Mars Attacks (1996)
By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) -
I have a confession to make. I actually spent the majority of my childhood without a TV. Gasp! Right? Now look where I ended up, editing a movie review website based on rating films with beer.
The drinking part’s always been a thing
Because of this, I have a strange hole in my movie watching experience from about 1985 to 1995 that includes a lot of flicks my peers caught on home video as kids (by the way- remember Home Video? Remember VHS at all? I should not feel old at this age…) Though not the most embarrassing of these (Labyrinth? Anything Muppets related?) Mars Attacks! is one of those films.
This movie is Tim Burton’s second love letter to cheesy 1950s scifi, after Ed Wood. This time he goes the comedy/satire route, full of over-the-top characters who all have to deal with an invasion of duplicitous, quacking Martians.
My favorite part, by far, is the Martians’ voices. Coming off something like a pissed-off duck with a severe head cold, they never failed to make me chuckle. I don’t care who you are, angry quacking is funny.
Ducks, God’s practical joke
I also liked the idea of the film in general. Campy 50s scifi leaves plenty of room for satire, and the huge, star-studded cast obviously has fun with the exercise. Notable are Jack Nicholson playing both POTUS and a seedy, cowboy-hat rocking Las Vegas businessman, and Jack Black in one of his earliest roles stealing every scene he’s in as a not-so bright wanna-be jarhead. Also, for my money you can’t have too many ferrets or tiny barky chihuahuas in a movie.
Well, too many ferrets anyway. Beastmaster!
If this is what today’s CGI looks like to us fifteen years from now… ouch. Shitty, dated CGI actually kinda works in a Plan 9-esque schlockfest, but that doesn’t make Jim Brown flailing around at and never quite connecting with poorly rendered extraterrestrials any less of an exercise in humiliation.
The ending, with the rousing speech and Natalie Portman deciding to shack up with a nearly catatonic Lukas Haas, is just awful. Overall, the film ends up embracing a lot of the hallmarks of scifi camp that it should be spoofing, and it’s never more evident than here.
When it does stay true to the spoof, Mars Attacks! does a pretty good job, but when it comes to comedy, it all plays as a large genre in-joke. Instead of laugh out loud funny, it’s more ‘okay, I see where you got that’ polite chuckle-inducing.
If you’re a fan of cheesy, low-budget old school sci-fi and/or Tim Burton, I’d give it a watch. If you’re just looking for great satire comedy, though, go find something with Leslie Nielsen in it.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a new recognizable part of the ensemble shows up on screen
Take a Drink: every time someone gets fried (careful!)
Drink a Shot: every time the Martians pull a double-cross