Junkfood Cinema: Mars Attacks!

By  · Published on January 15th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; home of the Whopper. Actually no, but every week I dive head-first into the quadruple celluloid cheeseburgers that we all love despite the crippling heart burn that results. Often the most rewarding thing about writing this column is the opportunity I am often provided to lambaste, lovingly of course, films by directors whose cannon is otherwise comprised of some truly great films. I got to do this last week with Mario Bava and with John Carpenter when we covered They Live. To me it’s refreshing; a sign that you don’t have to be an unknown to make bad films. Obviously I still love these filmmakers and, let’s be honest, I even love the films I mock. But sometimes even a hero fails to clear tall buildings in a single bound. In an effort to further level the playing field of schlock, today I am taking on Tim Burton and his 90’s sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks!

Do I really need to explain the plot of this film? If so, you need only adjust the resolution on your monitor or wipe that French-fry grease stain off your iPhone and take another look at the title! It’s the most self-evident title since The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (real movie). And I didn’t think any film would stop it until I was working at Blockbuster and someone brought Snakes on a Plane to the counter inquiring as to what it was about. Sufficed to say, some shite goes down and interplanetary war ensues.

What Makes It Bad?

Something remarkable about Mars Attacks!is that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 647 high profile actors in it. This film is positively bursting at the seems with movie stars and it would take me an entire paragraph just to list them all. An abridged list would look something like this: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Natalie Portman, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Annette Bening, Jack Black, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Danny DeVito, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Rod Steiger, and Tom Jones. Jack Nicholson actually plays two characters in the film: the president and a seedy Vegas land developer. So apparently they ran through every working actor in Hollywood and had to double up to finish casting.

The problem is that not one of the actors are used well. It’s almost as if Burton was playing a gag on Hollywood by monopolizing all these actors so other studios couldn’t use them and then forcing them to playing characters that, more often than not, do nothing but mug for the camera and then suffer a gruesome death. The paradox I feel Burton runs into here is that he is parodying the science-fiction films of the 1950’s but none of the actors seem cognizant of the lampoon. So what we have is an abundance of ego with a tinge of self-mockery but no real dedication to the concept. Even Pierce Brosnan, whose scientist character is plucked right out of a Bert I. Gordon crapsterpiece, is more interested in being smarmy and flirting with Sarah Jessica Parker than playing to the conceit of the film. It’s a damn shame because it could have been something incredibly Zucker-esque.

Mars Attacks! is vicious. To say that it revels in the chance to be cruel is to say that Tim Burton is not typically the biggest fan of primary colors. I mean, this thing is truly tasteless. At any given point during the film, the aliens disintegrate the elderly, the disabled, dogs, birds, and entire boy scout troops. How many sci-fi films feature aliens on a kill spree in a nursing home? Not only that, but any given celebrity in the film will inevitably be subjected to the worst possible death imaginable. The first lady is crushed by a fucking chandelier for Harryhausen’s sake! And Rod Steiger is shrunken down and squished under an alien’s boot while reciting a speech from Winston Churchill. Ouch! But what can you expect from a film based on a goddamned trading card series?!

Why I Love It!

While the actors may not appear to be in on the joke, I love the way Burton mocks the sci-fi of the 1950’s. I don’t know that there is a convention of the genre that goes untouched. I love the shot of the UFO blasting the Washington Monument (a la Earth vs. The Flying Saucers) and then pushing the toppling landmark from side to side to ensure maximum carnage. There is also the communication device that the Earthlings construct with the full confidence that it will work. How many of these films, modern and classic, involve some sort of questionable science utilized to establish communication with the aliens? This of course blows up in our faces in Mars Attacks! as the device translates the falsetto barking of the visitors as, “we are your friends,” even as they are blasting cities all to hell. The aliens carry it around laughing as they are fricasseeing people. Also, keep an eye for the obligatory nuclear response from Earth and how the Martians deter it. Fantastic!

**Spoiler Alert** Also the president dies! In every sci-fi movie I have ever seen, even modern entries, if nothing else you can depend on the leader of the free world surviving. It’s almost a necessity to perpetuate hope for the entire human race even in the face of annihilation. But Burton turns that tired, predictable story device on its ear by killing the president after he makes an impassioned speech to the Martian leader. It may have been a mark against it as far as most movie-goers are concerned, but I absolutely love that nothing is sacred in this movie. They take Sarah Jessica Parker’s head and attach it to a freaking dog for crying out loud. Only a director who is very much respected by his actors could get away with that kind of absurd irreverence. The montage of landmarks being destroyed is clearly a ribbing of Independence Day and I love that the Martians are making a mockery out of the whole process; bowling over the Easter Island heads and taking a group photo in front of the ruins of the Taj Mahal.

I love the number of cult film legends that stand alongside mainstream stars in Mars Attacks!. I mentioned Pam Grier, but the film also features Jim Brown and Joe Don Baker. Brown and Grier are two of the heaviest hitters in blaxploitation (a genre I absolutely love so expect future column entries to that end) and star in some of my absolute favorite titles. Baker is the star of Walking Tall, a great cult film, and later would drift aimlessly through the B-movie landscape; some of those films being so bad I’d actually downgrade them to C-movie. There is literally a scene where Jim Brown fist-fights an alien in a space suit and cracks its helmet. How awesome sauce is that?! I love that Grier is cast out of type as the tough-as-nails single mom; she knocks it out of the park. And the casting of Baker as a trailer trash redneck somehow works; debonair man-of-the-world though he may be.

Mars Attacks!, for all its supposed flaws, is still very much a Tim Burton film. We are therefore still treated to some really creative, fantastical visual work but the interesting thing about Mars Attacks! is that the quintessential Burton visuals are set against a starkly commonplace backdrop. Typically Burton not only constructs a unique aesthetic for the characters in his films, but the entire world in which they reside seems born of his troublingly dark subconscious. You don’t see too many Tim Burton films set in very contemporary, very ordinary worlds in which 90% of the characters are regular people. The closest he came was with Beetlejuice being set in an average town, but he compensated by having the Deetz family be completely bugnuts. Edward Scissorhands, on the other… hand, takes place in an overstated, hyper dream-like suburbia that seems to exist on another planet entirely. But in Mars Attacks!, the only thing that doesn’t fit in are the Martians themselves. I really like their design and the various technologies they unleash, but it is interesting to note the diversion from Burton’s wheelhouse. Plus, we still get a great Elfman score to complement Burton’s film.

**More spoilers** I am so enamored of the final solution to the Martian problem it makes my eyeballs wiggle. It seems every alien invasion film has to have that moment where a smug scientist or bulky corn farmer discovers some humdrum, terrestrial feature that actually causes cataclysmic destruction for invaders. For Independence Day it was the common cold and Signs managed to beat back the aliens with water (despite the fact that they landed on a planet that is 70% water; doomed invasion from the start fellas). But the Earthly element that destroys the Martians in Mars Attacks!: country music! Not only is it hilarious and snarky, but I for one am fully on board with this being the secret weapon. I loathe country music, and I feel it’s the ultimate caveat for any invading alien horde: you can conquer Earth, but you will have to listen to Toby Keith at some point! I don’t know if they, even in their infinite intelligence, have the metal fortitude to withstand that torture!

Junkfood Pairing:

Mars Bar. A little too on the nose? Who cares, they’re delicious! And don’t be swayed by the fact that they are no longer in production, this chocolatey treat will send your taste buds into orbit … only to have them return with a full armada of other taste buds that pulverize your bones with lasers! You know what, don’t eat it! Where’s my Rascal Flats album?

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.