Readers, Barry Wurst II could not bring you his Looking Back column this week. He said something about the birth of his first child or something like that. I wasn’t really paying attention. But he asked if I could look back at “Mars Attacks!” for you. Fitting choice. See, I was with Barry when we first saw “Mars Attacks!” We watched a double feature that day. The first movie was “Star Trek : First Contact,” a fine example of the sci-fi genre, with a great balance of comedy and tragedy (comically, not as good as “Star Trek : The Voyage Home” but much better dramatically). Picard was playing his best Ahab. Data cracked some jokes. And the Borg. It was a movie that was firing on all cylinders. I could not have been in a better mood. Then we watched “Mars Attacks!”
Barry would probably give you a Keats-like ode to the movie full of nostalgic romanticism. I cannot deliver that same sort of claptrap for this film. When we left the theater that night, Barry asked me what grade I would give the movie. I immediately replied, “F. Oh wait, oh wait…’It’s not unusual to be in love with anyone…’ F Minus, because NOW I have Tom Jones stuck in my head!” I was not old enough to fully appreciate the brilliance of Mr. Jones at this point, it would seem. Getting back to “Mars Attacks!,” perhaps we had it coming as a nation. We had just gobbled up “Independence Day” that summer. That gigantic alien behemoth had so many obvious faults and yet, we chose to ignore them, because it offered us some cotton candy patriotism and yuks from the Fresh Prince. We brought it upon ourselves. After his torrid start with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice” and “Batman,” Burton was on top of Hollywood. “No! Icarus! Not so close!” Then, Burton was removed from the Batman franchise after only two movies (when Warner Brothers decided that it needed to lighten up after the oh so serious darkness that had been Burton’s vision). Getting kicked out of the Batman franchise because you made the Dark Knight too dark is akin to getting kicked out of a heavy metal band for partying too much. Burton turned to “Ed Wood.” It was as if he was saying to Hollywood, “You think I am a bad director? Look at this weirdo.” But Wood got under Burton’s skin. Burton decided to make his own Ed Wood movie. “Plan Nine from Outer Space” was turned into “Plan None from Space Camp.”
“Mars Attacks!” starts with flaming cattle running through the streets and Jack Nicholson, playing President Dale, on TV addressing the American people at home (an homage to Burton’s favorite director, Tim Burton, when he had Nicholson doing the same thing in “Batman”). The movie goes downhill from there. Nicholson stars in not one but two roles, both of which are nails on the chalkboard. Nicholson has been so good for so many decades, but this was a major warning that he just doesn’t fare as well in comedy. And because we didn’t listen, we got “Anger Management” and “The Bucket List.” Again, we deserved it.
The rest of the star-studded cast seems to enjoy playing off their already established personas to try and throw the audience a curve. Unfortunately, everyone is so busy winking at the camera while parodying their usual characters, that they look unbelievably lost in this film. Only Danny De Vito looks comfortable in his skin here. Of course he does. De Vito is always comfortable in his skin, isn’t he? Have you ever known someone who would poke so much fun of their self that, after a while, you knew that they must really be hurting? That is what it feels like watching this film. Burton must have been in pain. So. Much. Pain. For. Us. Luckily, most of the audience will forgive Burton, because they are beating themselves up for paying good money to watch this disaster flick at the movie theater.
Of course, this poor non-critic is kicking himself because, not only did he see the movie in the theater, he just paid to rent the damn thing again, because it wasn’t available on Netflix or Hulu (you would think, with all of the terrible movies that show up on those two services every night when you are sitting on your couch, desperately hoping for something to show up with a smidgen of a three star rating to get you through the cold, dark winter night, that they would just have “Mars Attacks!” running all the time. But no! This idiot had to spend money again). And what would he give it the second time around? An F. Like I said, I like Tom Jones a bit more now than I used to.