SEE! Stars that shine across the galaxy. Jack Nicholson (in a dual role), Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito and a dozen more! SHRIEK! At mean, green invaders from the angry red planet! Armed with insta-fry ray guns, endowed with slimy, humungous brains – and enlivened with out-of-this-world but state-of-the-art special effects. GASP! As the U.S. legislature is overwhelmed. (Don’t fear, we still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for us, and that ain’t bad!) THRILL! As Earth fights back with an unexpected weapon. Take that, Martians!
Mars Attacks! 6.75
eyelights: Ack Ack Ack, Ack Ack. the Martians. its absurd concept. its cast. its score.
eyesores: its lack of true laughs. its unsatisfying delivery.
“Don’t run! We are your friends!”
God, if ever there was a wacky idea that should have been an unforgettable silver screen spectacle, it’s the 1996 Tim Burton film ‘Mars Attacks!’. Solely based on a series of out-of-print -and controversial- trading cards from 1962, it envisioned a bloody Martian assault of Earth.
At the time, Burton had been a on a roll: he’d transformed Batman into box office gold, struck a chord with audiences with his ‘Edward Scissorhands‘, made a perennial favourite out of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ and even garnered award nominations with his biopic ‘Ed Wood’.
His quirks were beloved… and profitable.
So, naturally, when the idea to make ‘Mars Attacks’ into a movie was proposed, Burton was given far more latitude with it than any other filmmaker would have. Not as much as he would have wanted -there were budgetary constraints- but he was still able to make his trading cards movie.
A tradings cards movie!
It would become his ‘1941’.
I had high hopes for it, if only because I was a Tim Burton fan (I was an early convert, with ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure!) and I loved the concept. I went to see it on my birthday, in a depressingly empty cinema, feeling pretty low because no one wanted/could come to see it with me.
The experience was a letdown.
It had an incredibly diverse ensemble cast of name actors. It had wacky humour. It had bits of amusing social commentary. It had unforgettable Martian invaders. It had a eye-catching, large-scale destruction. But, for some reason, it didn’t add up to anything especially remarkable.
‘Mars Attacks!’ is lacking in fun. It tries desperately to be, but that’s exactly what it feels like: desperation. The filmmakers wanted to brew zaniness. But no amount of over-the-top performances and transgression can compensate for good writing, good one-liners and good gags.
In all fairness, it couldn’t have been easy making a whole movie out of a trading cards series. I mean, seriously, it’s about as brilliant an idea as making a movie based on a toy or on emojis. Really, it’s a wonder that it wasn’t worse than it ended up being. It is watchable.
And it has some enjoyable moments:
- The sight of the flaming horses stampeding through town was eerie but morbidly funny.
- Danny Elfman’s theramin-tinged score, evoking the sci-fi classics of yesteryear.
- The Martians speaking in an incomprehensible series of “Ack! Ack! Ack!” was a genius idea.
- The fact that the translator would initially spew out gibberish was hilarious.
- Lisa Marie’s robotic performance as the android body of the Martian invader was brilliant. I love how she moves, slow, arms swaying – and clearly on dolly.
- The Martians chasing humans while a translator says “Don’t run, we are your friends!”, was mordantly funny.
- The destruction of The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Taj Mahal, Easter Island, and Mount Rushmore was unusually satisfying (the destruction would have been even more large-scale if Warner Bros. hadn’t limited the production budget).
- The big Martian mecha that picks up two trailers and crashes them together was a hoot.
Plus it features some terrific camp performances from Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker and Annette Benning (hopefully it was intentional!). And Sylvia Sidney is absolutely adorable as Richie’s senile grandma; she’s so sweet you’d eat her up with a spoon.
But it’s funny how much the CGI must have cost for B-movie results; even in 1996, the CGI looked like crap. Puppets probably would have looked crummy, but sets and maquettes would have been better than relying on computer renditions. But I guess that would have cost even more.
It’s also interesting to note that the picture makes liberals and peaceniks seem foolish. It’s a fairly right-winged movie, something you wouldn’t expect from an artiste like Burton. Then again, he’s probably not very political and likely didn’t pay any notice to the script’s political skew.
I also found that the subplot featuring the African-American family seemed like a token addition. I mean, it didn’t really change anything until the end – and even that felt incredibly contrived. You could have cut the whole subplot and just kept the ending and it would have worked.
And sadly, though I adore -adore- the finale’s twist about the Martians being incredibly vulnerable to the sound of Slim Whitman’s country yodle, somehow it falls completely flat. Perhaps it wraps up too quickly; maybe we should have seen the humans fight off the Martians in the end.
In any event, ‘Mars Attacks!’ feels like a big budget B-movie, like something that would have been made in the ’50s, if only they’d had the money and technology. It’s also akin to what ‘Independence Day’ should have been, with its ensemble cast and disaster movie theme.
But it’s a movie based on a trading card series, filled with over-indulgences and offering little substance. Worst of all, it’s just not funny enough. Spielberg fell into the same trap in 1979 with ‘1941’, letting his recent successes get to his head, before making a comeback.
His next picture? None other than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
Sadly, Burton would play it safe for years thereafter; his focus would become established properties and remakes. Oh, sure, there have been exceptions to that rule, but he would rarely again go out on a limb like he did prior to ‘Mars Attacks!. And strangely enough, it worked.
He became an even greater success.
And yet, it was his more personal, offbeat films, that drew attention to him; it’s what made his name. One can only hope that he’ll one day follow his inner artiste again. Granted, ‘Mars Attack!’ wasn’t a success, but it could have been. And at least it’s a unique picture.
Here’s to the Tim Burton of old. May we see him again.
Dates of viewings: June 5-6, 2017