience and the other characters, going on television to explain what is happening. Of course, it’s hampered by him winding up on Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion show rather than the news program run by Michael J. Fox’s character. Not that he seems to mind; Brosnan’s and Parker’s character strike up a romance, and if their chemistry isn’t all that believable, it doesn’t matter much because we’re too busy laughing at all the other shenanigans.
Besides Washington D.C., the film is also set in Nevada, in and around Las Vegas. Any alien invasion story needs some “common people” elements, and there are three basic threads here. The first is Nicholson’s role as Art Land, and his wife Barbara (Annette Bening), who like many on Earth initially has high hopes upon the the arrival of the Martians. Then there’s boxer-turned-casino entertainer Byron (Jim Brown), who just wants to get home to Washington to his wife (Pam Grier) and two sons (Ray J and Brandon Hammond); Danny DeVito plays a minor role as one of the casino patrons. And finally, there’s Lukas Haas as Richie, a young doughnut shop employee living in the shadow of his brother (Jack Black); the only family member who gives him any respect is his possibly-senile grandmother (Silvia Sidney). All these characters observe the arrival of the Martians and their eventual attack, and their actions are what brings the human element into the plot.
Growing up in Jack Black’s generous shadow would be hard on any young man.
Of course, the real stars are the Martians. Rendered in CGI, and just fake-looking enough to stick out as unnatural (though not as much as Lisa Marie’s role as a Martian-in-disguise), they are designed to look just like their trading card equivalents, and so resemble the weirdest of 1950s alien designs. The huge eyes, the bulging brains with pulsing veins, green skin, bubble-domed spacesuits, and art deco ray guns are all one big throwback in alien design. They don’t speak any comprehensible language, going “ack ack” constantly, and the attempts to use a translator backfire hilariously, with the machine translating their speech as “Don’t run, we are your friends!” as they gun down civilians in the streets. They run rampant over the world, wreaking havoc everywhere they go, killing indiscriminately and in various ways. It’s just over-the-top and cartoony enough to be hilarious instead of grotesque. I won’t spoil the gags for you, but suffice to say that most of the laughs in the film come from these little sociopaths.
I don’t know, they seem trustworthy to me.
And there are laughs. This is a funny little film. It’s weird, and I can see how it wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste, but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re a fan of old school science fiction, or B-movie camp, Mars Attacks! delivers on the lunacy that it promises.