“Why can’t we work out our differences? Why can’t we work things out? Little people, why can’t we all just get along?” – President James Dale, Mars Attacks! (1996)
Remember way back when I first watched Beetlejuice (1986) and I said I wasn’t a fan of Tim Burton? Well, I did sort of like Beetlejuice, it was odd enough to work. So when my local supermarket started selling the Warner Bros. collection, I sort of went all out. They’re a special edition of films that have some nice dust sleeves, I ended up getting The Shining (1980) and this, Mars Attacks!. That’s really sad, isn’t it? Now, I mentioned Burton a few sentences ago, why is that? Because it turns out Tim Burton directed this film, and you honestly wouldn’t think it was his doing after you finish watching this. That is if you do watch this, which I honestly wouldn’t recommend.
Martians have found Earth! As an act of cementing himself in history, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) uses this as a platform of peace. Aided by scientist Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) and his band of military generals, they decide the aliens are peaceful. They are, of course, not peaceful. From there, the film takes off as a zany action as several different groups begin to survive. It’s an ensemble cast including Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Jack Black, Michael J. Fox, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker and Martin Short.
You know, I didn’t really expect much from this film, and I’m glad my expectations weren’t that high. I’d obviously heard of the cult classic stature the film held, and I do love a good classic. See, the thing about Mars Attacks! is that it’s not actually supposed to be good, I think. Either way, it wasn’t very good in that sense. More or less, the film serves as a homage to the sci-fi films of the 1950s and 1960s. You can definitely see the resemblance between the two. The overall cheap look of the film, while definitely intended, does not detract from the film in any way. If anything it does a good job of portraying that much needed homage to the source material.
But the problem with paying homage to source material, is that first you need to make sure the source material is actually worth homaging. Because to me, the 1950s and 1960s of film is a barren wasteland of boredom. Nothing but romance and soppy bullshit. Of course there are a few exceptions to that rule, I’ve just never been a fan of black and white films. An exception to that rule is Schindler’s List (1991), but for the most part I don’t like black and white. Luckily, Mars Attacks! is in full colour.
Really all it takes from that of its source is the looks and identity. There’s a definite feel of a lack of inspiration here, and I think that was the point. When we first see the aliens, we’re in the Nevada desert, it tucks itself away into the cliches of films from the 1950s. Both the films biggest achievement and largest weakness.
This is especially apparent in the actual depth of the film. There is nothing of actual depth, it’s just an hour and a bit of filler. Nothing more, nothing less, and it does sort of work. Really what the film is to me is a set of jokes that needed a plot. There are several different groups of characters that we follow, they never interact with each other. What they have is a contained story, all caused by the martian invasion. I suppose it’s an interesting angle to look into, but how much of it actually works is really beyond me.
Actually, considering Tom Jones is in this film, you’ll be expecting a good soundtrack right? Well, you’ll get an absolutely stellar soundtrack. It’s full not only of songs like “It’s Not Unusual” but other orchestrated music. When we first see the aliens invading Earth, the music that plays over these scenes is excellent. But there was one sound in this film that bugged me beyond belief. That sound would be “Ack!” which is the word used by the aliens to communicate. Eventually it genuinely did sound a bit like Hitler. Was that the point of these noises or not? Because let’s be fair it wouldn’t have worked if they spoke like regular people. I suppose not speaking is just as bad. Honestly though “Ack!” got very annoying very quickly.
It’s odd given a sci-fi’s cinematography and set design fails to impress me. What I was expecting was some top of the range, mindblowing stuff to look at. What I got were some CGI aliens that are barely passable. I honestly did believe that the aliens in this film were actually men in costumes, but apparently I was wrong. I should point out that is what I thought before I viewed the film. My disappointment came really from how cheap they look. If they had in fact gone for some actual props instead of some CGI, then it would have been much better. Especially considering 1996 as a year for CGI, really wasn’t the best. That’s no more apparent than with Mars Attacks! which, for it’s time, must have looked great. But now, in 2017, it looks dreadful. Passable though, that’s not as bad as unbearable.
Honestly, if you were to just show me the first two acts of this film I would have thought it was very boring. Nothing within the first hour or so is even that funny. When the aliens do in fact mount their overall invasion, that’s when it gets funny. When Tom Jones and Danny DeVito are running away from a casino, that is when it gets funny. I’d say the last twenty minutes, all compiled together, are definitely the best parts of the film. For me, there seems to be too many limits on what Burton want’s to do with this film. If he had just made the most insanely unbelievable setting and story, then it would have worked. But no, he does actually try to incorporate some realism into the film and I have no idea why.
If you want to see a film in which Tom Jones sings “It’s Not Unusual” and kills Aliens by doing so, then this is the film for you. Honestly, while I couldn’t watch this sober, I think it’d be a lot of fun with friends or while absolutely mullered. It’s one of those so bad it’s good films and it works very well. But beyond that, it can’t work as anything more than that. It’s plot doesn’t interest me, nor do many of the characters if I’m honest. Jack Nicholson plays two different characters and really fails to do anything with the pair of them, that’s a shame.
When you look at this film you can look at it in one of two ways. The first is to look at it as a homage to sci-fi films. If you look at it like that then you’ll see a fairly sub par film that doesn’t do anything to expand on the genre it compliments. Really what it does is that it takes all the major aspects of films like that and then just does them again. But it doesn’t put a unique spin on them, they’re just there, never criticised or complimented. The second way to look at this film is to assume it’s just a regular sci-fi film.
If that is the case then the final act is the only act worth watching. That is balls to the wall hilarity, either that or the sleep deprivation had kicked in around the hour mark. Either way, Mars Attacks! is a lovely B-Movie that you should watch if you’re drunk.