Mars Attacks! (1996)

Watching this almost twenty years ago, and again a few days ago, I am still left pondering: Who exactly did this movie appeal to? What was the niche audience? Director Tim Burton bases an entire science fiction film on specialty trading cards from the sixties, he creates a meta-alien invasion movie that throws comedy and menace at every turn, and then piles every moment of the film on with big celebrities and actors. Who exactly did this movie appeal to, but Burton?

Science fiction movies didn’t have humongous stars back then. And surely I was never aware of the novelty cards until the movie arrived in theaters, so what was the goal with this? Did Burton agree to make this movie in exchange for personal film projects, and then just launched an all out assault on good taste for the hell of it? Every thing about the movie feels so random. Natalie Portman is the president’s daughter, Michael J Fox is a news reporter, Pam Grier plays a single mom whose sons become heroes in the finale, Jack Nicholson inexplicably takes on duel roles as the president and a pimp. I’m still trying to figure out what the catch was. “Mars Attacks!” is a bloated science fiction comedy about aliens that land on Earth, and begin destroying literally every living thing in sight.

Earth in its hubris attempts to contact and make peace with the aliens, but the visitors are just here to exterminate the human race and go home. With a skull head donning giant brains encased in a protective glass, they gain the upper hand, finding new ways to destroy and humiliate mankind, while the few survivors try to find out how to stop them. Hell, even Tom Jones gets in on the fun as a freedom fighter, when the aliens destroy a concert of his mid-way. To add to the “hilarity,” the aliens even begin conducting experiments on their prisoners, switching the heads of their human captives.

“Mars Attacks!” is an over directed and poorly written farce that never quite knows if it wants to be comical or over the top, so it opts for both and fails. Making a game out of pointing out big star cameos doesn’t even detract the film’s distracting rapid fire pace. What political and social satire it draws is a brutal series of misfires, with clunky winks at the audience that try to pass itself off as cleverer than thou. Tim Burton never could quite master the ideal science fiction farce, and thankfully retreated to his Gothic roots with “Sleepy Hollow.” As an experiment, vanity vehicle, or contractual obligation (whatever it is), “Mars Attacks!” is an unpleasant genre offering.