I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton. After all, here he was - making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.
Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don't remember the reviewer...). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn't tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.
Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top, and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! -- before the Martians arrive -- are pretty dire. It's a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j'accuse). The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose. The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little. It just dies on-screen.
Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet). Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs.
For instance, these alien creatures go (far...) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility. And that's what's so funny.
The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere. And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they're just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.
This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders. Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.
As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed. Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat. And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton's trademark, brilliant visual invention. I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.
Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don't work.
The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson's president), in the military (as represented by Steiger's character), in big business (in Nicholson's Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox's attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by -- shudder -- Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan's egghead character, Dr. Kessler).
To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed "categories" seems blinded by agendas which don't fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion). In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively. There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an "either/or," binary approach.
And again, in real life this was the era of hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.
On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan's bleeding-heart scientist, who can't seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.
Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.
Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that -- in times of war -- it's okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first. That's the patriotic thing to do.
Again, not a pretty picture in either case.
Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: "can't we all just get along?" That's an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes.
Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of "Pox on Both Your Houses" message of principle from the film itself.
With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it's up to the president's resourceful young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.
And again, the film's last scenes -- notably post-Martian and post-establishment -- re-assert visually a sense of natural order. Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.
On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media. And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas). In other words, the disenfranchised of America. A new world order?
Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) "clean-up" crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito's character.
Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on...).
But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations. Someone should give them their own TV series.