MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Dark Comedy Sci-Fi/ Stars: Jack Nicholson, Jack Nicholson (not a typo), Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones (yes the singer), Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Christina Applegate, Joe Don Baker, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Jack Black, Brian Haley, O-Lan Jones, Jerzy Skolimowski, Ray J, Brandon Hammond; Voice of: Frank Welker/Runtime: 106 minutes
In the long-gone year that was 1996, a pair of films came to theaters that, although different in many respects, both dealt with the common theme of mankind struggling to survive in the face of an invasion by a hostile extraterrestrial force. One was a riveting, gung-ho style popcorn film with an all-star cast including Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Randy Quaid, and Bill Pullman that had a marketing campaign which included the destruction of the White House and also an inspiring speech in the film that is still quite emotional to hear every 4th of July if not every time you elect to sit down and watch the movie. The other…..was Mars Attacks! Indeed it’s possible that you have no doubt heard about this slice of cinematic pie as not only was it a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, but because is it seen as both an early low-point in the career of its iconic film helmer Tim Burton, and as sort of a head-scratcher due to how many clearly talented thespians this happens to be something that pops up on their resumes. Yet as with other movies of a similar ilk, we have seen the passage of time actually prove to be in this film’s favor rather than a further detriment against it. Indeed I feel it should be said: I don’t think this film is even remotely perfect or for that matter a genuinely great film. I do however feel that this, when looked at from a certain angle, a slice of cinematic pie that does happen to be just a delightfully stupid and fun little film that in certain respects might not be as bad as people back in 1996 seemed to think it was. Thus I think I can safely say that even though this distinct slice of cinematic pie is not likely to make the highlight reel for either Burton or the extraordinary cast that he got to join him on this otherworldly ride despite them all turning in surprisingly decent performances, it still does nevertheless offer up a degree of cheesy and over the top fun that a lot of movies of a similar ilk should definitely learn to employ.
The plot is as follows: Taking place in what is assumedly an alternate version of 1996 and revolving around a group of different storylines, our story begins as the President of the United States receives word from one of his top scientific advisors that a series of images from the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed a giant group of flying saucers have encircled the globe. To that end, the President decides to let the American people know the exciting news due to being advised that because the Martians are so advanced technologically that must automatically make them a peaceful and friendly people (because that logic totally makes sense). Yet this news soon finds itself being upstaged courtesy of broadcasts across the planet being disrupted by no less than the Martian Ambassador who, in his own distinct way, makes clear that he wishes to land at a specified spot and make that proverbial thing known as first contact with mankind. Things soon take a turn though when, during this supposedly peaceful summit out in the middle of the Nevada desert between a high-ranking U.S. military liaison being backed up by a section of the military, a section of the public and press, and the Martian Ambassador and a group of Martians, the Martians decide to inexplicably start firing on everyone there. Thus, with the world now quickly and rapidly starting to fall into a state of Martian-induced chaos the questions start forming: are they really as peaceful as we would like to naively think they are and if not then who or what if anything can stop them from killing us all?
Now before anything else I think it is safe to say that the slice of cinematic pie that is Mars Attacks! is more often than not an example of putting more of an emphasis on style over narrative which also might explain why Burton seems all over the place in every facet possible from the special effects to the phenomenal cast he managed to sign on the dotted line and get to play in this distinct sandbox. Suffice it to say then that Lucifer is not to be found in the intricacies of this film. Instead he can be found in the cast of characters, a lot of whom incidentally might find themselves on the Martian Chopping Block before this is all over. Indeed we get Jack Nicholson grinning and slightly clueless as the President whilst also pulling double duty as a real estate tycoon in Vegas who decides to try and take advantage of the Martian invasion for his own benefit. We also get Glenn Close as the delightfully vain and snooty First Lady, Natalie Portman as their daughter who is way more down to Earth and insightful than both of them put together, Martin Short as the White House Press Secretary who is willing to bed just about anything with a skirt, Rod Steiger playing a general that would’ve been best friends with George C. Scott’s from Dr. Strangelove, Paul Winfield playing Colin Powell (or at least that’s what I think Burton was aiming for there), and Pierce Brosnan (with a magnificently stemmed pipe) is the snooty science professor who is deadset on showing that the aliens aren’t the enemy; rather they’re just tragically misunderstood intellectuals who want nothing more than peace. Oh….is that not enough Hollywood power players for you? Fear not! This movie also has Sarah Jessica Parker as a flirty talk show hostess, Michael J. Fox as her vain and highly ambitious anchor boyfriend, Annette Bening as Nicholson’s 2nd character’s flaky hippie wife, Danny DeVito reprising his father role from Matilda (I think), Jim Brown playing a version of Jim Brown that converted to Islam, but who can still throw a mean right hook, Lukas Haas as a decent and kind backwoods kinda guy, Pam Grier as the ex-wife of Jim Brown’s character who still has a thing for him, Lisa Marie as an alluring woman with a secret or 2, and singing icon Tom Jones as…..himself apparently. If that isn’t enough for you however we also get early roles from Jack Black and Christina Applegate, the last on screen performance from Beetlejuice’s Sylvia Sydney, and a few others to fill out the cast. Suffice it to say then that for all the flaws this slice of cinematic pie has one thing it most assuredly does not manage to come up short on is talent willing to participate in this madness.
I mean had this slice of cinematic pie been delayed even a year after Independence Day, then I think a lot more people would have been able to appreciate Burton’s utilization of a massive, willing to lay it all on the line, Irwin Allen-size cast as well as an overwhelming amount of subplots that are both delightfully absurd and which go absolutely nowhere. Unfortunately, a lot of the things that are similar between this pair of movies isn’t the result of on the money parody and ridicule, but downright coincidence instead. As such, we see that Burton chooses to stretch out the narrative so much that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that all he did was take this film’s screenplay, start filming whatever insanity the cast came up with, and then passed it on to the special effects team to see what they could make of it. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: 50s-level effects work and improve are the name of the game in this film and as such the final product is as odd and head scratching as you might suspect. Yes there is a method to this particular insanity, method that in all fairness will perhaps be a bit more clear to those weaned on ’50s sci-fi schlock to say nothing of 70s Irwin Allen disaster fodder, but ultimately the repeatedly pushed equally goofy and stupid comedy, surface-level satire, and sink hole of a narrative might be a bit much for the vast majority of viewers to handle. Thankfully the exclamation point in the title manages to make itself known in this film in a big way. This is because Burton and his creative team manage to find intriguing ways to utilize every cheesy schtick they have access to and as such give us an oddly enjoyable ode to a lot of the schlockiest stereotypes in science fiction. Indeed contained within we see Burton unleash upon us flying saucers that can’t even fly straight, red and green skeletons, costumes that are a bit loony, dialogue that is cheesy to the hilt, shenanigans that almost feel better suited to a 3 Stooges short, and a caravan of sight comedy with a degree of engaging and reckless abandon to the point that I would not be surprised if there was a cut where you could hear Burton and his cronies laughing their butts off behind the camera at the sheer lunacy of it all.
Suffice it to say that there is comedy to be found here for those who permit this film’s lunacy to operate on the level that Burton is hoping it will. Indeed even in the face of all of this absurdity, it should be said that this slice of cinematic pie’s cast actually is quite funny and they all manage to provide 110% in making Burton’s sci-fi fever dream a reality. I mean there are moments in this that will leave you chuckling, there are moments that are hilarious, and there are moments that by the time you reach them you might find yourself not able to keep in how oddly enthusiastic you are for this slice of cinematic pie. In fact, every time a character was bumped off in a manner that was perhaps the most over the top way possible I cannot lie to you dear reader: I actually in a silly yet sinister manner approved. Make no mistake: this slice of cinematic pie might not be intelligent or pitch black enough to be the next Dr. Strangelove or as on point to be the next Airplane or Naked Gun. At the same time though, if you are able to look at this as a true oddball genre soup, you will find that this film is able to give you, the viewer enough delightful A-list shenanigans and B-list clichés to warrant giving this movie at the very least a chance to show you just what it can do.
All in all I think it is safe to say that darn near every legendary filmmaker has had one or 2 so-called stumbling blocks that, in some instances, when looked back on after their initial release might not have been as bad as critics and general movie going audiences thought at the time. Spielberg has loony war comedy 1941, George Lucas has Attack of the Clones (thank God for Christopher Lee and a few other ingredients), Terrence Malick has a whole filmography that is NOT named Badlands or The Thin Red Line, and Tim Burton has Mars Attacks! (Oh and the 2019 Dumbo, but that’s another story). Yet, as stated earlier in this paragraph, time has in its own weird, unusually quirky manner been kind to this slice of cinematic pie and found it an audience that has managed to embrace it flaws and all and see it as a delightfully quirky throwback. Not only to such goofy sci-fi fare from the 50s like “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” or “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, but also to the surprisingly star-studded casts that could be found in Irwin Allen’s filmography of hilariously disastrous disaster epics like The Swarm from 1978. Suffice it to say that this might not be a perfect movie by any stretch, however remote, of the imagination, but it is at the very least fairly well-made and performed fairly well by an extremely talented and quite lengthy cast who all are already in on the joke and know this won’t be the film that gets them awards or critical acclaim. Rather, they’re just making it because they want to have a fun time making a movie. Thus if you go into it with the same attitude as its cast you will find something to enjoy. If however you go into this looking for a masterpiece of cinema then ack ack ack ack ack to you! Make of that what you will…..on a scale of 1-5 I give Mars Attacks! “96” a solid 3 out of 5.