Forget Independence Day. If you really want to see Earth get it, you can't do any better than Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!. It's a destructo orgy without any phony-baloney sanctimony about the fellowship of man--or spaceman.
Burton isn't interested in intergalactic amity; he's not even interested in preserving the Earth. He's like a precocious, nut-brained kid pumped with '50s sci-fi pulp. But he doesn't take his pulp straight. Burton turns inside out the tacky stalwart grandeur of such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Part homage and part demolition job, Mars Attacks! is perhaps the funniest piece of giddy schlock heartlessness ever committed to film.
Pure id runs riot: Movie stars get incinerated right along with the extras; Sarah Jessica Parker's head gets transplanted onto a Chihuahua's body; Martians morph into robotic Playboy babes with beehive 'dos and torpedo tits. Everything about Mars Attacks! is flagrantly lewd, yet presexual--a preadolescent's fever dream. The real sex in this movie is in the wacko mayhem and the gorgeousness of the grotesquerie. It's a nonstop kitsch spritz.
With screenwriter Jonathan Gems, Burton draws not only on '50s sci-fi, but on images from Cocteau, Dr. Strangelove, The Bride of Frankenstein and pulp comic books and trading cards--including, of course, the 1962 Topps Mars Attacks! series, which was withdrawn from the market for being too lurid. He riffs on the '70s cycle of disaster epics such as The Towering Inferno and Earthquake.
The implicit joke behind those straight-faced disaster films was that destruction was a turn-on; in Earthquake, audiences grooved to L.A.'s collapse--it was Biblical-style retribution for Sin City. In Mars Attacks!, Burton brings the joke out into the open; he doesn't disguise his glee in blowing things up, and his main targets--Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas--are eminently blow-up-able. They're America's yin and yang: The White House and the MGM Grand are the twin tepees of our national imagination.
Everybody gets it in Mars Attacks!. (Everybody deserves to get it.) We first see a herd of cattle on fire stampeding through the Kansas heartland; it's a tip-off the Martians have arrived. A credit sequence follows in which their saucers wheel through space like giant hubcaps, while, on the soundtrack, the woozy sound of the theremin gives us cold creeps. Then we switch from the heartland to the Pentagon--commonly a reassuring trajectory in '50s sci-fi.
But the Washington honchos here are far from reassuring: President James Dale is played by eyebrow-flexing Jack Nicholson, who also plays the sequined Vegas real estate hustler Art Land--hustlers high and low. General Decker (Rod Steiger) is a bald-pated horror whose game plan for the impending Martian touchdown is simple: "Kill! Kill! Kill!" His opposite number, Paul Winfield's General Casey, sees the Martian arrival in the Arizona desert as a peace offering; he greets them with the intergalactic sign of the doughnut. The interminably pipe-puffing government scientist Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) is so preternaturally calm he's practically an alien, too. He's all intellect--all head--so when the Martians actually reduce him to a floating cranium, he's essentially the same guy. If he seems vaguely denuded, it's not because he's bodiless, but because he's pipeless.
Sci-fi movies usually thump either for Pentagon power or we-the-people gumption. But Tim Burton is an equal-opportunity scourge. It's as if he read all those high-toned tracts on the "meaning" of '50s sci-fi flicks--how they were a metaphor for the Cold War and nuclear holocaust--and decided to diddle those theories every which way. You can't call Mars Attacks! reactionary sci-fi. True, the heartland masses, led by trailer-park patriarch Joe Don Baker, are mostly stunted yokels--but then, so are Washington's top brass. The Pentagon is just a goofball phallic symbol. The Martians snip it and tip it. Mars Attacks! is prepolitical in the same way it's presexual; it uses its demonic emblems of force kiddy-cartoon-style.
When Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern lampooned the military in Dr. Strangelove, they did it with an overlay of jokey sophistication--it was supposed to be black comedy for "knowing" adults. Burton's visual fantasias--the way, for example, he turns Vegas into a fan dance of irradiated reds and blues and greens--are certainly sophisticated. But his sensibility isn't--at least not in the usual ways. He's making fun of '50s schlock sci-fi in Mars Attacks!, but he's also deeply drawn to it; this is why he could make a movie such as Ed Wood, which enshrines schlock. Success in the movie business hasn't made Burton "knowing." He's goofing on '50s schlock, but he's not "commenting" on it: To do that would be to disown the love he feels for it.
The love runs pretty deep, and the genuine scariness that sometimes arises from Mars Attacks! is keyed to just how deeply all this schlock has burrowed into Burton's brain. There are people who couldn't stomach Burton's Beetlejuice and Batman and, especially, Edward Scissorhands. The pop dementia on view seemed too unsettling; he set us up for a cartoon romp and then went all ghastly on us. Burton takes audiences farther out into the realms of pop-comic heebie-jeebies than any other director, but some audiences respond to him the way they more often respond to David Lynch. They want to know why this guy is dumping all his sicko stuff on us.
It's easy to be affronted by Burton's movies because there is an element of cruelty in his relationship with the audience; there's a joy buzzer in his handshake. He wants to give us the willies because he's already got them--and he doesn't want to be alone with them. Better we should all be spooked.
The Martians in Mars Attacks! are a full grade scarier than we might expect from a sci-fi spoof. As designed by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, they're computer-generated gargoyles with big brains like curlicued blooms of tufa; their lidless bulging eyeballs and skull smiles are not remotely cute. When the Martians create a playmate to heat up the president's libidinous press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short) and gain access to the White House, their creation (Lisa Marie) resembles the dream-walking undead in a film by Cocteau or Franju (specifically The Eyes Without a Face). Her herky-jerky gyroscopic glide through the hallways of power is one scary-funny wiggle. Jerry is so smitten with her that he starts to move like her. When he pulls on her flesh, her cheek falls away (so does Jerry). This Martian Girl is a pinup nightmare--the wrath of plastic.
The Topps Mars Attacks! cards, painted by veteran pulp magazine artist Norm Saunders, were dandy little decals of luridness: The cards' titles--such as "Destroying a Dog," "Burning Flesh" and "Beast and the Beauty"--were emblazoned on lascivious scenes of destruction backgrounded by blood-red skies. There's nothing spoofy about them.
Burton connects to the kid-stuff horror in the cards. He also feels affection for their frights. He wants us to know that the bluenoses were right--the cards were dangerous. In Mars Attacks!, Burton, who started out as an animator, uses the cards' luridness as inspiration, but then he gooses us. Mars Attacks! is scary-funny in ways we haven't seen before--except perhaps in other Burton movies or in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, which also goosed us with overkill.
The one character in the film who comes across as genuinely heroic--as opposed to mock-heroic--is Lukas Haas' Richie, the Kansas slacker who, helped inadvertently by his dotty grandmother (Sylvia Sidney), figures out a way to burst the Martians' brains. (Their craniums appear to be engorged with Prell.) It's perhaps no accident that Richie, with his shambling alertness and scraggly locks, resembles Burton. Richie brings out Burton's Boy Scout side. When, on a Kansas back road at night, a giant Martian robot clomps after the boy attempting to escape in his truck, we fear for him in a way we don't for anybody else in the movie.
How could we fear for anybody else? Burton's satiric point is that the humans are just as soulless and far-out as the Martians. They're too stunted even to react properly to the invasion; while the world is being incinerated, Vegas still packs 'em in and the White House is still giving tours. A TV reporter (Michael J. Fox) tries to wangle a Martian interview; he might be trying to score a celebrity. Tom Jones, who seems ageless enough to be an alien himself, continues to croon "It's Not Unusual" even when his back-up singers turn out to be barking aliens.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The '50s sci-fi movie stalwarts, such as John Agar or Richard Carlson, were so deeply bland that they might as well have been androids. But their blandness wasn't intended satirically. In Mars Attacks!, the more straight-arrow you are, like Pierce Brosnan's pipe puffer, the weirder--and more laughable--you seem. Burton casts Jim Brown as an ex-heavyweight boxing champ who, dressed as an Egyptian, works as a Vegas casino greeter; it's such a funny image, and Brown is so imperially blank, that you almost don't mind that Burton hasn't really figured out what to do with him. (He ends up boxing the Martians--big wow.) Burton's clunkiness, at least, is in the service of a higher clunkiness.
It would be too bad if smart adults turned away from Mars Attacks! and left it to the smart kids. A lot of drippy movies are out there appealing to the child within; Burton's new film appeals to the brat within. Despite a few forced efforts at topicality and political jokesterism--like the scene in the White House in which the Reagan chandelier crushes Glenn Close, as the president's shrewish wife, or the way Paul Winfield recalls General Colin Powell--Mars Attacks! stays resolutely within its nut-house campgrounds.
Fifties sci-fi movies may have been a skewed response to Cold War fears, but Mars Attacks! is a post-Cold War romp. The Russians don't even figure in it. And with no commies around to target, Burton goes blooey and targets everything. We've come a long way. Dr. Strangelove, our greatest Cold War comedy, was, of course, subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In Mars Attacks!, Burton has his Martians inhale a nuclear missile and get high on the radiation. You can't love the bomb any more than that.
Directed by Tim Burton; with Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close.