Mars Attacks! (1996)

D: Tim Burton
S: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Annette Benning

This film is a case of one pet project too many for director Tim Burton. Having dazzled the execs with the financial successes of Beetlejuice,Batman and Batman Returns, the talented young auteur was given free rein to make Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood, each a film he had always longed to make as a design-happy kid or fledgling animator at Disney. The moneymen were astounded when each bore its own financial rewards, and even picked up Oscars. As he himself compared the personae of Ed Wood and Orson Welles with a not undue nod to himself, people were beginning to wonder if Tim Burton could do no wrong. But Mars Attacks! is easily the worst film he has made in his short career, and its disappointing box-office returns ($40m in the US against a $70m budget) may mean that in future, studio heads will be a little more cautious before hurling vast sums of money at the golden goose-boy to see what happens to it.

Based on a series of gruesome bubble-gum cards from the 1950s, when the vogue for colourful, violent Martian invasions was at its height (War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars, etc), this film arrives as a new vogue for similar apocalyptic alien encounters is in full swing (Independence Day, Star Trek: First Contact). On paper, it can't have seemed all bad. If anyone could make a series of non-narrative trading cards into a colourful, big-budget blockbuster spectacular, then Burton was that person. Sign on an army of major actors including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Annette Benning, Jim Brown, Martin Short, Sylvia Sidney, Danny De Vito and even Tom Jones, then toss in a couple of younger actors to access the demographics (Lucas Haas, Nathalie Portman), pay through the nose for elaborate production design and special effects, reunite estranged Danny Elfman with his long-time collaborator and hey presto!

But as is the trend with most of the major films from Hollywood in the last year or so, Mars Attacks! did not come complete with a script. Instead, it came with a couple of gags and a lot of sound and fury. The movie is obsessed with its central conceit. This is that Martians attack Earth and kill people violently with great relish. Okay. Now, if you're not splitting with laughter at the very concept, and the idea that you'll see graphic violent death at every turn as little green men atomise most of the cast with colourful weapons (one can picture Burton at the pitch chortling over his trading cards), this is not a movie for you.

The plot, essentially, is that Mars attacks earth. What follows is a series of reactions by a variety of stupid and generally unlikable characters (including Nicholson in two roles); mostly consisting of screaming and shouting as people die horribly. There is no central narrative thread, not even a number of individual anecdotes which eventually come together as is usual in a disaster movie of the kind presumably being lampooned (though it is difficult to detect any irony here). It is impossible to say just who the central character is, or what they're supposed to be doing. Lucas Haas comes closest, with a mission to save his elderly grandmother and defeat the aliens by playing Slim Whitman singing "Indian Love Call" (Burton: "snort! snort! yuk! yuk! This is soooo great! snort!"), but he is dwarfed in stature by the big-name stars. A weird sub-plot about a blossoming relationship between Parker and Brosnan seems to exist only to provide moments of surreality including a tender love scene between disembodied heads, and another sub-plot involving Nicholson trying to sell a hotel in Las Vegas has as its only justification a very bad rendition of Nicholson doing Keaton doing Beetlejuice. None of the sub-plots generate any momentum, and without a primary plot to hold the film together, there is nothing for the film to do when it's not being noisy and violent. So with no one to empathise with, and no story to hang onto, we're left with sheer visual pleasure to sustain the picture.

On this side, it has its moments. Dazzling design and imaginative effects do raise and eyebrow and provide some moments of sadistic fun. The massacres are very colourfully realised, with some retrospective sound effects thrown in for some cheap laughs. The first time the little men with big heads whip out their ray guns and begin barbecuing the hapless earthlings, there is a certain cartoonish zowie! to it, and you may even find the shots of people's bodies becoming transparent as they disintegrate amusing enough. But the film has little else in its bag of tricks, and simply repeats the same gag over and over again. And with no story to fall back on and characters who don't seem to be doing very much, there is nothing to do but get bored as you wait to see the same thing again, and again, and again.

It wouldn't matter all that much if the film was fun, but there is something essentially deadening about seeing characters who don't win your sympathy being blown to bits by alien invaders. In their own stuffy, 1950s way, the characters in War of the Worlds were admirable enough to root for, and Independence Day worked hard to include just about every societal sub-section it could in the fight to save the world. Mars Attacks! is intent on making the deaths of its stellar cast its entire purpose, an idea which while suitably perverse to raise a snort is not enough to hold a two hour movie together, especially when it's supposed to be funny and isn't.

If there is material worthy of extended discussion here, it is in the fact that this bloated, narcissistic spectacle is set largely in Las Vegas, and perhaps there is some kind of ironic self-referentiality about America's capability for self-aggrandisement and self-destruction. But even this is laid on with a trowel. The character of a former boxer now working as a greeter in a Casino played Jim Brown represents the only struggle for human dignity in the face of adversity, but his performance is so sincere and so staid as to seem as if it belongs in another movie entirely. It is merely another in a series of half-baked ideas which Burton seems to have found hysterically funny (along with his team of writers) in the concept stage and thus decided to add to the mix of what ultimately becomes a very boring and very stupid film that only he could like.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.