You can always tell when something is a Tim Burton film – his touch is unmistakable. And yet at the same time no two of his films are alike, as he flits from black comedy (Beetlejuice) to Hammer-esque horror (Sleepy Hollow) and from fantastic drama (Big Fish) to stop-motion animations (Corpse Bride) and musicals (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Big studios try to harness him, but for every triumphant Batman they’re just as likely to get a terrible flop (the Planet of the Apes reboot.)
Even so, Mars Attacks! is one of the odder contributions to Burton’s canon of work. It appeared in the same year as the summer blockbuster Independence Day (aka ID4); in many ways Mars Attacks! is a spoof of ID4 and many 50s and 60s alien invasion B-movies in the same way Airplane! brilliantly spoofs the Airport films, and Scary Movie less successfully takes pot shots at horror films like the Scream oeuvre. But in fact, Mars Attacks! is more accurately a case of bringing a classic 1960s American science fiction trading card game from Topps to the big screen.
Like many such spoof films, it’s very hit and miss. Some people will love it, some will hate it; many will just be confused and baffled by it. If you can get on its wavelength then it could well become one of your guilty pleasure films than can be watched time and again simply because there is so much happening in almost every frame that it rewards repeating viewings. I’ll be honest – after my first viewing I started off not liking it and just found it left me cold, but now I’m in that latter category and seem to re-watch and enjoy it once or twice every year, a very unusual thing for me.
Mars Attacks! boasts a stellar cast, at sometimes inexplicably so. Danny de Vito pops up in a small role as a Vegas gambler only to be vaporised by the Martians when they invade; Tom Jones pops up toward the end to sing “It’s not unusual” and ends up being one of the “stars” in the end scenes despite hardly having featured; conversely Michael J Fox and Jack Black appear early on only to be early victims of the Martian’s ray guns. It’s all a bit hyperactive, as though Tim Burton burst into a cinematic sweetshop, scooped up all the actors and plots and FX that he could, and then legged it before the shopkeeper could stop him – and then had to make a film from all the candy that he had got away with.
But Burton’s one of the few filmmakers who could take such a disastrous hyperactive set-up and make it work. The Martians themselves (CGI creations, and yet still delightfully effective 15 years later) are wonderful, all the better for chattering away in Martian-ese and only occasionally being translated into English; their facsimile prostitute (played by Lisa Marie Smith) picked up by sex addict White House press secretary Martin Short is inspired, both stunningly beautifully and weirdly wrong and creepy all at the same time. The scene where the first contact in Pahrump, Nevada goes disastrously wrong thanks to a dove is a highlight, eclipsed only by a “second contact” moment that wipes out the whole US Congress before the invasion really gets underway, commencing with the Martians getting “pressed” into their war suits like plastic toys getting manufactured by being pressed by moulds.
Burton’s also the only director who can put Jack Nicholson in a film and make me … not mind. I hate Nicholson in films with a passion, with only two exceptions: his portrayal of the Joker in Batman (which is still a fantastic definitive portrayal of the comic book figure, with all due respect for Heath Ledger’s inspired and very different interpretation in The Dark Knight) and also his roles in Mars Attacks! – he plays both President James Dale and Vegas entrepreneur Art Land and is great in both. How Burton manages to make Nicholson so palatable to me is a mystery and a genuine small triumph.
Other actors include a young Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan (as a wonderful 50s-style pipe-smoking scientist), Sarah Jessica Parker (inspired as a fashion reporter whose empty head ends up transplanted onto a chihuahua), Glenn Close, Pam Grier, film legend Sylvia Sidney (delightful as an out-of-it grandma devoted to the classics of Slim Whitman), Rod Steiger and Paul Winfield (brilliant as petty bickering US Army Generals) and many, many more.
It’s a mad film. It’s inspired at times, and genuinely enjoyable, but it’s also uneven and imperfect. But I’ll happily keep re-watching it until the flaming cows stampede their way home (you’ll have to see the start of the film to understand that reference.)
It’s not had much love in its home cinema life – one pretty barebones DVD in 1999 and now finally a totally extras-free, non-remastered Blu-ray disc in 2011. However the Blu-ray is unexpectedly good given the palpable neglect, with the colours really popping and the extra sharper edge on key details really making this cartoon-esque film look really good, even if the quality is a little erratic (not unlike the film itself): sometimes details that should be sharp (like hair) suddenly become a rather blurry mess. It’s certainly an improvement on the mediocre DVD, though, and well worth adding to your collection.