In an era of movies based on video game or amusement park rides, perhaps a movie adapted from a set of trading cards from the 60’s may not seem like a bizarre source of subject matter. Although many of the design choices and motifs are pulled directly from the Topps trading cards the movie does bear the mark of Tim Burton’s unique visual style. Being a fan of Tim Burton, I am predisposed to have a bias towards this movie. Is Mars Attacks! kitschy fun, or is it as compelling as a pile of cardboard?
The movie opens in rural Kentucky with a herd of flaming cattle stampeding along a road. This scene sort of sets the tone for the bizarre chaos that is to follow. The movie takes place in a number of real/fictional locations Lockjaw, Kentucky; Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; New York and Perkinsville, Kansas. Each of these locations has a diverse cast of characters and the movie hops from location to location showing the reactions of the characters to the increasingly unfriendly actions of the Martians.
Although it is truly an ensemble cast befitting of the “celebrities getting killed” genre (as labelled by Tim Burton) the movie primarily focuses on Jack Nicolson as President James Dale along with his family and key advisors: First Lady Marsha Dale (Glenn Close), daughter Taffy Dale (Natalie Portman), Press Secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), General Decker (Rod Steiger) and General Casey (Paul Winfield). We are introduced to the set of Washington characters as President Dale discusses with his advisors how to react to the appearance of thousands of gleaming silver flying saucers and his eventual announcement to the Nation. The movie quickly jumps from location to location surveying the reaction of the huge cast of characters to the President’s announcement.
We then shift focus to Perkinsville, Kansas, and the reaction of the Norris Family (Lukas Haas, Jack Black, Sylvia Sydney, Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones and Christina Applegate) to President Dale’s announcement of the presence of the Martians. Their reaction varies from a call to arms, to a sense of wonder and a need to locate a deceased cat.
From there we go to Las Vegas where we are introduced to ex-boxer and casino employee Byron Williams (Jim Brown), hotel developer Art Land (Jack Nicolson), new age aficionado Barbara Land (Annette Bening) , Tom Jones (as himself) and a casino patron (Danny DeVito). There are a heap of additional characters and celebrities making appearances in this movie. The list goes on and on so I won’t go into detail here.
It is not long before the Martians transmit a television broadcast of their own, which leads to a lot of speculation. Particularly, during some of the best scenes in the movie, where the Professor in his pipe smoking smugness extrapolates the brief TV broadcast into a lesson on the Martian’s anatomy and another expert with a recently perfected (?) translating machine gives President Dale and his panel of advisors a glimpse into the Martian psyche. What follows is some silly gibberish to which Brosnan’s character responds by sucking on his pipe and nodding sagely.
The Marians then send coordinates indicating a landing spot out in the desert. It is decided that a “Welcome to Earth” celebration will be held at the landing site. Everything seems to go swimmingly at the celebration until one of the hippy new age multitude releases a dove as a symbol of peace. The Martians quickly turn on the humans and incinerate without remorse until no one is left standing. The characters are left wondering if it was it all just some interstellar cultural misunderstanding or if the Martians are just ultra advanced assholes.
This tends to be a very divisive movie, which, it seems, stems from its sense of humour. If you don’t start to giggle a little just looking at the aliens simply standing there, then this movie is probably not for you. Mars Attacks relies a lot on the fact that the audience will find the juxtaposition of the images and characters alone quite humorous. Although there are a lot of jokes, in many of the scenes just the design or the situation is the punch line. So for those who share Tim Burton’s very specific sense of humour about old sci-fi movies, this movie really works. However, if you don’t share his aesthetic or sense of humour than the movie will quickly grow stale.
The Las Vegas subplot seems to overdo it in terms of zaniness. Jack Nicolson also plays a property developer (Art Land... we see what you did there) who, in one scene where he is pitching his new hotel entertainment complex, sticks out his gut and wiggles around with the same bow legged stance that looks to be picked straight from Beetlejuice. The similarity is just uncanny, I get the feeling this must tap into some deep seated childhood idea of sleaziness that Tim Burton has. In general, some scenes in Mars Attacks! are not played as straight as they should be and it diminishes the comedy. This is particularly apparent in many of the Vegas scenes.
I don’t know what point Burton is trying to make, but there is definitely a religious undercurrent running through the movie. It is not really in your face but it is not particularly subtle either. In the “Welcome to Earth” ceremony a group of nuns and some type of monks can be seen prominently in the bleachers. In another scene Barb Land is offered a choice (visually) between Buddha and Jack Daniels, I think you can guess who she picks. The most obvious religious message is the last stand of ex-boxer Byron. Decked out in pseudo Egyptian garb he takes on the leader of the Martians in hand to hand combat, which he wins but is then overwhelmed by a swarm of Martians. Byron performs these suicidal heroics in order to provide a distraction so that the remainder of the Las Vegas characters can make their escape. As the plane flies by we see Byron lying prone on the ground arms spread with a painted white “X” on the ground beneath him. Crucifixion anyone...? Near the end of the film, with absolutely no explanation of either how he survived or how he managed to get to Washington, we see Byron’s triumphant return to the crumbling remains of his ex-wife’s apartment building. Now maybe it is just the ex- Catholic schoolgirl in me but it this really seems to have an air of resurrection to me. Burton’s inclusion of religion in a movie with chaos and apocalypse may just be a nod to the fact that in times of crisis many will tend to seek solace in religion.
Despite all of the visual storytelling there are some really funny lines in Mars Attacks! for instance, on his way to the “Welcome to Earth” ceremony General Casey (the Colin Powell type character) is on the phone with his wife and says something along the lines of “I told you that if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things are bound to happen”. Comic gold.
I really enjoyed Danny Elfman’s score, which bears at least some resemblance to the score for Ed Wood with its eerie theremin-like warbling. I also really like the use of sound effects in the movie. The way the aliens speak in a sort of squawking that makes them seem perpetually angry to the laser blasts and splatters as the Martians heads explode mimics the era of the original trading cards.
Although the original concept to do the effects using stop motion would have been really cool to see I really like the direction they went with the effects. Rather than trying to try to make the aliens and the vehicles look modern or using top of the line special effects they intentionally favoured cheaper looking effects. The design stays true to the spirit of the source material and the time period that the movie is referencing. It reminds me a lot of what was done with the HD re-release of the original Star Trek series. Creating HD versions of what you feel the effects artists of the time might have had in their imaginations and not letting modern sensibilities intrude. I love seeing glorified CG pie plates sailing around the screen.
Mars Attacks! does have a few actors that Tim Burton had worked with previously, but many of his regular collaborators are absent from this film. That, combined with the somewhat lighter, sillier tone of this movie set it apart from most of his other films. A number of the images are straight off of the Topps cards or perhaps just emulate the feel to such an extent that you feel like you are looking at one of the cards. The design of the Martians is taken straight from the cards but, as far as I can tell, none of the shots are an exact replica. Some come darn close, though. For example, the flaming cows running down a country road at the beginning.
Pam Grier plays Louise Williams, the ex-wife of Byron, who is raising two sons alone in Washington. She creates a fantastically believable character, especially considering the nature of this movie. I would imagine the idea was to throw someone realistic and well rounded to contrast the overall zaniness. Although Pam Grier really nails it, that does not prevent this character from feeling utterly out of place.
Louise Williams’ two sons, Sedrick and Nellvile, personify the age old argument (well at least it is age old to me, my weekly team meetings at work often devolve into a discussion of what skills we poses will be most useful in the event of an apocalypse) that video games will prepare us for one apocalypse or another. This is another one of those jokes that really does not have an actual punch line but if you read into how obviously one-note the characters are and what purpose they serve in the movie it is pretty funny to see this concept literalized.
One of my favourite parts of the movie is the way that the female assassin Martian moves in a way that is so villainous and predatory. It is just utterly hypnotic. The way her gait changes from a gentle swaying glide to a lurking hunchbacked creep when Martin Short’s character turns his back on her is fantastic.
Mars Attacks! did quite poorly at the box office. With the release of Independence Day the same summer, audiences may have been expecting something very different from this movie. That, combined with a poor marketing campaign, likely contributed to its less than stellar performance. Mars Attacks! is not an action movie and not a simple comedy and to sell it as that sets audiences up for a lot of disappointment. The sense of humour is very specific. There is not a widespread familiarity with the cards and there is not a widespread affinity for this cinematic era. Tim Burton often talks about the “anarchistic spirit” of this movie and the original trading cards and I’m sure the detractors of this film feel the pointless anarchy of it all too strongly.
Mars Attacks was one or Warner’s first DVD releases back in 1997, before Warner really got a handle on the format and started cranking out some of the best discs of the day. While a lot of those early releases were eventually reissued in superior versions, Mars Attacks! was never revisited leaving fans to settle with a lacklustre presentation of the film. The video quality on this Blu-ray release isn’t as strong as many newer films, but shows marked improvement over the original release. Fine detail, especially in the contours of the Martian craniums or the scuffs on their helmets, is phenomenal. The primary colours of the 50’s inspired production and costume design really pop off the screen, although the rich reds do exhibit a small amount of bleeding from time to time (especially in the opening credits). The increased resolution makes the cgi Martians look shiny and fake but, since this is an homage to cheesy 50’s sci-fi films, it actually enhances the film instead of detracting from it. This is easily the best Mars Attacks! has ever looked on home video. Fans should be really pleased.
The English DTS-HD 5.1 doesn’t represent as big an upgrade as the video but is still a very good track. Dialogue is always clear with no audible clipping. There is some nice panning of the intentionally cheesy sound effects around the surrounds. The score makes itself known but doesn’t overpower the on-screen action. If there’s any complaint to log, it’s that the low end isn’t as low as it couple be which hinder the audience’s immersion into the film somewhat. Again, not demo material, but fans will be please nonetheless.
The original DVD wasn’t exactly loaded to the brim with special features, but it included a couple of trailers and a music-only track of Danny Elfman’s retro score. None of the features are carried over to this Blu-ray release for no reason I can imagine: the audio and video doesn’t even take up a single layer of the Blu-ray. Elfman and Burton super fans will want to hold on to their DVDs.
I would recommend this movie to Tim Burton fans as not one of his best movies, but certainly one to check out. For those that have a vocal dislike of Tim Burton, this is not the movie that is going to change your minds (maybe Edward Scissorhands or Sweeny Todd would do the trick?). For anyone not in either of those categories, I’d recommend this as good zany fun that is not to be taken too seriously. I hope you share my glee at watching angry little Martians blow things up and kill people in comically ridiculous ways.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I only saw this once (in a theater, when it first came out). I did not like it then, but I will give it another chance someday.
What I really want to see is a movie based on the Dinosaurs Attack! cards from the '80s.
I loved the Dinosaurs Attack! cards. I have a nearly complete set kicking around somewhere. A movie based on them would be awesome, especially if the filmmakers were ballsy enough to go R-rated.
I remember reading an article around the time of the movie's release that mentioned that Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Dinosaurs Attack as part of the Mars Attacks deal. Obviously the film's poor box office returns ended any chance of a Dinosaurs Attack movie.
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