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Looking Back: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Tim Burton’s 1996 sci-fi send-up, “Mars Attacks!,” offered me a humbling example of the sometimes extreme difference between initial audience reaction and overall response to a film. In this case, Burton’s unapologetically weird throwback to 50’s B-movies, presented with a knockout cast and state of the art effects. It was one of the big curiosity items of 1996, as it was coming five months after the blockbuster, “Independence Day” and seen by some as an ironic spoof of Roland Emmerich’s movie.

I was a college freshman and thrilled to discover that a sneak preview of the film was taking place in Denver, a month before its big release. This was the first preview screening I ever attended and I was admitted into a packed theater with film buffs who were, likewise, ecstatic to be among the first to see Burton’s new work. From the opening logo to the fade out, the laughter was consistent and hearty. Certain scenes were so crazy in their violence and fiendish humor, people applauded. I loved it and figured, based on that screening alone, that “Mars Attacks!” was going to be huge.

The movie provided me with a scoop for my college paper, as I had a review up the same weekend as all the big outlets. A telling difference between my review and everyone else’s: no one seemed to share my enthusiasm for the movie, which opened against “Jerry Maguire” and instantly died in theaters. Weeks later, I took my high school buddy, Shea, and my dear college friend Ben (who introduced me to The Beatles’ White Album) and assumed they’d love it like I did. Instead, they both laughed once at the same joke (a now-dated throwaway gag about a transgender reporter). As we walked back to the car, they both only half-joked that they wanted to kill me for making them sit through it.


Last year, I missed a deadline of writing a Looking Back article because my wife was in labor. I was off-island and had no time to sit and write. Ben stepped up and endearingly wrote a “Mars Attacks!” review for my column during my absence. His take on “Mars Attacks!” is great and can be found here (insert url). Yet, twenty years later, I still respectfully disagree with him and seemingly everyone else regarding the film’s merits.

The set-up is simple but stuffed with characters: Scientists discover a fleet of flying saucers who plan to land on Earth. The cheerful, Reagan-esque U.S. President (played with deadpan perfection by Jack Nicholson) welcomes the landmark event. So does a pipe-brandishing scientist (Pierce Brosnan, utterly perfect), a New Age practitioner (a very game Annette Bening), a pop journalist (Sarah Jessica Parker in an underrated turn) and a donut cafe worker (Lukas Haas, never funnier). Despite the warnings of military personnel and a few naysayers, the Martians are greeted warmly…until all hell breaks loose and the green monsters begin zapping humans into charred skeletons.

Some scenes fall flat and its strange to measure up the moments do and do not work. Jack Nicholson’s second role as Las Vegas sleaze-ball Art Land never flies but the played-straight scenes of Pam Grier and Jim Brown, as estranged parents, oddly do. Danny De Vito pops up, doing a variation on his “Romancing The Stone” role and he mostly bombs. Martin Short and Lisa Marie, on the other hand, are perfect as they play out the film’s strange seduction scene (there’s even an exchange of looks from between a fish tank, ala “Romeo + Juliet” from earlier in the year). Glenn Close and Michael J. Fox exit the movie far too early but Rod Steiger is surprisingly hilarious as a violence-ready General. The sight of Tom Jones playing himself doesn’t offer the comic mileage Burton must have hoped for, but the great Sylvia Sidney is hysterically funny as Haas’ seen-it-all, Slim Whitman-loving Grandmother. The entire movie is like this- a collection of hit and miss moments, with actors that are either spot-on or ill-used.


The look of the Martians and the film in general is a faithful reproduction of the Topps bubble gum card series. Although this was made 20 years ago, the visual effects maintain their appropriately cartoonish veneer and the aliens are both awesome and amusingly rendered. Perhaps the greatest contributor behind the camera comes from Danny Elfman’s sensational score, sounding like a sinister circus tune and evoking the weird awe of a 1950’s B-movie.

Burton’s more-is-more-is-more approach suggests he was binge watching “It’s a Mad, Mad,Mad,Mad World,” “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb” and 70’s Irwin Allen epics even more so than “Independence Day.” An old article from Premiere Magazine perfectly summed up the film’s box office failure and reputation in Hollywood; the article stated “Burton cashed in his Batman chips to make the most expensive in-joke ever made.” That comment hits hard but also sums up the appeal of the movie. Yes, it’s an in-joke all right, as Burton’s vision isn’t commercial or even mainstream courting (it’s hard to imagine such a snarky, comically violent spoof becoming a box office hit around Christmas in the first place).


This is the “Edward Scissorhands” director making one of his most self-indulgent, anything-goes and, yes, personal works regarding the playful, carnival funhouse aspects of cinema. If the concept is to make a mostly straight-faced send-up of cheap classics like “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” with the best cast and production values imaginable, then the movie pulls it off. Yes, it lacks Emmerich’s exploding White House, Bill Pullman speech and Will Smith sucker punching an extraterrestrial. However, it makes up for it via the burning cows opener, Nicholson’s climactic speech (which tastelessly cribs from Rodney King), a sequence involving a giant Martian walker, the bit with the “helium balloon,” Jim Brown’s giant fistfight, the scene with The President of France, and the triumphant/tragic final shot. “Mars Attacks!” is kind of insane, which is the best and worst thing about it.



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