Mars Attacks was originally a popular trading card set released in 1964. However, since it was too gruesome for the fragile minds of the children, showing the various imaginative ways the Martians despatched with the humans in their path, production was rather swiftly halted (nothing’s changed since). Becoming something of a cult icon they slowly reappeared through the 1980’s, culminating in a full re-issue, an exclamation mark, and a big-budget movie directed by Tim Burton, fresh off of directing Ed Wood, chronicling the life of cult (read as: “terrible”) director Edward D. Wood Jr. Though I’ve seen this film a number of times it has been a few years since the last, so I decided to revisit it.
The opening scene, featuring a herd of burning cattle, is the film setting the scene instantly for the rest of the film to follow – it’s pretty nasty but has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The premise is mostly summed up by the title, and the film follows a number of different individuals from the President to a Trailer-Park family to Tom Jones (Yes, Tom Jones, playing himself) as they witness the invasion of earth by the horrid skull-faced, gooey-headed aliens. Telling these various stories allows the film to run along without ever stalling on the action, but also prevents any of the characters from being fully developed. It does seem though that there was never any intention of having them fully-fleshed characters (Indeed, some of them end up without any flesh at all), so it’s out of place to call this out as a weakness. Obviously paying homage to the B-Movies of the 1950’s, including those by Ed Wood, the film takes a joyful stance, watching the destruction and chaos from afar without putting in anything too heavy to bring the mood down.
A brilliant cast was amassed for this film, featuring Jack Nicholson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jack Black, Michael J. Fox, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Pam Greir, Natalie Portman and Jack Nicholson again. After joking that he wanted to play every part in the film, Burton called him on it and cast him not only as the President but as shady businessman Art Land – both roles he plays instinctively brilliantly, while the rest fit into their roles just as well, as they’re mostly playing caricatures of their typecast roles – Sarah Jessica Parker the ditzy blonde, Pierce Brosnan the suave Englishman, Danny DeVito and Jack Black being loud, etc. Tom Jones is inarguably awful, but somehow that adds to the film, especially when he’s given the final scene of the film which is probably the most tongue-in-cheek ending to a film, and as such provides one of the film’s funniest moments for simply coming out of nowhere and making no sense at all. Much like most of the film really; the aliens’ weakness that’s discovered in the third act; Sarah Jessica Parker & Pierce Brosnan’s storyline; the list goes on.
To conclude that this film is “so bad it’s good” would be missing the point of the whole film; this is not intended to be a “good” film, this is meant to be a fun, outrageous throwback film and it achieves that perfectly, with the B-Movie sensibilities carried excellently by Danny Elfman’s brilliant, Theremin-heavy score. Perhaps looking a bit dated now, the extensive CGI effects are nonetheless very impressive for a film that’s almost 20 years old. Not only are the character designs and visuals lifted directly from the source, but the myriad of characters and consistently inventive action/comedy set-pieces does ring true the trading card origins of the franchise. This isn’t often remembered as a Burton classic, but I think it deserves to be.