Mars Attacks! is a misunderstood 1996 science fiction film that was overshadowed by the release of the similarly structured but far more successful Independence Day in the same year (Mars Attacks! only made $101.37m dollars off a $100m budget). It’s been described by its director Tim Burton, who was unaware during the film’s production of the similarity between the two projects, as a “MAD Magazine version of Independence Day.” Despite the lukewarm reception and poor box office return, the film has since developed a strong following on the cult movie circuit.
Based on surely one of the strangest source materials for a film idea, a series of Topps trading cards from the 1950s, Mars Attacks! follows an ensemble cast of 23 big name actors, aping the casting style of Irwin Allen’s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Some of these names include Jack Nicholson as both the President and a Las Vegas property tycoon, Glenn Close as the First Lady, Natalie Portman as their daughter, Annette Bening as the tycoon’s wife, Jack Black as a young soldier, Pierce Brosnan as a celebrity scientist, Danny DeVito as an uncouth gambler, Martin Short as a sleazy presidential press secretary, Rod Steiger as a trigger-happy general, Sarah Jessica Parker as a ditzy talk show host, Pam Grier as a bus-driving single mother, Christina Applegate as Jack Black’s girlfriend, Tom Jones as himself, and Michael J. Fox as a news reporter in a role that was shockingly turned down by, of all people, Johnny Depp.
The fairly straightforward narrative (which in its early stages bizarrely had contributions from Martin Amis, none of which made it to the final cut according to him) revolves around this assortment of characters attempting to survive an attack on Earth by a vast army of cackling Martians armed with powerful disintegration rays and massive bulbous brains. A frequent complaint concerning the film is that very few of the numerous characters are actually likeable, or leave a lasting impression. This is true, to some degree, though it’s not that they’re wholly unlikeable – rather that it’s a difficult task to give any individual characters in a cast that large enough screen time to allow the audience to develop and connect with them. Maybe screenwriter Jonathan Gems should have cut down even further from his original vision of a whopping 60 characters…
Mars Attacks! had its critics. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times claimed that “it is all 1990s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that Independence Day takes seriously,” with Roger Ebert going so far as to say that “the makers felt superior to the material”. Loathe as I am to disagree with the late, great and consistently on-point Roger Ebert, he didn’t like Die Hard, which proves that nobody nails it 100% of the time. These critics seem to miss the point of the film somewhat. It isn’t a scathing, cynical satire of ’50s B-movies, it’s much more a loving pastiche, sending up many of the tropes established in the films of schlocky sci-fi directors of the time such as the notoriously inept Ed Wood. The fact that Burton’s previous film before Mars Attacks! was actually a tender biopic of Wood himself should have made his opinion of such films abundantly clear.
Originally Burton wanted to use stop motion to animate the Martians, as a tribute to the classic Ray Harryhausen works such as Jason and the Argonauts. Hoping to achieve a look that was intentionally as cheap and fake-looking as possible, he hired veteran animator Barry Purves to develop such a style, but due to budget constraints all of Purves’ work was abandoned in favour of increasingly cost-effective computer animation. Whilst this style has admittedly dated far quicker than high-quality traditional stop motion potentially could have, the Martians still retain a quirky charm, almost like a modern take on cheap-looking aliens from the ’50s, unintentionally or otherwise. Once again, it’s something that could quite easily work against the film in the eyes of someone misconstruing the intentions of the director.
Whilst Mars Attacks! isn’t perfect, it is far from deserving of its broadly negative public perception, nor of the often cutting reviews it received on release. Todd McCarthy of Variety was much closer to the mark when he described the film as a cult sci-fi comedy miscast as an elaborate, all-star studio extravaganza’. If you take it for what it is, it’s a more than enjoyable, silly but loving homage to microbudget 1950s sci-fi movies that knows exactly what it’s doing. Anyway, how can a film that features a blaster-toting Tom Jones, and abruptly draws to a close when it’s discovered Martians’ heads explode upon exposure to Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call’ (a surreal tribute to The War Of The Worlds), possibly be interpreted as taking itself seriously? Give it a second chance and surrender yourself to its camp silliness, or prepare to be vaporised. Ack ack ack ack!