Yes, this was the year of Independence Day, but a far more entertaining take on the alien-invasion genre was Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, a sadistically silly spoof that uses a cheesy ray gun to blow away the tropes of science-fiction past.
In 1962 – long before the Garbage Pail Kids – a similarly gruesome series of trading cards called Mars Attacks! depicted a frightful alien assault on Earth. Only the macabre wit of Burton (Beetlejuice) would see this as ripe material for an $80 million film.
In an attempt to give structure to Burton’s imagination, Mars Attacks! screenwriter Jonathan Gems presents a cross-section of America doing battle with an army of devious Martians. The result is a nearly perfect parody of Independence Day and its granddaddy, The War of the Worlds.
In Mars Attacks!, Burton clearly cares more for his big-brained aliens than the earthlings who stand in their way. In the movie’s definitive scene, a spaceship tries to take out a Boy Scout troop using the Washington monument as a weapon. These Martians don’t lay waste to America with one giant blast. Like extraterrestrial Gremlins, they enjoy toying with us first.
Like extraterrestrial Gremlins, these Martians enjoy toying with us first.
Inside those spinning spacecrafts, Burton’s imagination lets loose. Walking around in their underwear, the aliens hatch devilish plans and perform bizarre experiments on kidnapped cows. The movie’s computer animation combines just the right amount of corniness and realism so that the Martians come across as quality kitsch.
Because Burton’s mind is lost in space, the actors are on their own. The cast is packed with big names (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Annette Bening, Pam Grier, Jim Brown), but only a few choice roles. Nicholson’s pompous president, Short’s libidinous press secretary, Steiger’s trigger-happy general and Brosnan’s gullible professor fare best. Others, including Bening’s New Age ditz, DeVito’s obnoxious gambler and Nicholson’s (in a dual role) Las Vegas land developer, are too far over the top.
Mars Attacks! is set in the present, but details like the army’s out-of-date uniforms and Brosnan’s white lab coat give it a ’50s feel (a mood that could have been enhanced if Burton had shot the movie in black and white, as he did with Ed Wood). Such an oddball style makes Burton an acquired taste, but I’d rather have his take on tried-and-true genres than Roland Emmerich’s any day of the week.