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Mars Attacks!

Gah.

Sorry, folks. I really wanted to cover some new and allegedly brilliant arthouse release, but it involved an online VOD streaming experiment that didn’t work out. Stupid Paypal, thinking my debit card isn’t good enough for them. So once again, it’s time for me to dig into the grab bag that is my “to watch” pile of DVDs.

*rustle rustle* Mars Attacks! Yes, this should be very interesting. Here’s a film that came out in 1996, smack in between Burton’s prime filmmaking years (Batman, Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, etc.), and the point where he became an ever-worsening parody of himself (Alice in Wonderland, the Planet of the Apes remake, Dark Shadows, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake, etc.). Perhaps this film marks the transition from one to the other? I was eager to find out.

First we see a herd of flaming cows, stampeding through the scene instead of dying from severe burns where they stand. Then we see Jack Nicholson as the President of the United States, which is every bit as odd as it sounds (Nicholson later appears in a second role as sleazy Las Vegas real estate developer Art Land, which is even more disturbing). Then we see the windbag President bickering with his aides, every one of whom is an argumentative and two-dimensional parody of humanity. Needless to say, this movie strikes a campy and peculiar tone right off the bat.

The quirky mood is further set by the opening credits sequence, in which we see flying saucers that are quite deliberately retro in their design. Their flight is set to a score by Danny Elfman, which is every bit as weird as you might expect an Elfman/Burton collaboration to sound. But at the same time, the comparisons to Elfman’s score for Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black are practically unavoidable in hindsight.

Nothing against Elfman’s work, particularly in this movie but I kinda wish that Burton had gone to Howard Shore to compose music for this film. After all, Shore had composed the music to Ed Wood, the film Burton made immediately before this one. Since both movies are quite obviously homages to campy sci-fi films of yesteryear, going to the same composer for both films might have strengthened their ties as companion films. Of course, that’s assuming that Burton intended for the two to be companion films in the first place. I digress.

Moving on, it got to be more and more staggering just how many people are in this picture. We’ve got Glenn Close as the materialistic First Lady. A young Natalie Portman plays the President’s surprisingly level-headed daughter (named Taffy, of all things). Joe Don Baker appears as a stereotypical gun enthusiast, with Jack Black (!) playing his son. We’ve got Michael J. Fox, Michael Short, Annette Bening, Danny Devito, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Pam Grier, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Willie Garson, Ray J, and who knows who else. I’ve seen eclectic casts before, but holy cow.

Perhaps more importantly, the cast of characters is every bit as random. All of these actors — with precious few exceptions — are playing campy and over-the-top parodies of humanity, and no two are exactly alike. We’ve got a full rainbow of morons and caricatures on display here. This turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this enormous cast opens up the movie’s scale in a big way, giving the impression of a story with national — nay, global — stakes. On the other hand, this leads the film into that classic ensemble movie trap: Too many characters, not enough screen time. The distribution of screen time and plot relevance among the cast is woefully out of balance, especially when audience expectations are factored in. For example, since Danny DeVito is a recurring Burton collaborator and a relatively big star with his name above the title, you’d think his character would be hugely important, right? Nuh-uh. He gets maybe five minutes of screen time, every second of which would have done just as much good on the cutting room floor.

The movie goes in so many directions with so many characters to keep track of that it’s easy to get lost before the first act is out. Then, about 40 minutes in, the Martians finally start attacking. As a direct result, the cast list is mercifully trimmed, with fewer characters around to worry about. This also helps a great deal in learning precisely which characters will be essential to the plot and why. Then again, it’s not like the plot was ever exactly a masterpiece to begin with. There are far too many plot holes, worthless characters, and pointless storylines than I could possibly list here. That isn’t even getting started on the aliens’ bizarre and implausible weakness, which seems more like a contrived way to end the film early than anything else.

The characters are all so two-dimensional, idiotic, and poorly developed that there’s no way we could watch them suffer with any degree of sympathy. In point of fact, any enjoyment this film has to offer comes from watching the aliens tear down buildings and slaughter innocent Earthlings in the most creative and spectacular ways possible. So basically, this film is like Independence Day, if Roland Emmerich’s opus was even more overt about how stupid and shallow it was. In point of fact, Tim Burton himself once said that he (unintentionally, of course), made “a kind of Mad magazine parody of Independence Day,” which was released only a few months prior. Honestly, I don’t think I could have put it much better.

As further evidence, one need only look to the Martians. These guys are the main attractions of the film, far more so than the human characters, simply because they’re so much darned fun to watch. See, the aliens in most other invasion movies are nothing more than destructive forces of nature set on wiping out humanity with ruthless efficiency. In this film, the aliens are a destructive force of nature with a sick sense of humor. They don’t just want to wipe out humanity, they want to have a good time in the process.

It’s a fascinating thing to watch these aliens take such perverse delight in their acts of wholesale massacre. For one thing, their various dirty tricks are genuinely amusing in how clever and shocking they are. For another thing, their intense enjoyment of destruction mirrors our own. They love seeing all of this mayhem unfold just as much as we do.

On a similar note, consider that we never learn exactly what the Martians want from us. We never learn why they’re destroying the planet or why they’re so dead-set on rejecting diplomacy. Personally, I submit the possibility that their reasons mirror our own as well. Maybe they’re launching an invasion not because of land or resources, but purely for their own enjoyment and catharsis. Such a pity that angle wasn’t more explicit in this film, or it might have added a brilliant level of satire to the film.

Anyway, another key reason why the aliens work so well is in the special effects. I read that the aliens were originally intended to be stop-motion, in keeping with the film’s retro feel, but this approach was rejected due to budget concerns. Fortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, going with CGI was the right choice. These aliens, their weaponry, their experiments, and their ships all needed to be brought to life in a way that could only be done with the most cutting-edge technology. And I really do mean cutting-edge.

Even by modern standards, the effects in this film are gorgeous. The make-up effects, the explosions, the aliens, and the ray gun deaths are all executed with a staggering level of creativity and skill. Even with the distinctively campy ’60s design, the alien elements of this film all look so tactile and lifelike that it’s awe-inspiring.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mars Attacks! is easily one of the finer examples in the “brain-dead CGI extravaganza” sub-genre. This is a movie with so many poorly developed characters in such a rushed plot that the only way anyone could possibly enjoy it is by suspending disbelief to an absurd degree. And yet, through the aliens’ depraved antics, the film tacitly admits that brainless and destructive enjoyment is the whole point. Moreover, through breathtaking effects, a truly global scale, and a twisted sense of humor, this movie delivers spectacular mayhem in spades.

It’s a spot-on parody of alien invasion films, for better or for worse.

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