There’s a lot to like, and a lot to hate about Tim Burton. It’s pretty easy to forget what an interesting and fun filmmaker he was back in the day when you see the drek that he’s pumping out nowadays. But he really was great. He was a visionary auteur in the purest sense. You can identify a Tim Burton movie by a single frame, something that’s pretty hard to accomplish. And I really love almost all of his early work. He had a knack for creating some wonderful movie that spoke to the outsider in us all, all while staying fun and exciting. He’s probably not the director that anyone would have guessed to become a go-to creator of big blockbusters, but he found himself in that position, and ended up being quite successful. Which is probably how he got the clout and ability to make this insane little film. I mean, it’s based on a series of weird trading cards from the 1960s. That’s ridiculous. That would be like making a film out of the Garbagepail Kids. Which is something that totally never happened. I have no idea what you’re talking about. That never happened. Anyway, I love Mars Attacks! It’s one of the goofiest, campiest movies I’ve ever seen outside the 60s Batman movie, and it kind of has to be seen to believe. And I got that chance the other night, on the big screen no less, and I just couldn’t help but talk about this fun little freakshow.
The film’s plot is pretty simple, and follows along the basic path of two genres of movies that we don’t really get anymore. 50’s B-Movie sci-fi flicks, and 70’s cameo-filled disaster movies. I’m not sure why we don’t get more movies that ape this style, but we really don’t. I guess I understand why we don’t get B-Movie sci-fi flicks anymore, because they’re generally pretty boring. Back when it was too expensive to make monster effects, so your movie would basically just be scientists in a lab complaining about some monster that we almost never see. Didn’t really make for scintillating film. But you would think making movies where they just cram as many B-List celebrities into a building or conveyance and then have that building or conveyance get destroyed would never go out of style. Closest we get are those terrible holiday movies that Gary Marshall used to make.
But that’s neither here nor there. The plot of the movie revolves around a group of Martians coming to Earth, and waging war against it. The film starts off with an armada of Martian spaceships heading to Earth, and the whole population freaks out. From there we meet our cavalcade of celebrity characters, including the President of the United States, his wife, press secretary, and science adviser, a journalist, a fashion reporter, a heavy-weight boxer in Las Vegas, his wife and kids, Tom Jones, a family of rednecks, including their senile grandma, their soldier son, and their dopey son they treat like crap. And they’re basically all celebrities. At first they think the Martians are here on a mission of peace, but it’s quickly realized that they’re actually just huge assholes, and are here to conquer the planet.
What follows is everyone losing their minds, and struggling to deal with these insane little Looney Tunes aliens. We see the President and his staff try again and again to deal with the aliens peacefully, until full-scale war breaks out and basically everyone in the White House dies one by one. We see the boxer and some Vegas characters struggle to escape the aliens and get him back to his wife and kids in Washington DC. We see all the goofy stuff the aliens are doing up in their ship, like reading Playboys, watching the Dukes of Hazard, and sewing people’s heads onto their dogs. And of course we see the dopey kid and his grandma find out that country music with lots of yodeling can kill the Martians, giving them the upper hand that they need to stave off the invasion, after basically everyone is already dead.
The plot I described could basically be made into a harrowing and frightening sci-fi film about the world collapsing under the threat of alien invasion. But instead Tim Burton used the clout that he’d earned in Hollywood to make his silliest and goofiest movie yet, and it’s pretty damned great. I had really forgotten how funny this movie was. I used to watch it a lot as a kid, and I think the broader comedy strokes really worked for me then, like the aliens basically acting like Chuck Jones characters, but it’s a movie that has gotten much funnier as I’ve gotten older and can understand all of the satire that’s loaded into this movie. It’s kind of got a feel like Dr. Strangelove, where you could see everyone being this incompetent if something this horrible actually did happen.
But all of the satire and silliness of this movie wouldn’t work near as well as it does if it wasn’t dripping in this wonderful aesthetic that Tim Burton found for the film. I know that a lot of the look of the movie comes directly from the trading cards that inspired the plot, but you can see a lot of Tim Burton’s fetishized design elements in the film as well. He’s always been obsessed with using the retro Atomic Age design of the 50’s and showing the darkness lurking underneath that, and it’s used brilliantly here. Yes, the movie takes place in the then current 1990’s, but the world of the Martians comes straight from 50’s sci-fi, back when we were so concerned by being invaded by beings from the Red Planet. Yeah, the 1950’s weren’t all that subtle with their fear of Communism. But their fun retro aesthetic really works in this movie, giving it a timeless feel and also harkening back to those paranoid days of the Cold War and our fear of being obliterated at any time.
Mars Attacks! was written by Jonathan Gems, directed by Tim Burton, and released by Warner Brothers Pictures, 1996.
Categories: Reel Talk