When I wrote my book on Tim Burton, Mars Attacks! (1996) was his latest film — and it seemed like a bit of a letdown as an ending for the story. (I understand that the Italian edition ends with chapters on Sleepy Hollow (1999). I certainly wrote said chapters, but I’ve never seen the book to confirm if the thing even exists.) It wasn’t that it was a bad film — though it hadn’t been well-received — but it seemed so much less important than the Burton movie that preceded it, Ed Wood (1994). I think part of the problem was that it was too many different things. And the main thing about it — that it was based on a set of 1962 trading cards that had been withdrawn after complaints that they were too gory, too suggestive, too violent and too disturbing — had already guaranteed that it was going to be deliberately subversive.
On the one hand, Burton was creating a movie that Ed Wood himself might have dreamed of making. It was also Burton’s biggest undertaking to date — a gigantic widescreen spectacular with the kind of all-star cast last seen in 1970s disaster movies. As a capper, Mars Attacks! was unregenerate in its anarchic take on mankind and martiankind. Nearly everyone and every creature in the film is reprehensible, stupid or both. No one is safe from satire, and no one is safe from being killed off at any given moment. This is one mean — not in a bad way — little movie. It doesn’t suffer fools or much of anyone.
The film’s basic idea is that the world is mostly made up of morons, bozos and posers with only a handful of remotely likable victims of these characters. To make matters worse, the invading Martians — regardless of their technological accomplishments — are nothing more than mean-spirited, horny frat boys, who conduct pointless experiments that are on a par with pulling the wings off butterflies and laughing. In a sense, the world and those attacking it are pretty evenly matched assholes. The only exceptions are a much undervalued teenager (Lukas Haas), his senile, Slim Whitman-loving grandmother (Sylvia Sidney), the president’s daughter (Natalie Portman), an ex-boxer (Jim Brown), his estranged wife (Pam Grier), their kids, a ditsy New Age lush (Annette Bening) and Tom Jones. Why Tom Jones? Well, because he’s Tom Jones, of course. A case can be made that the president (Jack Nicholson) isn’t a bad guy — despite his Nancy Reaganish wife (Glenn Close) — but he’s magnificently ineffectual. Otherwise, this is a world just ripe for the disintegration ray.
Time has made all of this seem less unreasonable than it did in 1996. Today, some of its excesses don’t seem as excessive. The posturing and posing of public figures no longer comes across as particularly exaggerated. The moment where the Martians wipe out Congress isn’t shocking anymore. And Sylvia Sidney’s delighted response, “They blew up Congress!” actually seems pretty satisfying these days. The only problem is that it doesn’t really leave us with much to care about — other than delight in some dark amusement. For some, that may well be enough.
Other aspects of the movie — notably the intentionally cheesy special effects and references to 1950s sci-fi flicks — always worked as long as you were in on the joke. Burton’s use of unrefined CGI to recreate the stop-motion look of the old Ray Harryhausen effects from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) is close to genius. Making the aliens into vicious, cosmic practical jokers is inspired. The aliens in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers may have toppled the Washington Monument onto a crowd of screaming extras, but Burton’s aliens go a step further by constantly shifting the structure to fall on the largest number of people — taking the whole concept to a new level. What once was mindless mayhem has here become a kind of gleeful mass murder. Is it misanthropic? Probably, but that’s kind of the point. That it all takes place amid gorgeous retro-production design with an immaculate cast — all of whom seem in on the nasty joke — makes it that much more brilliantly disturbing.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Mars Attacks! Thursday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.