Mars Attacks! (1996)


(director: Tim Burton; screenwriter: based on the Topps gum card series Ccreated by Len Brown & Woody Gelman/Jonathan Gems; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Chris Lebenzon; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Jack Nicholson (Art Land/President Dale), Glenn Close (Marsha Dale), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (Donald Kessler), Danny DeVito (Rude Gambler), Jim Brown (Byron Williams), Martin Short (Jerry Ross, Press Secretary), Michael J. Fox (Jason Stone), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Tom Jones (Himself), Sarah Jessica Parker (Nathalie Lake), Natalie Portman (Taffy Dale), Sylvia Sidney (Grandma Norris), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Jack Black (Billy Norris), Rod Steiger (Gen. Decker), Paul Winfield (Gen. Casey), Jerzy Skolimowski (Dr. Zeigler), O-Lan Jones (Sue Ann Norris), Barbet Schroeder (Maurice, the French President), oe Don Baker (Richie’ Norris’s Dad), Brian Haley (Mitch, Secret Service Agent); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Tim Burton/Larry Franco; Warner Brothers; 1996)
“It has a silly juvenile appeal in its unrelenting and subversive camp satire of the pop culture scene.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mars Attacks! is a bad B-film that has become recognized over time as a cult delight. It has some bright spots in its lighthearted comical spoof, but it bombed at the box office yet surprisingly did okay with many of the critics. It’s Tim Burton’s (“Batman”/”Ed Wood”/”Edward Scissorhands”) goofy tongue-in-cheek parody on the B-film sci-fi genre, especially films from the 1950s like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Day the Earth Stood Still; it also skewers the pop culture scene, the army, religion, fashion, the media, politics and almost everything else about contemporary society. It’s a $100 million budgeted film inspired by a set of Topps bubble gum cards and is scripted by Brit playwright Jonathan Gems.

Aluminum flying saucers from Mars circle the Earth and arrangements are made for the rubbery plastic pint-sized biped Martians to be honored when they land in the Nevada desert, as a naive President Dale (Jack Nicholson), more worried about what suit to wear to functions than being good at figuring out strategy, is advised to nuke- ’em-now by right-wing warmongering Gen. Decker (Rod Steiger)–think of him as being like Dr. Strangelove’s general played by George C. Scott. But, will in the end, listen to smug pipe-smoking liberal science professor Donald Kessler’s (Pierce Brosnan) reasoning that because they are superior beings it means they must have come here in peace. After the Prez opts to go for the peace reception the Martians issue broadcasts saying “Don’t run — we are your friends!” but then vaporize by ray gun the envoys there to greet them, including army chief general (Paul Winfield) who is a detente type of general modeled after Colin Powell. Trailer park resident and now gung-ho recruit Billy Glenn Norris (Jack Black) dies as a hero. When the Martians issue a public apology and ask to have their ambassador address Congress, the President approves but the green man incinerates the entire Congress.

It covers many subplots and in three major places–Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Kansas–as America reacts to the attacks in different ways. Sleazy Las Vegas casino promoter Jack Land (Nicholson in a double role) sees the Martian attack as a business opportunity while his New Age alcoholic wife Barbara (Annette Bening) is only concerned with her own trendy spiritual ego trip. Mild-mannered Kansas doughnut clerk and trailer park resident Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) finds it neat and along with his daffy grandma (Sylvia Sidney, she was 86 at the time and this was her last film in a part specially made for her by Burton) save the world by accidently finding out the Martian weakness, but Richie’s redneck mom (O-Lan Jones) reacts negatively to the alien invaders and snarls while wielding a rifle: “I’ll tell you one thing, they’re not getting the TV.” Jim Brown is the ex-heavyweight champ who works in a Las Vegas casino as a greeter and is interested in getting to Washington, D.C. to save his divorced bus driver wife Pam Grier and two young boys. Danny Devito is gambling lawyer who is oblivious of the Martians. The Washington contingent include Martin Short’s sex crazed White House press secretary, the President’s grumpy wife Glenn Close and rebellious daughter Natalie Portman. Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox are a married couple and rival television journalists; she hosts a fashion show and he hosts a news show, but it’s Jessica who helps break the invasion story. She will later be kidnapped aboard the flying saucer along with Pierce Brosnan, and both will be decapitated but still be able to converse only her head will be attached to a Chihuahua. During the invasion the Martians converse by making a yak-yak-yak sound, which is funny in itself.

It has a silly juvenile appeal in its unrelenting and subversive camp satire of the pop culture scene, but is too Ed Wood-like to be taken seriously and not light enough to be totally dismissed. What it does best is entertain and though certainly tacky, self-indulgent, and not as funny as it could have been, it was still far better than most action blockbusters that are merely aimed to be a pleasant passing of time viewing experience and not too taxing on the brain. And that’s exactly what this film manages to accomplish, which it makes it a passable film experience.