Mars Attacks review by The Grim Ringler

No one has ever claimed that Director Tim Burton was a normal guy or a boring director, and if nothing else, you have to give the guy credit – he makes some pretty far out flicks. And while there are some pretty weird movies in his canon, perhaps none are weirder than Mars Attacks, a movie that really shoulda done a lot better than it did. It came out not long after Independence Day came out and aliens destroying the world (hell, movies where the world got knocked around by nature were pretty popular as well then) were all the rage and out of the blue came this – an strange and darkly comic adaptation of a trading card series no one has heard of. Huh? But for me, MA was the culmination of everything I loved in Burton, the humor, the beautiful art direction, the bizarre characters, and dammit, the Martians.

It begins slowly, in a small rural farming community with a rampage of burning cattle set aflame by a mysterious saucer, but before the world knows it it is surrounded by hundreds of small space craft, all seeming to come from our neighboring planet of Mars. Hoping to make contact with the visitors the president sets up a meeting with their ambassador via a very high tech language translator, but when that meeting goes horribly awry and leaves the American soldiers dead and the Martians leaving with some pilfered booty. The presidential war room is all abuzz – on one side is the old fashioned shoot first ask questions later military man that wants to nuke ‘em, and on the other side is a scientist who insists that it was all a big misunderstanding. So the president, always moving to the middle, contacts the Martians and agrees to let their ambassador meet with Congress so it can issue a formal apology for the mistake its people made. Well, you guess it, the aliens show up and, like incorrigible kids, they shoot up the place again. Things go downhill from there when a spy infiltrates the White House via the loose libido of the press secretary and an attempt is made on the president’s life and this time it IS war, though a very short lived one as the nuclear missile that is shot at one of the ships is quickly and quietly rendered pointless, the explosion inhaled later (via a strange sorta pipe) by the Martian leader, whose worst reaction to the nuclear payload is to have a higher pitched voice. And then the invasion is on, the Martians sending their war machines against earth in waves that destroy world landmarks by the dozen, the invaders making sure to stop and take time out for souvenir photos as they destroy the earth. All seems lost though as humanity begins to crumble before the seemingly unstoppable Martian forces, but just as all seems lost there is a dim glimmer of hope in the form of a little old lady, her dunderheaded grandson, and the soulful singing of Slim Whitman. Could this be Man’s greatest weapon against an army of greedy gremlins? Indeed, it could.

Now that I think of it, Mars Attacks is sort of homage to the classic Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove as much as it is to the sci-fi classics from the fifties. Beneath the horrifying idea of a Martian attack and invasion there is a sense of the absurd to the whole affair that I think threw off audiences. At that time we were used to movies that were in histrionics over how awful an alien invasion would be and how Man had no chance, and along comes Mars Attacks, which is a farce, with, aliens gleefully blowing up world-renowned monuments as they pose for pictures before the devastation. The thing I think freaked people out too was that not only were the humans hapless numskulls, but the invading force are almost worse, their behavior no better than that of children acting out, which is a wonderful turn considering the Scientist of the film insists that this race is far superior to Man. Unlike many films of this kind, there is no grand message behind it all, no great meaning, if there is meaning then it’s that sometimes absurdity and chance can be more powerful than any weapon because it isn’t a germ that does in the Martians, or a warhead but the creep-crawly crooning of Slim Whitman. Eek.

The film is the most vibrant and interesting of all of Burton’s work and it would seem that everyone onboard had a good time here because the film just has a good feel to it. The special effects are fantastic and capture the look of the Martians from the Topps card series they were taken from but instead of the sadistic monsters they were in the cards these aliens are nothing more than intergalactic bullies not used to people standing up to them. Hell, it’s never a good sign when the way they beat you is generally through thinly veiled trickery. Sad indeed. The cast is a mixed bag from the classy – Jack Nicholson (who gets to chew scenery here as not one but TWO characters!), and Glenn Close, to the likes of Martin Short and even Pam Grier and Tom Jones. You couldn’t ask for a more eclectic or interesting cast, and they are all pretty good. I mean, this is before Pam had her Tarantino makeover so she is still a ‘B’ queen here, but she works, as does Jones. There are a lot of histrionics here but then that’s the point – no one really knows how to face the Martians, so they scream and run around with their hands up in the air. The hero, naturally, is the simple country bumpkin and his grandmother who stumble upon the only weapon that will defeat the invaders. Burton’s direction is as sure as ever but it’s more his eye for the artistic and for colors which sets this film apart from his other films, the dark, brooding colors that had been his staple are gone, replaced by a brilliant, almost neon color scheme. And as always, Danny Elfman has done a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere for the film, creating a soundscape that is reminiscent of fifties pulp sci-fi movies.

Of all of Tim Burton’s many films this is definitely one of my favorites, second only to Edward Scissorhands. We all know that the man can make dark, modern fairy tales, but to see him cut loose and do something so silly and odd as this is a breath of fresh air. It’s a shame that more people didn’t buy into it when it was in theatrical release but you have a second chance to catch this wonderful little movie. Bigheaded aliens? Got it. Silly presidential schmucks? Got it. Jack Black as a dopey military man? You betcha. Robots? We have a winner. Great movie for Burton fans or fans of old school science fiction. Check it out.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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