If you’re looking for anarchic alien antics, Mars Attacks! (1997) is the Topps.
Goofy, macabre and deliciously, satirically silly, “Mars Attacks!” sees Tim Burton indulge his inner Irwin Allen and go full Seventies disaster movie, channelling Ed Wood and nodding to Stanley Kubrick as he does so. Part of Hollywood’s ill-fated love affair with making big-budget B-movies in the 1990s, it may have suffered from coming out in the same year as “Independence Day” but, rather than repeating that movie’s unironic patriot bombast it savagely and satirically mocks audiences for buying into the exceptionalist antics of Roland Emmerich’s all-conquering extravaganza.
Without warning, Earth finds itself surrounded by a fleet of Martian warships. Although their initial intentions appear to be peaceful, it soon becomes obvious that they are not only hostile but they also have superior weaponry and a cruel sense of humour.
There are inescapable similarities between “Mars Attacks!” and “Independence Day” that transcend their close proximity at the box office but its hardly surprising given they’re both obvious remakes of H G Wells’ seminal alien invasion story “The War Of The Worlds”, even down to their individual, idiosyncratic versions of the viral downfall of the invading forces. In Emmerich’s action-disaster, actual germs are replaced by a computer virus but in Burton’s version, it’s something altogether…sillier.
There’s never a moment when “Mars Attacks!” doesn’t have its tongue firmly in its cheek. It’s a visually dazzling restaging of a grab-bag of cheesy 1950’s sci-fi movies with 1970’s star-powered ensemble disaster movie sensibilities and, for then, cutting edge modern effects. It’s a recipe which doesn’t always blend as well as it might and delivers a slightly uneven tone where you can sometimes feel the three factions fighting against each other while Burton himself does his best to exhort them to ‘all just get along’.
The cast is absurdly star-studded, even by the standards of the movies its parodying. Led by Jack Nicholson (pulling double duty) you have the likes of Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J Fox, Rod Steiger, Paul Winfield, Pam Grier and, for some reason, Tom ‘It’s Not Unusual’ Jones. Further down the cast list, there are up-and-coming names such as Jack Black, Natalie Portman and Lukas Haas, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of the cast. It may be a gift for bloggers like me looking to bulk out the word count of a review post but in the film, the endless parade of familiar faces does become something of a distraction from the antics on screen, which is a definite shame because its in the visuals that Burton really lets fly.
Packed with so many visual gags you might be forgiven for thinking you’re watching an early Zucker/ Abrams/ Zucker movie, Burton brings the vintage Topps trading cards to vivid, cartoonishly grisly life. The atypically bright, Day-Glo colour palette Burton brings to the screen allows him to get away with a myriad of set-pieces and sequences which, on closer inspection, are horrifically gory and explicit but because the underlying silliness never wavers, it effectively blunts the horror and brings it comfortably into the frame of a family friendly film.
Burton’s surreal, blackly humorous satirical cavalcade of movie references is boosted enormously by one of frequent collaborator Danny Elfman’s finest scores, full of mischievous theremin-infused spookery. There’s no denying its unevenness does make it somewhat hit and miss but there’s far more to enjoy than endure. Nicholson and Close as the President and First Lady are almost worth the price of admission alone, especially when you factor in the hilariously dysfunctional White House staff from insanely bloodthirsty generals (Steiger) to sleazy special advisors (Short).
Imperfect, occasionally inelegant, but eminently (re)watchable, it may forever have to live in the shadow of its more successful mainstream rival but at least it’s never been tarnished by as turgid a sequel as “Independence Day: Resurgence”.