Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! mines that rare well of inspiration that is... trading cards? Yes, indeed, although that's more just a matter of trivia. Burton leads a massive and all-star cast in this send-up of alien invasion movies.
I hate to give too much of the plot away with this synopsis, but Mars does, at some point in the film, attack. And as the exclamation point might indicate, it’s not an overly subtle invasion. Mars Attacks! is somewhere in between a spoof and a tribute. It channels any number of alien invasion movies from the 50s and pits the U.S. (and we’ll just assume some other countries as well) against some diminuitive Martian invaders who communicate through a series of “Ack Ack” noises. But these aliens also have ray guns that disintegrate everything in their path, and that is actually what causes us a little more trouble.
Burton populates his world with a host of characters and plot conventions that should be warmly familiar to any who love science fiction B-movies. From the gung-ho military officers bent on launching nukes to the pipe-smoking scientist who just wants to try and understand the invaders, the U.S. is fairly doomed from the beginning, and the movie plays it up for all it’s worth. Its main point of departure is actually comically destroying more than those movies ever did. Think we’re spared a scene of Congress getting disintegrated? Nope. How about sparing some of our beautiful stars the indignity of being decapitated and dissected as Martian experiments? Yep, that’s all there.
For all its goofy fun, there is a lag when it comes to dialogue and structure. While you expect some corny dialogue in a movie such as this, there are moments where it’s not serving a greater purpose (that purpose chiefly being humor) other than just corn. In fact, much of the humor in the film is carried by the Martians, who don’t really have any dialogue at all. The plot also tends to wander a bit, and while there aren’t really any egregious problems, there is a fair amount of fluff. A diet would have helped the movie out, but there’s still a lot to love.
Jack Nicholson plays the dual roles of the President on one hand, and an enterprising casino mogul on the other, both with over-the-top glee. Martin Short is perfect as a slimy press secretary; Natalie Portman excels as the thoroughly unimpressed First Daughter; Jim Brown and Pam Grier give their cliched subplot some comic dignity, and even Joe Don Baker is perfectly cast as a militant trailer park dad (it’s the role he was born to play). With an amazing cast and some truly funny moments, the film is only let down by a lack of focus. All the pieces are there for success, but sometimes it feels like they are underutilized, as if half a good movie was planned out and they were just winging the rest.
Mars Attacks! is one of the few films that could legitimately use the “homage” defense, if needed, for sub-par video and audio presentation. And while that’s not needed here, it isn’t really a success either. While most scenes generally deliver good detail and a clean transfer, many of the special effects sequences suffer from soft to almost superimposed levels of integration. Perhaps it was meant to be a sloppy tribute, or perhaps it was just quickly done without a thought given to the fact that one day we would have these fancy-schmancy high-definition thingies in our home. However, the film is genuinely helped by its almost flamboyant use of design and color, which, much like makeup, can distract the eye from stray imperfections.