Mars Attacks!

(Tim Burton, USA, 1996)


I am not a big fan of the Academy Awards. Far too many good and important films are left out of the short-lists in most categories for me to take the Oscars at all seriously. And as for the movies that do sweep the awards ... The main Oscar-sweeper of 1997, The English Patient (1996) is a movie which I consider truly abominable. But one film that is certainly not Oscar material is certainly among the most impressive and entertaining films of its year: Tim Burton's sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks!.

But to continue with the Oscars for a moment: the actual Oscar telecast itself always provides a certain gruesomely fascinating opportunity to watch the great showbiz institution of Hollywood tie itself in some amazing knots. The Academy Awards venerate American cinema as the great popular entertainment machine, but they also show this vast industry at its most obsequious, shamed and pompous.

Next to the ritzy song-and-dance numbers and yuk-yuk jokes from low-brow comedians, there are sweeping, bizarre gestures towards film as art, films as noble messages, films as the witness of our time, and all that guff. Even though the Academy Awards should stand, with perfect transparency, for popular culture, mass entertainment, popular art or whatever you want to call it, in fact it's right there – in that horror movie of an awards telecast – that you can see the values of high and low culture slugging it out in an eternal two-step, never to part company.

There was one particularly striking contradiction in this year's ceremony. Julie Andrews, in a very gracious presentation, gave a richly deserved honorary award to the choreographer Michael Kidd, who worked on many of the great movie musicals (such as those of Stanley Donen). My ear was caught by the line in Julie Andrews' speech which explained to us that Kidd's choreography was always about emotion, "not mere spectacle". What decade are we in, to be hearing a put-down like that of popular culture 'spectacle'! But then, only moments later, those two veterans were off-stage, and the award for special effects was being made – and for that one, a voice-over commended the team responsible for the effects on Independence Day (1996), and their ability to recreate the "awesome destruction of an alien invasion"!

In many big-budget, special effects movies of today, 'awesome destruction' is indeed rendered as a mere spectacle – and without apology, a trend which has culminated in the new wave of disaster movies – Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996), Independence Day, Daylight (1996) and Dante's Peak (Roger Donaldson, 1997). The last-named provides us with the perfect statement of Hollywood's current ideology of spectacle. It's about a volcano, set to blow and devastate a small town at its foot. As in Twister, when the action starts, it's almost an abstract, video-game kind of spectacle: there are cars disappearing into molten lava flows, steaming lakes or great balls of fire, but sometimes, you can't spot any human drivers in these cars. Blood, pain, mutilation, slow and lingering death: such things scarcely intrude into the action of these movies.

Even outside action movies, death is becoming an almost pleasant little gig: consider John Travolta in Phenomenon (1996), or the old folks in The Evening Star (1996) – a head tilts two inches to the left after the utterance of some wise last words, and then it's all over. That's a more unreal spectacle than anything in the most saccharine old movie of the '40s.

In Dante's Peak, as in Twister we have a crack team of lovable, nerdy scientists. At the height of the action, one of them is engulfed by a lava flow; again, there's no pain or blood, hardly a scream – it's almost like a heavenly transport to the other side. Although the dead man's comrades are shocked and dismayed – for about two seconds – they instantly come up with a cheery epitaph for their two-dimensional cipher of a colleague: "At least he got to see the show", they growl.

Against the background of this mad, merrily inhuman spectacle, typical of blockbuster Hollywood, Tim Burton gives us Mars Attacks!, a movie which has been somewhat underrated by many of my colleagues – particularly those racing to shower stars and superlatives on junk like The English Patient ... Mars Attacks! is an extreme movie – of the kind we have come to expect from Burton, who is one of the most talented and imaginative filmmakers of his generation.

It's been called extremely silly and extremely cartoonish, a string of elaborate pastiches and parodies of the sci-fi 'alien invasion' B-movies of the 1950s. Mars Attacks! is indeed all these things, but it is also engaged in a dialogue with the newer blockbuster spectacles I have just mentioned, especially Independence Day.

In Mars Attacks!, Burton takes that principle of a certain flip, breezy inhumanness, and he takes it all the way. There has never been a movie so deliberately casual in its depiction of death, mutilation and various anatomical atrocities – disintegration by laser-fire, the body-parts of humans and animals spliced together to create hybrid monsters. Not surprisingly, some concerned adults have been shocked to see their children exposed to this blissfully cruel stuff, but I think that kids can take it, because such extremity has always been a low-down, dirty part of popular culture. Burton embraces this aspect of pop culture, but then he also turns it against current Hollywood trends, in a sly and commendable way.

There is possibly no movie in recent memory so completely black and value-free as Mars Attacks!. It's a film that truly believes in nothing, in nobody. Everybody, every squeaky clean hero, every movie star icon (like Michael J. Fox) is there to die, and die in a spectacular fashion. You could call this nihilistic, if there was the slightest degree of emotion or torment attached to it – but there isn't a trace.

Without a doubt, the funniest characters in the film are the attacking Martians: I laughed every single time they walked, talked or fired their weapons to kill somebody. They have a marvellous way of dealing with us humans, mechanically squawking through a translating device "We come in peace...do not run...we are your friends" as they discharge their lethal weapons into whichever wailing human is fleeing before them.

This kind of slogan – 'do not be afraid, we come in peace' – sounds like a very American slogan, an imperialist slogan, in fact. Apart from being a blankly grey and ungodly movie, Mars Attacks! is relentlessly un-American, and that makes it an especially delicious spectacle for non-American audiences. It gleefully pillories every American institution, every figurehead of authority. Jack Nicholson, in the role of a lifetime for a radical 1960s libertarian, prowls around his War Room, beseeching a bug-eyed Martian, while stirring, patriotic music swells, 'can't we work this thing out, can't we work together?' What happens to him after that little speech shouldn't happen to a dog – but it does.

In every key way, Mars Attacks! is the inversion of Independence Day, which, even though it was meant to be about a global invasion of the world by aliens, was really only about America. That's the only country it wanted to show being invaded, and it made clear that the fate of the whole faceless world depended on how the battle went on American turf. That premise, of course, reflects a mindset that is imperialist to the core.

Mars Attacks! sends up that myopia by including a delightful scene in which the American President gets a call from the French President (a cameo by the director Barbet Schroeder), who announces down the line that his people are about to conclude peace agreements with the Martians. "Get out of there, get out of there right now!", Jack starts barking – and then we hear the tinny sound, through the telephone, of yet more mass murder and devastation. Jack sadly shakes his head – he knew better than those foolish, trusting French. Once again, this is an especially good and wicked joke for those nations, like our own, who have had to suffer the slings and arrows of French nuclear testing.

This is where Mars Attacks! really turns Independence Day on its head – the President is a schmuck, not a hero, and the murdering Martians are the characters we most identify with, the ones we cheer on, as perverse and tasteless as that sounds. In Independence Day, the aliens are purely monstrous figments of a paranoid imagination: when one of them is asked what it wants humans to do, the creature hisses a succinct answer: "Die!"

In Mars Attacks!, the aliens are giggly smart-asses, smooth operators, tricksters and gluttons, out for any cheap thrill – the evil cousins to all those sexy, crazy, but essentially pacifist aliens you get in youth-pop films like Earth Girls are Easy (1989), or the TV series Third Rock from the Sun. There should be something disquieting about the extreme, inhuman spectacle of Mars Attacks!, but it had the absolute opposite effect on me: it sent me out with a warm, demonic glow. No film turns the end of civilisation as we know it into so much fun.

MORE Burton: Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

© Adrian Martin March 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search