In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “There’s a mean, casualness to the deaths and violence of Mars Attacks! that makes the harmless, dumbness a little hard to swallow.”
“We know they’re extremely advanced technologically, which suggests – very rightfully so – that they’re peaceful. An advanced civilization, by definition, is not barbaric.”
Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Annette Benning, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Jack Black, Michael J Fox, Martin Short, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Pam Grier… All directed by Tim Burton. It has to be really, really hard work to take a cast like that, and make a movie that bombs so hard, it’s more famous now for bombing than it is for its enormous, A list cast. Sure, some of those people weren’t as famous in 1996 as they would become later. But Nicholson is Nicholson, Brosnan had just taken over as James Bond, and Burton’s Ed Wood had won a couple of Oscars just two years earlier. So how did so much promise, result in the monumental bombing that was Mars Attacks! ?
Opening on the horrific sight of a herd of cattle, on fire, running down a country road, a flying saucer is also spotted leaving the scene. When that ship doesn’t make it back to its home planet of Mars, a fleet of hundreds more are dispatched, headed for Earth. When their approach is uncovered, US president James Dale (Nicholson) alerts the nation, and tries to keep his citizens calm, by saying that he believes the contact is friendly.
As the ships arrive, a welcome party of military dignitaries is set up in the Nevada desert, covered by serious news reporter Jason Stone (Fox) and his fashion reporter girlfriend, Nathalie Lake (Parker). Via an electronic translator, the Martians declare that they have come in peace, seconds before disintegrating the welcoming army general. It’s then all out panic and war as the humans scramble to battle their new adversaries.
Also involved in this story is Black as a new recruit, army private, Close as the First Lady, Portman has her daughter, Short as the White House press secretary, Nicholson in a second role as a Las Vegas developer, Benning as his tacky wife, Steiger as an army general and Brosnan as some sort of White House aid. And that leads to the biggest problem with Mars Attacks! The cast is so huge, and the story is so free wheeling, I barely even know who Pierce Brosnan’s character is supposed to be, and he gets second billing, right below Nicholson.
It’s also tonally conflicting. Burton has his entire cast at maximum broadness. Everyone is chewing as much scenery as they can fit in their mouth, and the goofiness is off the charts. But then he butts that up against really disturbing images, like the burning herd of cattle, or the graphic disintegration of dozens and dozens of innocents via alien death ray. I get that Burton was going for a certain absurdity, it just never worked for me.
These days, we have all come to accept that movies are based on the thinnest of premises and cheapest of pre existing properties. Comic books, video games, old cartoons revived to exploit pop culture nostalgia. The cinemas are flooded with this stuff daily, but Mars Attacks! scrapes whatever is below the bottom of the barrel by basing its story on a set of forgotten trading cards from the 60s. Maybe those trading cards hold the same place in Burton’s heart that the 80s Transformers cartoon holds in mine. And we’ve all seen what a monumental abortion those movies are.
I guess what I’m getting at is, 20 years ago, Mars Attacks! proved that pure nostalgia is not enough to build a movie on, no matter how great your cast is, or how visually innovative your director is. I know it’s trying to be harmless, dumb fun, and I love plenty of movies that fit that bill. But there’s a mean, casualness to the deaths and violence of Mars Attacks! that makes the harmless, dumbness a little hard to swallow.
Budget $70million / U.S Box Office $100million
Instead of Mars Attacks!, watch proof that there is undisputed genius within Tim Burton, with Ed Wood.