Nice planet. We’ll take it!
Tim Burton turns out a perfect homage to the campy, cheesy sci-fi movies of the 1950s and ’60s. Mars Attacks! features a star-packed cast and some of the best digital effects you’ll ever see.
I should state at the start that there is no possible way for me to write an unbiased review of Mars Attacks! or any other Tim Burton movie. Burton may not be a director in the same league as Welles or Hitchcock or Scorsese, but he is definitely my favorite director. For those of you unfamiliar with Burton’s work, he was the director of enjoyable movies like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (easily the DVD I am looking forward to the most in 2000), Edward Scissorhands, the good Batman movies (Batman and Batman Returns), and Sleepy Hollow. His movies are so full of fun and style and creativity that it is impossible not to overlook his weak points (namely character development and lack of plot depth).
Mars Attacks! was based on a Topps trading card set released in 1962. The 66-card set received a limited production run because of the objections of parents and bad press due to the card’s graphic nature. The cards told the tale of Martians attempting to conquer Earth because their planet was on the verge of a core meltdown. Naturally Earth repels the attackers and defeats them just before Mars implodes.
The movie updates and otherwise alters the plot slightly. In the movie, no motive is given for the Martians’ aggressiveness other than their impish, evil nature. The Martians come under the guise of peace and goodwill, but soon turn to destroying everything on Earth. Nothing can stand against the Martians until an unexpected secret weapon is discovered: the yodeling of Slim Whitman. But hey, Mars Attacks! isn’t about plot. It’s just a way of packaging clever effects, dark humor, and over-the-top characters.
The effects are the highlight of the movie. They are the handiwork of several studios, most notably Industrial Light and Magic. ILM produced the digitally created Martians. Most all-CG characters do not seem to exist in three dimensions, or lack the personality that makes them seem realistic. The Martians have such life and personality that it is very easy to believe that the creatures are real, and that there’s a branch of the Screen Actors Guild on Mars. The effects overall don’t have the polish of more recent movies, but that’s part of the period the movie evokes.
The cast of Mars Attacks! reads like Who’s Who in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson (Chinatown, Batman, As Good As It Gets) steals the movie in two roles, as the President of the United States and as a Las Vegas real estate developer. He is deliciously over-the-top in the way only Jack can be. I could go on and on about the other actors, but I’ll only highlight my favorites. Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) appears as the First Lady, Natalie Portman (The Phantom Menace) as the First Daughter, Danny DeVito (Man On The Moon) as a lawyer on vacation in Las Vegas, Michael J. Fox (the Back To The Future trilogy) as a television news anchor, and Pierce Brosnan (the current James Bond) as a very Fred MacMurray-ish scientist. Oh yeah, and Tom Jones as himself.
The Warner Brothers-produced Mars Attacks! DVD was released in 1997. Other than the limited extras, it compares favorably with the WB’s more recent releases. Very few discs look or sound this good. The movie is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame, on opposite sides of the disc. The picture is razor-sharp and is free of digital artifacts. Colors are vibrant and do not bleed. The Dolby Digital track has deep, rich base and generously uses the surround and LFE channels. I can forgive the lack of extras because, for this movie at least, it features the best special feature of all: an isolated music track. I love the film music of Danny Elfman. He has scored most of Tim Burton’s movies, and the Mars Attacks! score is among his best. The other extras include eight pages of production notes, two theatrical trailers, and cast bios. (Amazon.com incorrectly says the disc contains an uncut, unrated version. It’s the same version I saw in the theatres and oh so many times on video.)
As a commenter at the IMDb says, Mars Attacks! is the sort of movie you either love or you hate. This is good. A movie should evoke an emotional response, whether that response is positive or negative. I’ve known people who have said, “My god, that movie was sooo stupid!” I quickly seek to unmake their acquaintance. Mars Attacks! wasn’t made to be cultured or intelligent — it’s just supposed to be funny and quirky. Shut up and enjoy it, dammit!
Widescreen Review says Mars Attacks! is reference quality, and you better believe they’re right. If you’re not humor-impaired, then by all means add it to your collection.
If you’re a fan of the movie, I’d strongly recommend that you visit the links to the right. The official site is one of the best and most creative movie sites I’ve ever visited. Mars Attacks Gallery contains pictures of all the cards in the original set, and you’ll see that the production designers stuck very closely to the original art.