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Mars Attacks! Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Mars Attacks! Review

    “Nice planet. We'll take it!”

    Timing is everything. Like the two Robin Hoods (Coster vs Bergin), ET vs The Thing and Day Of The Dead vs Return of the Living Dead, the battle between two very similar-themed movies coming out at the same time usually only produces one clear winner. Thus it was that two cinematic tribes were set to go to war in 1996 to fight a common alien enemy – Roland Emerich's phenomenally successful and devoutly patriotic (but also exceedingly poor) Independence Day and Tim Burton's ebullient, gregarious, bubblegum-card spin-off Mars Attacks! Alas, audiences were to be denied the full gladiatorial contest when Burton's film, suffering production set-backs and logistical problems, was delayed and only released at Christmas-time, several months after Independence Day had already cleaned-up at the box office and pretty much dominated the concept of a large-scale invasion of Earth.

    This was a real shame because although it was far from perfect, Mars Attacks! was actually a much better film but, by now, cinemagoers were wary of another like-minded epic, many of them believing Burton's was actually some sort of spoof send-up of Emerich's, perhaps even a subversive commie-lovin' version! Either way, the delay that actually improved the film – for a start, it enabled Burton to get a bigger and more gobsmacking array of star names before the camera and gave more time for the costly stop-motion effects that the filmmaker initially wanted to be retuned digitally – meant that audiences who could have seen it going head to head with Independence Day had grown indifferent to the idea by the time Mars Attacks! actually came out. But even if critics in the US were unkind to Burton's lavish celebration of the genre's kookiest paranoid metaphor, their British counterparts were far more accommodating when it landed on UK screens at the start of the following year. They saw the big joke for what it was – a hilarious pastiche that swapped the director's favoured candy-kitsch for a big budget tribute to the daft excesses of the B-movie.

    Basing your concept on a range of notorious SF-themed trading cards from the early 1960's – the Topps series was designed by E.C. Comics' artist Wally Wood and boasted gloriously hideous deaths for the humans that the bug-brained Martians came across – was an odd, even risky venture to undertake, but if anyone could pull it off with the right amount of campy homage to all those Theremin-laced Sci-Fi invasion flicks of the 50's, then Tim Burton was almost certainly the man for the job. He'd returned Batman to his brooding, gothic beginnings, he'd twisted the conventions of the ghost story completely upon their collective shrunken heads with Beetlejuice, and he'd subverted the common fairytale with the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. His name was synonymous with the wacky, the oddball, the bizarre and the darkly romantic. Now seemed the time for him to go bigger, bolder and wilder, and hopefully ensnare the mainstream in the process.

    Grack ack ack gack ack grak ack!

    When the Martian armada arrives and encircles the Earth, Mankind finds that it has an almost endless list of Hollywood stars ready, willing and able to do battle with it. Indeed, the film is a veritable who's who of Tinseltown and, in this way, Burton's biggest production (to that date certainly) became just like one of those glitzy, star-festooned disaster movies from the seventies. If he could have had Shelley Winters in there, he would have. And this ragtag and disparate band of human flotsam – from the President and his aides, flirtatious TV journalists and aloof scientists, gung-ho Middle-American patriots, scrimp 'n' save working joes trying to feed their families, unscrupulous realtors and casino-crazed bimbos, and Welsh ex-miners with ballistic tonsils and swivelling hips – spread out around the multi-coloured U.S. Of A. agonise over their own personal dilemmas and petty human hang-ups whilst struggling to either make peace with the enemy … or find a way to blow them out of the sky. For a film with so many characters and scenes, an inordinate amount of acerbic, sarcastic and satirical dialogue, Mars Attacks! doesn't actually have all that much of a plot. The Martians arrive, they kick our ass and they keep on kicking our ass until a miracle weapon is discovered in the unlikeliest of places just in the nick of time before we are all finally annihilated. But then … what more do we need?

    “I’m not allowing that thing in my house.”

    “Sweetie, we may have to. The people expect me to meet with them.”

    “Well, they are not eating off the Van Buren china.”

    Jam-packed with action and comedy, Burton’s movie attempts to capture both the aura of the classic Science Fiction era, with malicious bug-eyed monsters and incredulous and hapless bystanders, and the eye-popping absurdity of the cards, themselves. Garish scenes of mass destruction are bounced between sitcom antics and escalating mini-dramas of everyday folk caught up in the Martian onslaught, our attention never allowed to settle down for a single moment. Various taboo-breaking images from the original deck of cards surface throughout and, despite the high slapstick quality of the film, Burton doesn’t skimp on the surreal violence. To wit, a large portion of the cast find themselves fried to primary-hued bones, squashed, shrunken, skewered, eviscerated or simply blown to bits and it certainly isn't often that you get to see a cast of such notaries reduced to ashes. Wilfully left-field, cheerfully demented and sparkling with choice verbal idiocy, Burton has a wonderful time with the material. But with such a toy-box to play with, it is perhaps inevitable that he becomes a little careless, self-indulgent and greedy at times.

    “I want to thank my Grandma for always being so good to me ... and for helping save the world and everything.”

    It is ironic that the very lure of all those stars is probably where the film ultimately comes unstuck – the plethora of disparate characters and their tribulations means that the film can come over as though designed purely for those with ADD. Instead of just sticking with a resolute set of dependables, Jonathan Gems' screenplay spreads itself out far too thinly and wheels in a broad range of weird and crazy personalities that, inevitably, detract from the thrust of the story. Although the script tries to make all these characters and their situations interesting, I don't think we care in the least about half of them. It is certainly true that if the script had stuck to just the military, the science brigade and the President – which I would have preferred, to be honest – then it would have merely been the same old formula as all those old B-movie titles from that period of glorious ultra-paranoia. But the scattering of quirky Southern rednecks, nefarious gambling tycoons, simple country folk and hard-working stiffs does sidetrack the story into something that dreadfully approaches a soap-like mentality. And that just can't be a good thing in a rollicking fantasy about mankind being wiped out.

    And yet these meandering octopus-like strands of tale-weaving can do the film some favours as well. At this time, we were getting melodramatic epics like Shortcuts and Pret-a-Porter that thrived on ensembles conjoining into one destiny-hewn outcome, and Magnolia was just around the corner too, so it would seem that myriad unconnected stories and personalities flung out around a central device, but all umbilically linked was the way to go. Let's face it, even Independence Day worked in such a fashion, although it was far more contrived and horribly corny. What it means in Mars Attacks! is that we get different settings and scenarios every five minutes and with Burton at the helm this boils down to hard-line grannies spouting-off in retirement homes about Congress getting blown-up, Martin Short’s creepy (and rather ill-looking) Presidential PR man falling foul of an exceptional extra-curricular encounter with an extraordinary extraterrestrial spy (phew!), a tête-à-tête between two mutilated star-struck recipients of ghastly Martian genetics, a vaguely presented message about dysfunctional families in all walks of life … oh, and an alien saucer attempting to flatten a troop of Boy Scouts with the Washington Monument!

    Jack Nicholson's President is, of course, President Jack Nicholson. Although I am a fan of the actor, I have to concede that his constant playing of, well, himself in roles as disparate as gangsters, demons, ageing Romeos, werewolves enduring mid-life neurosis and whatnot can be singularly aggravating – but it can still work wonders sometimes. Here, working for Burton again after a performance of The Joker in Batman that wasn't so much as scene-stealing as it was movie-swallowing, Nicholson is on fine form. And he gets to play two completely different roles, as well. But the ironic thing, for me, is that it is as the President that he excels, and this is just the same darn performance that we've seen a million times before and a million times since. Smarmy, arrogant, self-assured and filled with all that half-coked sleazy, slow-drawled superiority that he does so damn well (because he is, well, Jack Nicholson), his President is as absolutely perfect a human foil to unthinking, uncaring alien aggression as he is an exasperated puppet voice-box to an administration of bumbling idiots. The signature moves are all present and correct. Just look at his opening scene, seated behind his desk in the Oval Office – those diabolical eyebrows raised in that quizzical fashion, his half-lidded eyes surveying his kingdom with the usual ratio of patronising disdain and simmering contempt. This was around the same time as he made Wolf for Mike Nichols, and the comparison between his lupine book editor and this Government-sanctioned bullyboy-cum-sycophant is overt. Watch as he slowly rises and steps around the desk to take advice from his lackeys, advice that he will typically claim as his own, and listen to his soothing, measured voice as he supplies his verdict on the apparent crisis. It is vintage Nicholson … and it is terrific. But the startlingly winning thing about him here is that, as the film goes on, and more and more of his contingency plans meet with utter and unmitigated disaster and mass destruction, Nicholson's President Dale comically crumbles into little more than noble jelly. And his shattered bravado is a joy to behold, especially when the long-demanded (but oft-dismissed) nuclear option becomes the only alternative left to him … and even that fails abysmally, leaving him to throw up his hands in abject despair. “What's the matter? The Universe not big enough for the both of us?”

    By contrast, letting his wig down as Las Vegas real estate kingpin and casino mogul Art Land, and genuinely stepping out from his usual style – a raspy, flippant Texan brogue, a fake nose, shades, a jacket so technicoloured that it would blind Joseph, and a ten-gallon hat – Nicholson actually becomes quite bland. “If the Martians land, they're gonna need a place to stay. Just like everybody else.” A surprisingly well-written opportunist, Land is still a rather unnecessary addition in the grand scheme of things, merely cluttering up the proceedings and allowing for some unwanted director-and-star indulgence. This is symptomatic of the wallowing and padding that Burton, with his eyes bigger than his belly, couldn't resist.

    “Rest assured that we will soon come out at a very real … outcome.

    Whilst many were keen to find Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Lucas Haas and Natalie Portman in there, I was much more enamoured by the sight of Pam Grier and Jim Brown, stalwart champions of exploitation who both give commendable, out-of-character bit-part performances as struggling parents caught up in the onslaught of global chaos and death. Grier is actually very good indeed as the strong-willed Washington bus-driver with childcare issues. Brown is the reluctant put-upon breadwinner reduced to a humiliating job in a Vegas casino but doing everything he can to support his family … yet he will become a stoic defender of mankind when mischievous Martians try to take away what little self-respect he has left. Parker, whom I detest, plays a wildly irritating “smile ‘n’ pout” TV celebrity with a crush on Brosnan’s pipe-smoking Senate scientist, but even I have to admit that she actually looks quite cute with her head CG-grafted onto her little yappy-dog's body – clearly a homage to the botched replication of the homeless guy and his mutt in Phil Kaufman’s awesome remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. And, after initially finding Brosnan's smug Presidential boffin, Dr. Kessler annoying (I still find it hard to shake the Bond persona out of him every time he opens his mouth), it is fun to watch him cut free into witteringly camp, Oxford-educated buffoonery. Plus, having the great Tom Jones appear in an extended cameo may have seemed like a good idea on paper – I mean he would be around if Martians attacked Vegas – but it just comes as yet another face to chew up whatever scenery is left that the swollen-brained invaders haven't already fried.

    Though some happy respite can be found in Glenn Close's prissy, chandelier-eating First Lady, we have Michael J. Fox being typically over-anxious about everything and somehow managing to include his stunned-and-open-mouthed running through chaos trick that became a trademark in three Back To The Futures – although there's a neat payoff to it this time. And whilst Annette Benning's resilient hippy-mentality as Land's wife wears thin too quickly and leaves her character irritatingly incomplete, Danny DeVito's nameless gambling gnome only appears to clog up the already crammed Vegas sequences for no clear reason at all. Joe Don Baker is always good value, and it is fun to see him taking his latter-day brash over-confidence (Goldeneye, Cape Fear) to strangely more believable extremes, as the trailer-trash pa with old school retribution on his mind for the Martians' frying of his soldier-boy son, played by a shaven-headed Jack Black. But Portman and Haas, as the President’s daughter and Baker’s shunned other son, respectively, are just plain boring.

    “General Decker, if you do not shut up I am going to relieve you of your command!”

    “We have to strike now, sir! Annihilate! Kill! Kill! Kill!

    But the one totally on-the-money performance that steals every scene it can get its hands on, is that belonging to Rod Steiger, as the clichéd war-hungry General Decker. Insisting on going to DEFCON 4 the very second that the Martian armada appears, Decker struts about, huffing and puffing and blowing a top brass gasket at the President's indecision and moral weakness. “How do we know they're hostile?” demands the simpering, liberal-softie General Casey, played by Paul Winfield. “Because they've surrounded our planet with thousands of warships!” he replies with blood-vessels bursting at his temples. Steiger, like Marlon Brando, had a massive propensity to overact, yet portraying a character like Decker, who is just one huge caricature of Dr. Strangelove proportions, seems to rein him in. His outbursts and fury here are brilliantly held in check at the last moment, Steiger finding exactly the right instant to pull his punches, and the perfect pent-up timbre of endlessly frustrated hostility with which to pitch his jingoistic warrior. It is also quite amusing that the aliens do to him precisely what the military did to the alien in The Thing From Another World.

    “Martians. Ha ha. Funny lookin' little critters, ain't they?”

    The Martians, themselves, are the stars of the show. Perfectly reproducing the grotesquely absurd imagery that Wood designed and Bob Powell and Norm Saunders coloured and finalised for Topps (which was inspired, by the way, by the wacky creatures in Invasion of The Saucer-Men from 1957), Burton's diminutive skull-faced, flap-cheeked, bloated brain-sacks are majestically daft and threatening at the same time. Somehow managing to avoid the absolutely eee-villl countenances of their bubblegum ancestors, Burton's brigade of interplanetary vandals are terrific villains, almost the Gremlins of the nineties. These guys have an agenda – global domination and the complete extinction of the human race – but they are not above having a great time going about it. Conducting bizarre and horrific experiments on their captives – it is hard to imagine that they could make SJP look any more bizarre or horrific than she already does! - and barbecuing herds of cows, almost on a whim, they can also inhale the contents of a nuclear missile as if it were just a bong and literally redecorate every statue and landmark that Mankind has spent aeons constructing in the casual blink of one of their bulbous eyes … well, if they had lids to blink with, obviously. Burton even takes the mickey out of them by showing us the invaders languishing in their interstellar skimpies on down-time, perusing a stolen copy of Playboy and dogging a couple having fun in their trailer, supplying backing vocals for Tom Jones and snapping-up photo opportunities beside decimated shrines of humanity.

    “Wow, he just made the International Sign of the Doughnut!”

    Whether or not stop-motion animation would have given the film the look that Burton claims to have desired – it would certainly have been a loving nod to Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, wouldn't it? - the CG elements provide just the same sort of unrealistic and fantastical action that Harryhausen would have conjured. The film is exactly like a melding of the old and the new, the fabulous retro-design of the Martian hardware gelling with the CG rendering and the live-action in such a way that it is at once removed from reality and yet visually arresting. The little under-slung radar-dish canons on the saucers, the vast goldfish-bowel space-helmets, the bogus translations of peace-mongering – “Don't run … we won't hurt you!” - as they merrily slaughter humans by the dozen, and the fake compassion they show when President Dale, at his absolute wits end, attempts to appeal to their non-existent sense of understanding and tolerance are all terrific components that genuinely give these heat-ray toting nasties a definite degree of character.

    And despite some cheeky little stock footage culled from earlier disaster movies, Mars Attacks! feels big, the biggest film that Burton has ever mounted. The director’s handling of large-scale action had certainly improved since his Batman days, that much was clear. Even if he would go on to muck-up his Planet of The Apes rehash, he marshals the pivotal scenes here with distinctive élan. Not one, but two big landing sequences – upping the ante of The Day The Earth Stood Still – and providing us with elaborate battles on both occasions. A giant Martian “death-suit” that lopes down the highway after Haas on his grandma-rescuing mission. Terrestrial hardware, in a nice touch the rifles are all dated circa-1950, blaze away as battalions of infantry are rendered useless by these little aggressors. But you’ve just got to love the way that their swollen alien brains erupt into livid green goo whenever someone does get the drop on them, especially Grier's school-ducking, videogame-playing boys once they get their hands on some real blasters and become the best vanguard that the White House has before it gets destroyed again.

    And then there is the fantastic score from Danny Elfman, returning to caress and energise yet another Tim Burton film with his “patented fun-house sounds”. The music for Mars Attacks! is both classic Elfman, with its strident march themes and rousing bombast, and firm evidence that he was venturing into brave new territory, with lots of electronics, sinuous new rhythms and and intoxicating “quasi-lounge” style that would crop up again and again in other scores. This particular cue is beautifully apparent during Lisa Marie's galactic kabuki-doll infiltration of the White House. Critics have often claimed that his woozy space-sounds were not created via the genre's favourite instrument, the Theremin, but by a synth. Well, the truth is that a real genuine Theremin was used and can certainly be heard in this score, but Elfman and his orchestrator Steve Bartek did encounter a lot of problems with it during then live recordings with the full orchestrator. Thus, the finished score, as you hear it in the film, features a combination of the real thing, some studio overdubs and Elfman's synth-samples. But however it was achieved, Elfman's score for Mars Attacks! is absolutely exquisite and the maestros, themselves, Bernard Hermmann (The Day The Earth Stood Still) and Dmitri Tiomkin (The Thing From Another World) would have doffed their caps in approval.

    Mars Attacks! is naughty, ribald, deranged and offers a hole heap of fantastically anarchic and destructive fun. It drops the ball a couple of times and loses its way within that maze of characters and acts like a name-dropper at a party, this is true – but this is Tim Burton's big alien invasion … and it is infinitely more entertaining than Independence Day ever was! Plus, I think that Slim Whitman's “Indian Love Call” is a far more convincing secret weapon than a computer virus, any day!

    Mars Attacks!

    It also rocks!