Random Film of the Week(end): Mars Attacks!


As I’m still in full-on Earth Defense 2017 Portable mode this weekend, I figured I’d take a break and catch a movie while charging my Vita. Amusingly enough, Tim Burton’s underrated 1996 sci-fi black comedy was just starting up on one of the Cinemax channels, so I sat and caught one of my favorite end of the world films of the 90’s. Granted, back when it was released, it seems way too many parents were thinking they’d be getting a second Independence Day to take their kids to, so I remember the theater I saw this at on opening day being packed with parents and children (including some on a class trip). Let’s just say that when that flaming herd of cows came running past the camera before the brilliant main title sequence, about a third of the theater emptied out pretty quickly, leaving most of us true Tim Burton fans to our PG-13 rated treat…

Hopefully, you’re not seeing this film because of its all-star cast at all, because most of them will be dead before those end credits roll. Some critics called the film “mean spirited” because of how (and how often) some of its cast meets their fates, but that’s part of the spirit the film was made in. Burton based the film on the infamous 1962 Topps trading cards that depicted the spectacularly disturbing invasion of Earth by some pretty pissed of residents of the Red Planet and the film pretty much pulls no punches. Well, it does wisely replace gore with red and green skeletons (depending on which color laser a human is blasted with) and saves the “shocking” stuff for people like Sarah Jessica Parker, whose head is grafted to the body of her chihuahua and vice versa (an improvement, some would say), Michael J. Fox (who gets vaporized), Pierce Brosnan (dismembered, but still a talking head) and so forth and so on. Jack Nicholson plays two parts and gets killed twice, by the way…

What works throughout the film is how it never lets you feel completely “safe” in how it deals with its stars because they’re NOT supposed to be anything important other than targets of aliens who don’t give a crap about humans in the first place. There are some nice moments of heroism (Jim Brown gives a great performance) and the film even makes the case for kids playing “violent” video games when a pair save the President from one of the later alien assaults. Another thing that’s great is how Burton and the effects teams at Industrial Light & Magic cooked up some incredible CG effects from the aforementioned flaming cows and massive alien fleet to the assorted alien attacks and gross experiments they carry out. The Martians also get theirs through some nasty head popping effects (CG and live practical effects), but overall, there’s a definite comic tone to everything from the comic book color palette to the use of sound ans music.

Speaking of music, by the time Tom Jones pops up singing “It’s Not Unusual” late in the film, even if you weren’t into it up to that point, you just HAVE to see what happens and if the 60’s pop singer will survive the chaos. Burton’s influences are many and often pulled off spectacularly well. A few sci-fi flicks from the 50’s are references (the Washington Monument scene Earth vs. the Flying Saucers gets a nice riff), as are some non “B” movies and yes, even video games (that robot chasing the truck HAS to be swiped from a boss fight in the Sega Genesis game Contra Hard Corps). You still need to be in the proper frame of mind to enjoy it all because the film more or less makes the human race out to be pretty damned dumb, gullible, selfish and yup, worthy of some alien intervention that helps us shape up after we get our collective asses handed to us by some skinny creepy jerks from another planet.

Despite all the death and destruction, the director actually pulls back and allows a few bits of brightness and genuinely funny bits to keep the movie from getting too grim. Most of these chuckles come in the form of dialog during some bleak (but funny) moments. Congress gets zapped out of action for good, Poor France goes out in flames by once more surrendering to the enemy too soon and there’s a great Dr. Strangelove themed set that features a moment that’s shocking and priceless. Of course, the best bit comes as you think Burton is going to show you something you don’t want to see at all, but pulls the rug from under you by turning the tables on the invaders and upping the green gore count considerably as the humans pull out of the death dive they were in.

Thankfully, by the end, Mars Attacks! shows us that respecting little old ladies and their bizarre musical tastes is actually a good thing and sometimes heroes come from unlikely places. So, be nice to those kids you think are wasting their time gaming and DEFINITELY be nicer to Grandma. Don’t throw out or sell off that old record collection of hers either – you never know when a little Slim Whitman can save the planet.

1 thought on “Random Film of the Week(end): Mars Attacks!

  1. Pingback: Two For The Road: James Gandolfini and Slim Whitman… | "DESTROY ALL FANBOYS!"

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