Tim Burton used to be cool. Maybe he still is, I don’t know, I don’t have that data. But before he committed himself to decades of colorfully lifeless reboots and Disney films (and colorfully lifeless reboots of Disney films), he used to make some pretty wild shit. Seriously, the early filmography of Tim Burton stands against that of any director in history – it’s tough to beat a lineup like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Ed Wood. (Yes, I know Henry Selick directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, but there’s no universe in which you don’t include that movie in Burton’s filmography.) And he capped off this incredible run with the joyously corrosive Mars Attacks!, a tribute to atomic-era science fiction movies featuring a delicious mean streak of wanton destruction. It’s the closest Burton ever got to being punk rock, which is appropriate, considering the film is based on a series of trading cards explicitly designed to upset your parents.
Mars Attacks! hit theaters in December of 1996, just six months after another alien invasion movie, Independence Day, became the second biggest film of all time and made an international superstar out of Will Smith. Independence Day is a perfect Hollywood blockbuster, featuring classically attractive heroes joining together to defeat an overwhelming force of pure evil over a series of multi-million-dollar action sequences. Mars Attacks!, on the other hand, is an anti-blockbuster, featuring an ensemble cast of mostly unlikeable characters getting brutally murdered by an invading force of absurdist aliens who are less “pure evil” than they are “just a bunch of dickheads.” It’s the most rebellious studio movie Tim Burton has ever made, with the possible exception of Dumbo, which features Colin Farrell literally shoveling elephant shit at the behest of clear Walt Disney analogue Michael Keaton.
Mars Attacks! is essentially a gigantic middle finger to the entire concept of blockbuster movies, with the aliens blasting virtually every recognizable star into flesh dust until they are unceremoniously defeated by a Slim Whitman song after precisely zero thrilling action sequences. Part of the reason behind the lack of any real action or a traditionally heroic climax is because the film had a (relatively) small budget, but the vast majority of it is by design – Mars Attacks! continuously punishes the audience for expecting anything but the worst, most embarrassing thing to happen to its human characters at any given moment. It’s a series of catastrophic failures culminating in an accidental victory for Planet Earth. The movie is black comic chaos from start to finish, and unfortunately, nobody in 1996 wanted to see that shit. It was considered a financial and critical failure, and Burton has taken very few chances from that point on. (He’s made several good films since then, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve all been extremely “safe” for his brand and fanbase.) But Mars Attacks! deserves to be celebrated, not just for casting Tom Jones as one of the saviors of humanity, but for being a sharp, venomous satire of blockbuster filmmaking and American jingoism in a decade when very few people were interested in hearing that kind of criticism.
The plot is extremely simple – an army of invaders from Mars arrive on Earth and proceed to conquer it through hilarious violence, including assassinating the president with a novelty hand gag and laboriously wheeling a 10-foot death ray directly up to the back of an extremely old woman’s head. Said old woman’s grandson, Lukas Haas, discovers in that very moment that listening to the wailing croons of Slim Whitman causes the Martian’s heads to explode, and the invaders are defeated in just as inglorious a manner as the Earth was sacked. Along the way we meet over a dozen different characters, including Jack Nicholson as both the president and a sleazy Las Vegas grifter, Glenn Close as the First Lady, and Natalie Portman as the president’s daughter, who is inexplicably named Taffy. The absolutely unbelievable cast also includes Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Danny DeVito, Rod Steiger, Christina Applegate, and a pre-fame Jack Black. And roughly 90% majority of these stars get murked in extremely humiliating fashion within two or three scenes of appearing. The heroes of the film end up being a dirt-poor teenager and his senile grandma, a moony New Age lady, and a working-class family of four (and, I cannot stress this enough, Tom Jones).
The primary dynamic of the movie is that everyone in a position of power or esteem is a complete buffoon, and they are simply not prepared to deal with the Martians, who don’t want anything but Anarchy in the UK. Brosnan’s scientist character is convinced the aliens must be morally upright and intellectually sophisticated to have mastered such incredible technology, only to watch them put a chihuahua’s head on Parker’s body for intergalactic shits and giggles. President Jack Nicholson and the rest of the world’s leaders believe they must be able to reach some kind of peaceful solution by reasoning with the Martians as one advanced society to another, despite the fact that the Martians keep turning every diplomatic meeting into a gonzo shooting gallery. And the military does a lot of proud, angry posturing, but is easily crushed after either revealing its complete inadequacy (General Rod Steiger gets shrunk down to the size of a mouse and stepped on) or paper tiger cowardice (Jack Black’s gun falls apart and he immediately surrenders, only to be death-rayed into powdery bones). The characters who survive are the ones who gave up trying to defend institutions like the government or the Vegas casino where they worked in favor of rescuing their friends and loved ones.
The Martians, on the other hand, are kindred spirits with Joe Dante’s Gremlins – devious little shits whose only goal is to wreak havoc in the funniest way possible in any given situation. The Martians are in on the joke, hacking away at a cast of characters born in an opposing version of 1950s cinema in which the all-American good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. They’re also hacking away at the audience, because they know we’re operating on the same wavelength as the film’s human cast. We’re expecting Mars Attacks! to play out like Independence Day, when in actuality it’s playing out like Burn After Reading or Dr. Strangelove.
It’s gleefully nihilistic in a way that big budget studio films never get to be; Mars Attacks! is the equivalent of getting on stage at Carnegie Hall and melting your Steinway with a flamethrower. The film is essentially showing us what it would be like to be enslaved by the dudes from Jackass. It’s impish, chaotic, nihilistic sense of humor was completely against the grain for a major studio blockbuster in the mid-90s, and it kind of still is to this day. Mars Attacks! is an exercise in the gleefully macabre, like a Misfits album, or the infamous pulp sci-fi trading card set on which the movie is based.
In many ways, Mars Attacks! was an obvious film for Burton to make. He’d just done Ed Wood, a biopic about the infamous B-movie director responsible for such beloved turds as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster, and Mars Attacks! is a perfect tribute to the drive-in sci-fi horror films of Wood’s era, laced throughout with the guerilla anarchy of Wood’s filmmaking spirit. Burton’s movie feels like it was thrown together by cynical maniacs, with the end result being something like how I imagine a John Waters movie would be if anyone ever dared to give him a $70 million budget.
A Mars Attacks! movie had been in the works since the 1980s, spearheaded by playwright Jonathan Gems, who wrote several drafts of Burton’s film and ultimately wound up with the sole writing credit. (Interestingly, Gems has written a number of unproduced screenplays for Burton, including the infamous Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, which has become the stuff of Hollywood legend.) And maybe Burton should’ve let the project stay in the oven for another decade or two, in a world where movies like Deadpool 2 can wage frenzied war on its audience for being fans of superhero films and still bring in nearly $1 billion. I can’t quite say that Mars Attacks! would’ve been a bigger success had it come out today instead of in the winter of 1996, but I’m pretty confident it would’ve been much better received. It’s one of the most mean-spirited movies I’ve ever seen, but it’s mean-spirited in exactly the right way, all but bullying its audience by subverting nearly every mainstream blockbuster trope and rubbing our faces in it along the way. Mars Attacks! perfectly embraces the tone and spirit of the trading card set upon which it is based – juvenile rebellion dressed up in a sci-fi horror costume. It’s a kid wishing for a monster invasion so they don’t get in trouble for not doing their homework, and the fact that Warner Bros. gave Tim Burton millions of dollars and an A-list cast to make that wish come true will never not be fascinating to me.
Plus, she tells us the cool thing Liam Neeson did for her while making ‘The Marksman.’
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