Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1996)


7. Mars Attacks!

By 1996, my future status as a film nerd was solidifying. I was aware that movie director was a thing people could do for a living and that fascinated me. There weren’t many directors I was aware of by Tim Burton was definitely high on that limited list. I loved “Batman Returns” and “Edward Scissorhands” as a kid and, even to an eight-year old, Burton’s distinctive style was obvious. The point of this meandering introduction is that I was pretty pumped for “Mars Attacks!” when it was coming out. Tim Burton paying extended homage to fifty B-flicks? Count me in. When I finally saw the film, I was disappointed. I found it overly mean-spirited and unfocused. Watching the movie for the first time in 18 years, I find my opinion hasn’t changed very much. “Mars Attacks!” is the director’s first major misstep.

Inspired by the infamous Topps’ bubble gum card series, “Mars Attacks!” has bulbous-headed Martian invaders attacking the Earth, swiftly crushing our armies with their advanced heatray weaponry. The film approaches the story like an Irwin Allen disaster flick, focusing on a number of divergent characters, all caught up in the alien invasion. The pacifistic President of the United States at first attempts to reason with the Martians, according to the advice of the naïve Professor Kessler, the laid-back General Casey, and the horny White House Press Secretary. Meanwhile, the warmongering General Decker wants to nuke the Martians as soon as they land. The image obsessed first lady and the president’s brooding daughter are more neutral to the landing Martians. All attempts to communicate with the aliens fail and, as promised by the title, Mars attacks the Earth. The film also focuses on the teenage son of a redneck family, his gun-obsessed parents, his senile grandmother, his jar head older brother, the brother’s unfaithful girlfriend, a ditzy fashion reporter, her narcissistic news reporter husband, a retired Vegas boxer, the wife and kids he’s trying to reconcile with, a sleazy casino developer, his New Age believer/recovering alcoholic wife, a rowdy gambler, a showgirl, and Tom Jones. I think that’s every body.

The sprawling cast of “Mars Attacks!” is perhaps its biggest problem. By splitting screen time between twenty-four named characters, and an alien invasion, the viewer is left without a main protagonist to sympathize with. Every character is a thin sketch, with no defining characteristics beyond a token attribute or two. In a more focused film, Lukas Haas’ alienated Richie would probably be the audience surrogate. In a Tim Burton film, you’d expected the isolated teenager to be the main character. Instead, Richie’s personality mostly boils down to preferring his Grandma over the rest of his obnoxious family and working in a donut shop.

In a traditional fifties sci-fi flick, the movies “Mars Attacks!” is ostensibly parodying, the hero would certainly have been Pierce Brosnan’s Professor Kessler. Brosnan nails the egghead, condescending attitudes the iron-jawed scientist heroes always had in those films. He even sports a head of hair that wouldn’t look out of place on Rex Reason or Hugh Marlowe. However, Brosnan’s character is never likable. His constant assertions that the Martians are peaceful, even after they begin murdering hundreds of people, makes him too dense to be related. Jack Nicholson’s President has a similar issue. Welcoming the Martians with open arms, at first, is one thing. Refusing to attack them back until the last minute is another entirely. His indecisiveness makes him seem incredibly foolish.

In all truth, the film’s sprawling star-studded cast presents few likable characters. Most are shrill and cartoonish in their obnoxiousness. Jack Nicholson, for reasons the film never justifies, plays two characters. His second part, would-be casino kingpin Art Land, is callous towards his recovering wife and continues to pitch a casino to backers even while the Martians are destroying Las Vegas. (Nicholson never attempts to hide his trademark tics, making you wonder why he wanted to play two roles.) Sarah Jessica Parker’s Nathalie is a bubble-brain cliché, playing a pure Paris Hilton type during a time when Paris Hilton types were at least expected to host TV shows. Martin Short’s Press Secretary is mostly defined by his weakness for hookers and is stupid enough to let an obvious Martian spy into the White House. The usually likable Paul Winfield plays a smoozing ass-kisser. An overqualified Glenn Close has her defining moment early on, when she shoos away her troubled daughter while redecorating the White House. Rod Steiger, also playing beneath his talent, mostly screams about blowing things up with nukes. Haas’ parents are obnoxious redneck stereotypes, right down to the trailer they live in. Jack Black, as their favorite son, is even more annoying, playing an incredibly shrill dumbass would-be patriot. Christina Applegate looks lovely as his trampy girlfriend but seems to have been cast mostly to play off the actress’ preconceived fondness for trampy characters.

The movie even has the audacity to cast Michael J. Fox, probably the most likable screen prescene to ever emerge out of 1980’s Hollywood, as an asshole, a reporter more preoccupied with his job and his own looks then anything else. The movie’s obnoxious cast is best signified by Danny DeVito’s role as the Rude Gambler, a character with no other name. DeVito heightens his innate, and usually better used, abrasiveness to play a character that contributes absolutely nothing to the plot.

Yet in all the screaming broadness, one or two interesting roles peak their heads out. The most sympathetic character in the film is Jim Brown’s Byron Williams, a washed-up boxing champ now forced to work in a casino. Byron is attempting to put a shattered marriage back together. In one brief scene, where Art tries to recruit him as a debt enforcer, Williams makes it clear that he’s a man who’s done bad things in his life but is trying to put everything back together. Jim Brown has limited range as an actor but the part speaks perfectly to his down-to-Earth charm. He even gets to revive his glory days as an action star, challenging a horde of Martians to a boxing match. Fellow blaxploitation icon Pam Grier plays his estranged wife. A fretting mother might seem like a part beneath the famously tough Grier but she makes it her own, especially when dragging her truant kids onto a bus and yelling at them. In a more focused film, Natalie Portman’s Taffy, the isolated First Daughter, certainly would have had more to do. In the few scenes she has, the character plays like a less-Goth-y version of Lydia Deetz.

In Richard Schickel’s positive review of the film, he lauded the movie’s lack of likable cast members as an intentionally subversive element. Perhaps it is. However, if “Mars Attacks!” is making some sort of satirical point, it’s hopelessly muddled. The politicians in the film are painted as completely clueless and ineffectual. Nicholson’s President is so soft-handed that he practically invites the Martians' advances. Steiger’s general might be a gun-crazy nut but he’s actually right. His “nuke first, ask questions later” tactic probably would have saved a lot of lives. In that light, is “Mars Attacks!” a conservative critique on Democrats pussy-footing around conflict? As a lifelong liberal, I’ll admit that the Clinton administration wasn’t perfect but I’m fairly certain even Slick Willy would know to attack the aliens after they killed all of Congress. An explicit political basis seems unlikely, especially since the movie seems to have contempt for the military as well. All authority figures in the film are idiots so any attempted satire is thin and sketchy.

For a fact, “Mars Attacks!” seems to be on the Martians' side. The movie delights in extended scenes of the aliens wrecking havoc. However, there’s little fun to be had from the chaos. The movie seems to find humans being reduced to red and green skeletons intrinsically whimsical and repeats the gag over and over again. It’s not. Truthfully, people writing in agony as their flesh is burned off is as disturbing as the PG-13 rating will allow. Large portions of the run time are devoted to the aliens destroying Earthly landmarks. The destruction of Las Vegas or Big Ben plays out in extended detail, the camera lingering on the beautiful miniatures exploding fantastically. The effects are nice but the tone is hopelessly unsure. There’s very little of Burton’s sense of humor in the destruction. The only truly funny gag is when the Martians try to flatten a troop of boy scouts under the Washington Monument. The aliens posing in front of an exploding Taj Mahal or bowling down Easter Isle’s Moa statues at least attempt to incorporate humor into the violence. Mostly, “Mars Attacks!” is uncertain if the audience is supposed to laugh at the mayhem or be horrified by it.

Truthfully, there’s very little about “Mars Attacks!” that marks it as a Tim Burton film. The director’s trademark gothic style is nowhere to be seen. There are no Expressionistic sets or black-and-white spirals in sight. Only a few minor elements are appropriately Burton-esque. The fashion and uniforms are 1950s retro. The Martians have their suits pressed onto them by a giant squeezing device. At one point, the aliens deploy a giant robot which wrecks a trailer park. This effective scene is the director’s homage to the kaiju films he loves. (That love is blatantly displayed when Godzilla makes yet another cameo.) Some of the more surreal gags seem like the director’s work, like the woman-headed dog falling in love with the decapitated man. The scene that most obviously belongs to Burton focuses on his then-girlfriend, Lisa Marie. Marie plays a Martian spy, disguised as a big-haired woman with a tiny waist, breakneck curves, and torpedo tits. Marie never blinks or speaks, instead smoothly gliding from scene to scene. She brings a truly other-worldly element to the part. Turns out the best way to get a good performance out Lisa Marie is just not to have her speak, as she’s far more effective here then in “Ed Wood.” “Mars Attacks!” is so lacking in Burton-ness that I, at first, assumed it was a work-for-hire job for him. Nope. The director developed the film from the beginning and even co-wrote the screenplay. The movie doesn’t seem to belong to Burton and yet the evidence proves otherwise.

With an unfocused script, an expansive cast, and an uncertain tone, the only thing about “Mars Attacks!” that truly holds the viewer attention is its special effects. The film maintains the Martian designs first seen on the trading cards. The giant brains, skull-like faces, and spindly bodies made them an iconic example of a 1950s bug-eyed alien. Burton had originally wanted to bring the Martians to life through stop-motion animation. Budget cutbacks had them created with CGI instead. Though the computer graphics have undeniably aged, the Martians still look pretty cool. The way they move and the expressive quality of their faces recalls stop-motion anyway. The creatures don’t look real but, then again, I don’t think they were supposed too. The flying saucers are right out of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and are brilliantly brought to life. The smooth, spinning ships are like Ray Harryhausen’s dreams fulfilled.

The special effect designs successfully recall the films that inspired “Mars Attacks!” The score does the same. After taking a break during “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton and Danny Elfman reunited for this one. Elfman’s score is theremin driven, combining the director’s trademark willowy choirs and ramping orchestration with a sci-fi style sound. The film’s main theme builds nicely and the several reprises heard throughout help along the action.

 “Mars Attacks!” came out the same year as “Independence Day,” another film that attempted to update the classic alien invasion for a then-modern sensibility. That more serious film mostly stole this one’s thunder, as brain dead blockbuster action apparently appealed to movie-goers more then retro ironic detachment. The movie performed under Warner Brothers’ expectations. However, it did lead to a pretty bitchin’ action figure line and a re-release of the classic “Mars Attacks!” trading cards.  That’s the up-side to all remakes, reboots, and updates. They reintroduce classic series and ideas to a new generation. So “Mars Attacks!” might be a dud but at least it turned some new kids onto funky fifties sci-fi and bug-eyed aliens. [Grade: C]

1 comment:

guyvollen said...

A very even-handed review of a film that had so much potential but just never came together. I agree that the scene with Lisa Marie is the most memorable and effective in the movie. I've been enjoying reliving these films with your series, although I expect it to get rougher from here on! Keep up the good work!