Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi fantasy violence and brief sexuality

Score: 3 out of 5

Twenty years ago, Mars Attacks! was, in many respects, the unapologetic spoof of Independence Day. It likely wasn't intended as such, having been written well before then as more of a parody of '50s alien invasion flicks (as well as the Topps trading card line it takes its title from) than anything, with its decidedly retro-inspired setting and aliens that conform to old pop culture images of "little green men" more than the gray aliens of The X-Files and Betty and Barney Hill. Still, the timing was impeccable, as were the plot points. Alien spaceships arrive in orbit around Earth, our attempts at initiating first contact go horribly wrong, they blow up Earth's landmarks, and after both the diplomatic approach and the nuclear option fail to stop them, the invaders are taken down by an ingenious, outside-the-box development. The difference is that, in Mars Attacks!, almost everybody is a complete dumbass. Foppish intellectuals, warmongering generals, ignorant rednecks, vapid fashion reporters, flaky New Agers, the feel-good, generically agreeable President, and (of course) the French are all are portrayed as morons whose deaths at the hands of twisted Martian weaponry really aren't great losses, while the sociopathic Martians themselves are pretty much the alien version of internet trolls who are just doing it for the lulz -- and much like trolls, they have a very messed-up definition of "lulz". Appropriately, the survivors out of the main cast are mostly the few actually decent people in the film. It's not high art, it never takes itself remotely seriously, and it's objectively deeply flawed, and yet I can't help but enjoy it. It works as both a retro sci-fi throwback and as a crude, juvenile parody of both the genre and the world that brought it into being, though I imagine it to be very much an acquired taste.

The characters are so arch that it's pointless to even learn their names as opposed to just calling them by the names of the A-list actors playing them. Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close play the President and the First Lady, the former as a focus-tested politician whose every sentence might as well be a canned sound bite, and the latter as a vain airhead covered in fine pearls and dresses and more concerned with the fact that the Martians just blasted the White House's Nancy Reagan chandelier than the fact that it's about to fall and squash her. Pierce Brosnan is the know-nothing know-it-all British scientist who thinks that any race civilized enough to develop space travel would surely have moved beyond such base instincts as imperialism and genocide (apparently, all his learning never taught him about the colorful history of his own nation). Rod Steiger's general is a caricature of Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay who advocates nuking the Martians before they even fire a single death ray, and even though he turns out to be absolutely right, he cannot seem to realize when he's fighting a losing battle. Sarah Jessica Parker is pretty much a proto-Carrie Bradshaw with a dash of TMZ before either of them existed; appropriately, she gets abducted and viciously experimented on by the Martians. Jack Nicholson (again) is a rich Texan land developer who sees in the aliens an opportunity to get rich with his new hotel in Las Vegas, while Annette Bening is his hippie wife who initially hails the Martians as the saviors of humanity... until she sees them in action, at which point she sees them as Nature punishing humanity for its rapacious greed and destruction of the environment. Everyone's playing it so over the top that the characters who stand out the most are the ones who feel like actual human beings: Natalie Portman as the President's jaded, Daria Morgendorffer-esque daughter, Lukas Haas as a country boy who just wants to save his family, Jim Brown as a former pro boxer who's been reduced to dressing up as a pharaoh at a Vegas casino to pay the bills, and Pam Grier as his estranged wife and the hard-assed mother of their two kids. And even they get their moments to go over the top. If you want down-to-earth characters with real development, look elsewhere, because you won't be finding them here. Director Tim Burton and writer Jonathan Gems weren't setting out to make anything remotely realistic; no, they set out to make a pure farce jabbing at every soft corner of our world. Is it cynical and mean-spirited? Absolutely, but it goes so far with it that it comes back around and makes a joke out of itself.

And you can tell that just as well from the visuals. While the film takes place in the '90s, it's not so much the '90s we know as it is the '90s crossed with the four decades that came before it. The Martians' raygun-gothic spaceships and weaponry are just the tip of the iceberg: '50s military equipment, '60s hippies, a Rat Pack-era portrayal of Vegas (only with modern resorts), and cars and fashions from the '70s and '80s all exist in the same time and place as contemporary video games, cell phones, and teen angst. It creates a feeling of a world that's unreal, not quite our own. The special effects may not be the greatest watching this film today, but the fact that they look so unreal more than makes up for the limitations of 1996 computer technology (though the fact that they used practical effects where they could definitely helped). Tim Burton made the all-CGI Martians (who were originally supposed to be stop-motion creations before running into budget limitations) look like baddies out of a really dark animated film rather than even try for photorealism, and he gave the live-action side of the world a similarly heightened aesthetic in order to meld the two together. The end result is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from Burton making an alien invasion disaster flick, one that's filled with wry, sick humor at the expense of everybody. Even the big disaster scenes are played for laughs, as the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Easter Island statues, Mount Rushmore, and a Vegas mega-resort are all either played as gags in their own right or serve as the punchlines to such. It is a silly, silly film, one that's scarcely concerned with any shreds of logic that could get in the way of the next joke, as notably seen with just how the humans wind up winning in the end. (Let's just say, listening to pop radio, I've got a few ideas for how to replicate that scene in 2016.) The fact that the ratio of hits to misses is definitely on the better side goes a long way in making it all go down smoothly. Things like story, multidimensional characters, and logic all go out the window, but in a film that's actively defiant and scornful of such, it couldn't have been done any other way.

The Bottom Line:

It's pure Tim Burton here, for better or worse. It's not just style over substance, it's actively trying to avoid any semblance of the latter, and it works a lot better than it realistically should. The target audience for this is pretty narrow, but if you want to see an alien invasion movie that's pretty much daring you to root for the aliens, check it out.

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