THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! Ack Ack Ack, Ack Ack Ack-ack Ack ‘Mars Attacks!’ Ack-ack

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As this column has already looked back upon the almost irreparable damage done to the legacy of Tim Burton with his ill-fated remake of Planet of the Apes, now let us look back to the final triumph of classical Burton, though I’d defend Frankenweenie as a legitimately good movie. But like practically all of Burton’s last decade-and-a-half of work, Frankenweenie is a retread. Burton just remaking his own work. Following what is likely his best film, Ed Wood, Burton’s last hurrah came with Mars Attacks!. A critical and commercial failure upon its release, Mars Attacks! is a film of manic energy, a collage of cinematic tropes from various eras.

As much as I look at Burton’s recent work as a series of retreads, Mars Attacks! was especially unique since it was based upon a series of trading cards put out by Topps in 1962. The Mars Attacks! cards told the story of an alien invasion with incredibly graphic violence for its era, blood and gore flowing from impaled bodies and severed limbs. Like the other series of cards by Topps, Dinosaurs Attack!, the series was a parody of the era’s b-movies – Mars representing the sci-fi films and Dinosaurs representing monster movies. Following the success of Jurassic Park, Burton chose to adapt Mars Attacks! instead of Dinosaurs Attack!. Using a script by Jonathan Gems, with uncredited rewrites by Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Mars Attacks! is an unofficial companion piece to Ed Wood.


Originally intended to have the Martians done with stop motion effects, there were models created and test footage was shot, but as the budget creeped closer towards $100 million, Burton and the studio decided to make the murderous Martians with CG effects. At the time of its release the effects of Mars Attacks! were impressive. As happens with special effects extravaganzas, the effects have diminished over time – the combination of advances in technology and the audience’s ability to notice the seams of the illusion. Mars Attacks! has a distinct advantage over other special effects driven spectacle – it doesn’t have to look great for the film to maintain its impact.

One reason the film may have underwhelmed at the box office is that it was aimed at an audience that wouldn’t fully understand what the film was parodying. With its impressive cast – Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Rod Steiger, Natalie Portman, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Tom JonesMars Attacks! features the kind of cast that one would find in the ‘70s disaster films produced by Irwin Allen, namely The Towing Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The film’s aesthetic is hodgepodge of ‘50s sci-fi homage. Ranging from legitimately good movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still to the Z-grade schlock of Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon. For the audience the marketing was courting, none of these reference would amount to much. I distinctly recall friends from school referring to the movie as simply stupid, completely unaware of its intent.


For a film that focuses on the political elements of an alien invasion, Mars Attacks! is entirely apolitical. Whether the warmonger member of the Joint Chiefs or the calm peacenik member, they both are woefully incompetent. The calm, calculated scientist is just as incapable to handle the invasion as the soulless PR lackey. It’s War of the Worlds and Independence Day handled by officials with the combined intelligence of Frank Drebin and a lamppost. The most important aspect of the Martian attack is that it’s all started by some filthy hippy who lets a dove fly. In case you were uncertain, hippies, like gamers, ruin everything.

The role of reporter Jason Stone was offered to Johnny Depp who, amazingly, turned it down – the role would be played by Michael J. Fox. Why Depp turned down Mars Attacks! while accepting roles in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows is uncertain. Regardless who played to role, he wouldn’t have much screen time. A majority of the film’s marquee stars meet their demise at the hands of the Martian invaders. Sadly, the film was forced to tone down the graphic violence of the source material in order to secure a PG-13 rating. One can only wonder now if the joke might have been more apparent on audiences had the film secured an R rating, and geysers of blood were allowed to flow.

I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

Mars Attacks! opened against a juggernaut of sentimentality known as Jerry Maguire. While Maguire owned the box office crown, Mars Attacks! has outlived it as a cult classic. Nowadays, Jerry Maguire has only gained notoriety for the massive collection assembled by the video scavengers Everything Is Terrible – I recently got to see their Throne of Jerrys and it was really impressive. Mars Attacks! flopped and it seems that since then Tim Burton has only ventured into safe territory, nothing really constituting a risky property, though that may change this winter with Big Eyes, a drama about Walter and Margaret Keane, painters of the famous big-eyed children. Whether or not Big Eyes hits, Mars Attacks! stands as the last Burton film that feels different, not derivative. Here’s hoping he can recapture that manic energy.


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