Rated PG-13 for sci-fi fantasy violence and brief sexuality.
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: December 13, 1996
Based on his overall body of work, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Tim Burton revealed that he was always a fan of 1950s sci-fi movies. He is in a position where if he wanted to pay homage to the genre, he has the filmmaking chops to pull it off rather successfully. It is quite curious then that Mars Attacks! comes off as a hiccup in Burton's filmography. What should be a lovingly crafted tribute to alien invasion films is a rather empty and heartless, and sometimes mean-spirited, piece of work. This film could have been so much more than what it actually turned out to be.
In the film's opening sequence, a herd of flaming cattle stampede past curious onlookers, giving us an indication that the flying saucer seen returning to space was not friendly. Soon, a large fleet of these saucers is surrounding the planet. The President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson), is advised by his staff of know-it-alls to advise the public of the alien presence, believing it to be an opportunity to greet the alien species to Earth. Using a translator, humans believe that the aliens come in peace. However, the translator is either not working properly or it does not detect sarcasm very well, because before you know it, humans are being evaporated by the aliens at a rapid rate. Then the alien ambassador is being invited to Congress to try and work things out, and once again, people are wiped out. Meanwhile, the aliens think everything is one sick joke after another as they laugh at attempts at peace, kidnapping humans and their pets and performing meaningless and torturous experiments on their heads. Just like in any disaster film, there are a cast of humans that the plot follows and in this case there may be only one of two truly likable characters. Roles in the film are being stunt-cast with a near A-list of Hollywood who's who, but we end up not caring at all about any of these people. The characters are shallow and vapid or just completely undeveloped. The aliens contain the most personality but are so mean-spirited that you can't even root for them either. The only humor found in the plot is the repeated statement from the translator that the aliens come in peace, even while the aliens are vaporizing everything in sight.
Tim Burton is a filmmaker who directs with feeling...when he believes in the material. Some of his more heartfelt moments have been found in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. The tone of Mars Attacks! feels like Burton pulling a mean prank on an undeserving victim. Technically, the film is expertly made, especially the visual effects. The aliens are appropriately cartoonish and the action scenes are near-flawless. The production values look big budget while simultaneously maintaining a low-budget B-movie appeal. The screenplay by Jonathan Gems, however, is part of the problem with Mars Attacks! The material should be aware that it is paying homage, with little winks at the audience, but it is without that self-aware humor. It's almost as if Burton and crew have never actually sat down and watched the genre that it wants to emulate. An awkward flirtation between the heads of two characters is supposed to be funny?
The cast is filled with many familiar names: Nicholson (in a dual role), Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger. In most cases, it feels like stunt casting. DeVito's character in particular is a huge waste of his talents. His character doesn't even have a name other than "Rude Gambler". Of course, with the way this material was filmed, casting A and B list names would be a good way to take the focus off the story. A couple of exceptions were Lukas Haas as Richie, a young man from a horrible redneck family, who only cares about the well-being of his grandmother, and Jim Brown as Byron, a casino employee who just wants to get back to Washington to be with his family. Also, most of the actors are each on-screen very briefly so it's almost as if it is a cast of cameo appearances rather than the film's featured players.
Mars Attacks! had the potential to be a love letter to a bygone era in film, but without any heart it flatlines almost from the beginning. Great visual effects cannot make up for all the humorless scenes, the badly underdeveloped or just plain horribly-written characters and the mean-intentioned story. One of the final scenes is singer Tom Jones (playing himself) emerging from a cave to make friends with some animals. The feeling here is that someone in pre-production thought this would be a funny scene. In a perfect film, it would be. However, in Mars Attacks! it is just another scene stacked on top of a shallow mess. Independence Day was much more fun than this movie.