Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 8, 2010)
Back in 1996, I first saw Mars Attacks! before it began its theatrical run; I took in a Thanksgiving weekend preview showing. I knew a little about the film but I was mainly interested because I loved Tim Burton's work.
Nonetheless, I felt the flick was terrific. I was thoroughly entertained and amused for the entire running time. Every once in a while a film comes along that seems so new and fresh and exciting that you remember just how great movies can be; Mars Attacks! definitely fell into that category.
I think the movie didn't open in wide release for another few weeks, so I didn't hear any critical reaction until then. To say the least, they didn't agree with my viewpoint. Most critics savaged it and the audiences stayed home; I think it made something like $942 dollars at the box office.
I'm still not sure why Mars Attacks! tanked so badly, but I think it simply may have been a movie that really didn't have much of an audience. It was basically a parody of both old science fiction movies and of those all-star cast disaster pictures from the 1970s, and that melange of spoofs didn’t seem to appeal to an audience. I think many people may also have interpreted it as a rip-off of the then-recent hit Independence Day.
Well, whether people didn't get the joke or didn't want to get the joke, I don't know. But I liked it, dammit!
To be honest, the film loses some of its appeal upon subsequent viewings. I think it bowled me over to such a degree simply because I had so little idea what to expect. Sure, I knew Tim Burton's style, so I figured it would be semi-campy and gleefully perverse, but that was about it.
As such, I really delighted in seeing all of the nifty touches Burton put into his film. I found Mars Attacks! to be truly unpredictable and I was constantly amused by the wacky actions depicted on the screen. The film had virtually no plot - it was just "Martians come, Martians attack, Martians die" - but it didn't matter; all the fun was found in the behavior of the Martians themselves and all else became secondary.
Obviously, a film loses its element of surprise when you watch it a second time, so what had been delightful and fresh the first time became simply pleasant and entertaining the second. Oh, I laughed a few times and I enjoyed the flick, but the experience didn't compare to the riotous screening I experienced during that preview.
Now that I've seen the movie five or six times I can say that while I definitely still like Mars Attacks! it's not quite the cinematic masterpiece I originally thought it was. It's still great fun to see the high-class cast camp it up, and while none of the big names really stands out - because there are so many actors, most don't have enough time to make much of an impression - they all perform well.
Actually, the most memorable performances in the film come from Sylvia Sidney as a somewhat-senile grandmother and from Lisa Marie in her non-speaking role as a Martian dolled up to look like a babe, or at least a babe as the Martians interpreted them through old issues of Playboy. The latter continues to amaze as she perfectly mimes the motions of the Martians and provides a hilarious depiction of how Martians try to act seductive for humans.
It's really the Martians that are the draw for this film, however. It's pretty clear that Burton's affection resides with them, not the humans, and I'm with him on this one: the Martians really are a trip. Although they share the same goal, these aren't the faceless, emotionless drones of Independence Day; no, the Martians are joyously sadistic. They don't just want to conquer the Earth; they want to do it with some style. And that they do! Well, they don't actually conquer the Earth, but they sure do have a ball trying!
One big criticism of Mars Attacks! stemmed from the fact that it spent a great deal of time setting up a large cast of characters but it then proceeded to kill many of them in rapid succession. I actually liked this aspect of the film because it made things much less predictable. This way we had no idea who'd make it through and who wouldn't; despite what you may think, no character - human or otherwise - was off-limits. I found that quite refreshing.
On the other hand, 14 years down the road, the movie’s visual effects don’t hold up well. Mars features plenty of CG that looks awfully dated and cheesy at this point – but not cheesy in the way Burton intended. Sure, much of the movie wanted to look cheap to evoke sci-fi of the 1950s, but the computer elements were supposed to integrate cleanly. By 1996 standards, they do, but by 2010 standards, they look weak.
No one will confuse Mars Attacks! for one of Tim Burton’s best films. It seems hit or miss and fails to hold up terribly well to repeated screenings. Nonetheless, the movie tosses enough at the wall to ensure that some of the gags stick. It’s a generally lively and creative flick that includes enough positives to merit a recommendation.