“Mars Attacks!” – A Hilarious Alien Satire that was Mistaken for Parody

Welcome back dear readers. For our final tale for Alien Abduction April, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite sci-fi horror comedies of all time.

A film that is filled with so much pulp fun that you will be grinning from ear to ear.

A movie that truly understands the source that it is based on and wears it proudly on its sleeve.

A cinematic experience that revels in its over-the-top zaniness and alien hi-jinx that you just need to see to believe it.

I’m talking about the 1996 sci-fi comedy classic…MARS ATTACKS!

(In loving memory of John Leiger)

Lesser Known Origins
Based on the 1962 Topps Trading Cards series of the same name, the collectable cards, when fully collected, told the tale of an invasion from the people of Mars as they invade the Earth to conquer and colonize it. The Martians fight the people of Earth in various futuristic battles and bizarre scenes of torture.

Most people didn’t even realize that Mars Attacks! was based on an existing property.

In an ironic twist, the Martian government knew fully well that the planet Mars was doomed to explode, but concealed that knowledge from its people under the guise of conquering Earth for the glory of Mars. The forces of Earth then band together and defeat the Martians, leading to them going to Mars itself and destroying their remaining cities.

I personally remember seeing this film back in the day as a young boy coming into his early teenage years when it aired on HBO and watching it on VHS tape. I would later get it on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital. I’m still hoping for a 4K Blu-Ray release one day, but that’s beside the point. I also have very fond memories of talking about this movie with my cousin John Leiger, for whom this review is dedicated to.

Directed by the legendary Tim Burton, Mars Attacks! is a love letter to classic sci-fi films of the 1950’s. Burton’s dark sense of humor and sensibilities were a perfect match for the making of this film, which at the time was hot off the heels from his success with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

And with a full star-studded cast to boot! Jack Nicholson, Glen Close, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Annette Bening, Sarah Jessica Parker, Danny DeVito, Jim Brown, Michael J. Fox, Pam Grier, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, and even Tom Jones gets in on the action! Anyone who was anyone was in this film.

I just absolutely love this film and I cannot wait to dive into the weird, wild world of Mars Attacks! Get your disintegration ray gun and let’s beam on down!

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These Martians act friendly at first, but turn out to be quite deadly.

Not Your Typical Alien Movie
Our story begins 4 miles outside of Lockjaw, Kentucky as a farmer approaches a local resident asking if he’s cooking up a barbeque, as he can smell it down the road. Suddenly, they both see a stampede of cattle who are on fire coming down the road (I’ll take mine medium rare plus thank you). As they stare in shock, a flying saucer emerges and then shoots off into space.

We then see a fleet of classic flying saucers travel across space from the planet Mars, with an incredibly eerie score, thanks to the incredible talents of one Danny Elfman, as they make their way to planet Earth.

The President of the United States James Dale (played by Jack Nicholson) addresses the nation of this discovery.

Meanwhile, popular talk show host Nathalie Lake and her boyfriend, news reporter Jason Stone (played by Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox respectively), take this as a golden opportunity to interview President Dale’s chief scientific advisor Professor Donald Kessler (played by Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame), to seize the moment. However, all broadcasts are interrupted as the Martian leader makes his presence known.

We then cut to various locations around the U.S.A. that will become focal points throughout the main story. One spot is a Donut World in the town of Perkinsville, Kansas, where Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) and his family live. Another spot is in Las Vegas, where Art Land (also played by Jack Nicholson) and his wife Barbara (Annette Bening) learn of the Martians existence. Art sees this as an opportunity to make a lot of moola on their arrival, with Barbara seeing them as the hope humanity needs

Art Land
You almost don’t recognize Nicholson at first in his dual roles.

We also meet retired boxing champion now turned Las Vegas host Byron Williams (Jim Brown) who is currently working at Art’s casino. And we finally come to Washington D.C. where we meet First Lady Marsha Dale (Glenn Close) and General Decker (Rod Steiger), as they talk with the President about the Martians planning to land in Pahrump, Nevada. General Decker strongly advises a full-scale attack, which President Dale shoots down, not wanting to create an intergalactic incident. He then sends in General Casey (Paul Winfield) to meet with the Martian ambassador.

This first encounter does not end well for General Casey or his soldiers as the Martians decimate the area with their ray guns, clearly showing that they do not come in peace. Funny enough, a young Jack Black in a very early supporting role as Richie’s older brother Billy-Glenn Norris, tries to fend off against the Martians, but ultimately succumbs to a ray gun blast to the chest. Another attempt at a peaceful meeting is made, as the scientists intercept another message from the Martians, claiming that the attack was a complete misunderstanding.

This second meeting at the U.S. Capitol building ends with Congress getting fried by the Martians’ ray guns, along with Professor Kessler being abducted to the Martians’ ship for experimentation. The dark humor compliments the movie very well as the Martians dissect, re-animate and stitch together various body parts, leading to the iconic screaming head of Nathalie as she sees her dog Poppy’s head attached on her body. We also see Professor Kessler’s head being suspended in mid-air too.

The massacre at the US Capitol is complimented by a hilarious one liner from an elderly woman who laughs, “Hah, they blew up Congress!”

Things finally come to a head with an attempt on the President’s life being the last straw. Mayhem then ensues across the United States and the world as the Martians make a full-scale invasion. Blowing up monuments, giant robot walkers terrorizing Kansas and Las Vegas being terrorized by the Martian menace, it takes an unlikely hero and his grandmother to help save the world from The Martians.

Delightfully Absurd
Mars Attacks! is an acquired taste for sure. Those who love MAD Magazine, dark comedies and cheesy 1950’s sci-fi films will get the most mileage out of the film. But even if you are on the fence, it is still worth a watch just for the boundless imagination and creativity that Burton brings to the silver screen, with an excellent acting cast across the board.

Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Rod Steiger, Annette Bening and Sarah Jessica Parker are the main stand-outs of the film. Each one bringing a fun take on the classic archetype that they are playing. With Nicholson doing double duty playing the naive and hopeful President Dale and the sleazy casino tycoon Art Land.

And I have to say that I wish we had more movies with Pierce Brosnan as a classic 50’s type scientist. He just oozes charisma and charm every time he’s on screen in this picture. And Rod Steiger’s General Decker is one of the best, over-the-top performances that I could have hoped for in a movie like this. I always laugh every time he screams out “IDIOTS!” when I rewatch this film.

Professor Kessler
It works because Brosnan plays the role with all the gravitas of a serious drama, thus making the satirical elements all that much funnier.

The Martians themselves are portrayed not only a true threat, but very funny and comedic too. This is thanks to legendary voice acting talent Frank Welker, who provides the voices of the Martians.

Even the CGI for its time still holds up pretty well today. The ridges of the Martian’s brains, the thin, lanky bodies, the bubble headed spacesuits and the classic UFO’s that dart across the sky give it both a unique and uncanny vibe that feels, well, alien. Tim Burton originally wanted to use stop-motion animation for the Martians, to pay tribute to Ray Harryhausen’s contributions to sci-fi films of the 50’s, but due to Warner Bros. capping his budget to $75 million vs. a requested $100 million, he reluctantly agreed to go with the CGI, which was becoming more cost effective. And yet, it still works very well and has not aged poorly, thanks in part to Burton wanting a very defined look for the space invaders from Mars and the CGI being handled by Industrial Light & Magic.

The one thing that I just love about Mars Attacks! is that while it was set in 1996, it still feels very much like you’re watching a classic 1950’s sci-fi film. A unique, anachronistic feeling that works very strongly in the film’s favor. It keeps that same 1950’s feel throughout the picture in how everyone reacts to the Martians over time, along with the crazy, over-the-top effects, such as the Martian ray guns turning a human into either a red or green skeletons. For those who love watching a lot of classic 50’s sci-fi, you’re in for a real treat.

Sadly at the time, audiences back then saw Mars Attacks! more as a parody of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day instead of what it was: a movie paying homage to sci-fi films such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno. And much like other films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and The Princess Bride, it too was not appreciated in its time and did not truly find its audience until years later, partly due its darker tone.

Kodak Moment
It’s definitely violent and twisted, but is genuinely a hilarious movie. Especially in scenes where the Martians are posing for pictures as landmarks are being destroyed.

But on the bright side, we can thank Mars Attacks! for saving Tim Burton and Danny Elfman’s professional working relationship, as they were strained due to Elfman doing double duty simultaneously for Burton on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns. Several years after they would make amends over coffee and Elfman agreed to compose the score for Mars Attacks!

The cinematography of the film is excellent, with some great wide shots of the Nevada desert, the Las Vegas landscape, fantastic wide-shots of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. and all the weird, crazy carnage that feels like a living Weird Fantasy storyline coming to life.

Burton clearly loved these kinds of films growing up as a kid and it truly shows in every frame. This film is a true love letter to all classic sci-fi films that came before while forging its own unique blend of dark humor, alien hi-jinx and playing up the exaggerated characters with an all-star cast of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1990’s. If you need some high-quality sci-fi cheese in your life, make sure to watch this gem.

Five UFO Saucers Out of Five for this one!

And that is it my friends for our weekly movie reviews for April Abduction April. I hope you all enjoyed reading them as I did writing them up for you. Come on back next year where we will have 4 more alien reviews that should keep your ray guns charged up for more alien abduction fun!

So until next time dear readers…ACK! ACK! ACK! (That’s Martian for “Keep your eyes on the skies!”)


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