Sometimes satire ages like wine, waiting patiently for our tastes and perceptions to catch up so we’ll eventually savour its matured taste. Mature is hardly the operative word to describe Tim Burton’s raucously anarchic, alien invasion blowout, Mars Attacks!, a willfully ridiculous film that charged headlong at a blockbuster audience used to seeing Americans emerging as brave, competent heroes in the face of total annihilation from an extra terrestrial threat and predictably was met with the cocked eyebrow of confusion.
When presented with a special effects blockbuster that openly mocked multiple aspects of social behaviour and global politics, people either didn’t get it, or simply didn’t want to get it back in 1996, but now, in a time when virtually every aspect of modern life seem to be tarnished by an overwhelming sense of the chaotic ridiculousness, it’s way past time for this gleefully spiteful comedy to be embraced as the giant, throbbing brained genius it always was.
Telescopes have confirmed the unthinkable, hordes of Martian spaceships our heading toward our planet and the news is handled by President James Dale and his administration sees this primarily as possibly the greatest photo opportunity in the history of mankind, virtually falling over each other in an attempt to roll out the red carpet to visitors to the red planet. The news is taken with a mixture of curiosity and derision among the diverse cast who either see this as a way of furthering their own careers (flamboyant Las Vegas hotel owner Art Land, vapid TV presenter couple Nathalie Lake and Jason Stone) an outright threat (the war mongering General Decker) or a hideously naive door to a new beginning of intergalactic peace or scientific enlightenment (Art’s new age wife Barbara, myopic professor Donald Kessler). However they’re all in for a shock as the Martians celebrate their arrival by opening fire on their own welcoming party, but despite all the televised death and carnage, Dale and his advisors are convinced it was all an understanding (maybe Martians shot that dove of peace because they thought it meant war?) and actually attempt to try again, this time in the nation’s capital – guess what happens next.
Yes, it seems that these bug-eyed Martians are defiantly logic-free and just simply want to blow everyone up just for shits and giggles and so war is on with the might of the American war machine routinely getting pounded by a technologically superior race with the temperament of an cranky toddler and once the Martian shit hits the fan, it’s down to our vast array of characters (including legendary crooner Tom Jones) to try find a way to escape this wave of meaningless destruction.
Essentially what you’d get if War Of The Worlds was hijacked by the love child of Monty Python and Armando Iannucci, Mars Attacks! was based on the famously antisocial set of bubblegum cards that saw a skull-faced race of massively brained Martians lay waste to America in a series of violent images with such lurid titles as “Destroying A Dog” and “Burning Flesh”. While Tim Burton, Hollywood’s go to oddball, didn’t go quite as visceral as the 1962 card set, he definately sunk his teeth into the subversive nature of the series and instead turned in a mean-spirited comedy of errors that saw a stirring fusion of Stanley Kubrick’s politics-bating Dr. Strangelove with the cartoon sadism of Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Featuring jet black humor, almost zero likable characters and a nihilistic, cynical view of modern life that almost suggests we have the Martian’s unprovoked attack coming, Burton’s silly, knockabout, alien movie is far braver than you would suspect. But, remember, for all his gothic themed whimsy, Burton is also the dude who skillfully skewered suburban life in Edward Scissorhands, gave us a lopsided view of America though the eyes of a man child in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and lampooned the afterlife as an existential nightmare of red tape in Beetlejuice – having a planet full of self congratulatory humans willfully not seeing that armageddon is at hand makes him the perfect choice.
The cast as expansive as it is impressive thanks to Burton also taking aim at the disparate characters that populate disaster movies by making the majority of them idiots and while some of them get lost in the cracks, the sheer amount of star power lining up to be atomised by squiggly death rays or crushed by robot tanks. Led by Jack Nicholson’s dual roles as the horribly out of his depth President and the toothy Art, we also have Glen Close’s interior design obsessed First Lady, Pierce Brosnan’s pipe chewing professor (“Don’t forget Nathalie, we probably look equally gross to them.”), Annette Benning’s spacey hippy, Martin Short’s sleazy press secretary, Natalie Portman’s lonely presidental daughter, Lukas Haas’ doughnut store employee, Jack Black’s trailer trash soldier, Danny DeVito’s scumbag gambler, Sarah Jessica Parker’s vapid presenter, Michael J. Fox’s vain journalist, Pam Grier’s overworked single mother, Jim Brown’s retired boxer and Rod Stieger’s deranged General (exhales breathlessly).
While matters get incredibly crowded pretty quickly, Burton uses each of these characters to jab a satirical finger at virtually every aspect of society that feels incredibly prevalent in a time when public opinions about world altering crisis vary to an insane degree and leaders are becoming publicly flawed. The countless jokes at the expense of people simply unwilling to take the global threat seriously may have seemed almost like parody back in ’96, but in our post-Trump, post-Johnson times when COVID-19 was debated on a daily basis, Mars Attacks! virtually became a documentary overnight and all set to what arguably is Danny Elfman’s greatest score.
Of course, all this star power being aimed at some intelligently stupid humor is all very well and good, as is the brutally subversive jabs (an soldier uses the American flag in attempt to surrender, the White House has a hidden sex room named after Kennedy), but the real stars of the show are the endless number of vicious little alien shits who take great delight in atomising some of Hollywood’s famous faces for our amusement. The alien invasion equivalent of those shifty looking teens who hang around a McDonald’s at night looking for mischief, the Martians are cruel (they repurpose a translator to appeal for friendship), sadistic (they graft Sarah Jessica Parker’s head onto her chihuahua’s body and vice versa just for the hell of it) and evily funny as they comunicate in their harsh, barking “ACK ACK ACK!” voices – and let’s not forget the magnificent image of a Martian infiltrating the White House disguised as a woman with a massive beehive hairdo to hide its giant brain.
Back in 1996, when the White House blew up in Independence Day, we were supposed to be horrified, months later Mars Attacks obliterated Congress and expected us to laugh at the ineptitude of our leaders and maybe we just weren’t ready. But in these endlessly divisive times where politicians can goes on the news and dispute science and everyone can throw in their two cents, Burton’s ode to 50’s sci-fi has never been more relevant – or funnier. “I want the people to know they still have two out three branches of the government still working for them and that ain’t bad!” proudly states Dale, forever trying to look for a sliver lining that’s long since flown the coop when the real saviours all along are typical, Burton-esque outsiders and the sight of Tom Jones singing “It’s Not Unusual” with a falcon on his arm.
ACK ACK ACK!