When Martians decide to pay Earth a visit, they didn’t count on the weird and degenerate Earthlings. They thought conquering Earth would be a piece of Martian cake, but stupidity is a force of cosmic significance. All the weight of this movie is put on pulpy SciFi tropes. While thousands of actual flying saucers lift off from Mars, the red planet, with pointy red mountains, Danny Elfman’s music plays eerie singing saws. Whoo000oohh.
It is the kind of comedy that you either appreciate or don’t, though. It is a spoof of generic alien invasion tropes and invasion movies from the 60s. Seeing the fresh, sharp comedy in this, I can’t help but wondering what happened to Tim Burton! The endless list of Johnny Depp vehicles seemed a sign of laziness that drained all his inspiration. Mars Attacks! is a spark of genius compared to the cloying and tedious Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. I wish he would step away from that gothic fairy tale business and inject some freshness in his work.
Everyone plays in this movie. And I mean everyone: Jack Nicholson, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Tom Jones, Christina Applegate and Jim Brown. I guess Tim Burton had a few favors to call, or used his gothic witch powers of persuasion. And with such a large cast, he needs like 20 minutes to introduce everyone, but he succeeds. Especially Jack Nicholson’s sour face as the US president is a fine choice. Every one of the characters has the aura as if they just stepped from a comic book. Their clothes are colorful and their personalities simple and vapid.
Interesting choices for roles are Natalie Portman as the bored President’s daughter, Pierce Brosnan as the charming President’s astronomer and Glenn Close as the stuck-up President’s wife. We also have a wimpy general, a flirty Sarah Jessica Parker as a journalist and Jim Brown dressed up as an Egyptian in Las Vegas. It all converges in Nevada, area 51 no doubt, where the Martians are given a welcoming parade. It doesn’t go as planned.
Highlights are Pierce Brosnan’s scientific lectures, which includes of course an alien autopsy, and the aliens’ attempts at invasion. The caricatures are also very on point, with the politicians too hungry for votes, the scientists arrogant, the military overly aggressive and the press immoral. In between the practical jokes and the tongue-in-cheek speeches, there are moments of friendship and love, the only redeeming qualities of mankind here.
Mars Attacks! is a short film with a brisk pace. It hits the ground running and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is also unique as a film. When have you ever seen a film like this, a big production, with flying saucers like this and a comically huge cast? Iron Sky (2012) came close, Nazis coming back from the moon, but didn’t have the cast and the budget, and Burton’s earlier film Beetlejuice (1988) is similar in tone. The special effects are really dated by now, but it is great fun and one to remember.