The 90s On Netflix: Mars Attacks! (1996)
Mark Harrison | On 08, Nov 2019Reading time: 5 mins
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Tom Jones
Watch Mars Attacks! online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
With the new period drama adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds arriving on BBC One this month, it’s about time we took a look at one of the flat-out weirdest Hollywood movies of the 1990s. The chances of any major studio coming out with this demented, star-studded B-movie parody in 1996 were a million to one, but still, Mars Attacks! came.
Based on the Topps trading card game of the same name, the film marks the first of many instances in Burton’s career where the director had complete creative control yet somehow wound up making an impersonal blockbuster confection. Mars Attacks! arrived immediately before he spent a couple of years not making Warner Bros’ doomed reboot Superman Lives, but it also foreshadows such projects as Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and Disney’s Alice In Wonderland.
As an article in Premiere Magazine astutely put after the film’s 1996 release, “Burton cashed in his Batman chips to make the most expensive in-joke ever made”. Developed simultaneously with Burton’s wonderful Ed Wood and produced right afterwards, the gag is essentially splitting the difference between Dr Strangelove and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
While Martian invaders “ack, ack, ack” their way round Earth after their botched first contact with an American welcome committee, we’re treated to a stellar ensemble, including Jack Nicholson (in not one but two roles), Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jim Brown, Rod Steiger, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, and Martin Short, among others. There are also relatively early roles for Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman and Jack Black.
The actors are game. Having started his career in Roger Corman movies, Nicholson evokes Ronald Reagan and Harvey Korman as he plays the roles of the ineffective president and a false-nosed property developer. That said, it’s a pretty half-hearted version of what Peter Sellers did in Strangelove, and no one else in the ensemble seem to be in the same movie as each other. That’s not always funny in itself – you’ll struggle to find another Martin Short movie that squanders his comic talents so flagrantly.
Even though the CG doesn’t bear up to today’s standards, it’s an absolute triumph of production design, which makes it stands out even more in contrast to the arch, winking, self-indulgent tone of the film it’s in. While extended episodes of the aliens in their pants gawking at Playboy are lumped in with the lamer moments, there’s no questioning the instantly iconic status of the cackling invaders.
But the main difficulty with this kind of tactically designed folly in the 1990s studio system is that it can’t go as far as it ought to. Producer Larry J. Franco worked with Burton on the similarly weird Batman Returns but, at times, you can’t help but wonder how much defter and wittier this would have been if it had been made by Franco’s other major collaborator, John Carpenter.
Granted, the film starts promisingly with a stampede of burning livestock, but the sheer expense of it all installs a big glass dome over the anarchic tone. When it tries to work as both a star-studded tentpole and a genre throwback, a lot of the comic excess winds up looking like waste instead.
There’s also a snide quality to this brand of homage that undercuts even more of the comedy. Even after the interminable first act is over and done with, the film feels torn between mocking and celebrating the movies that inspired it. In the midst of it all, Portman’s hilariously unflappable First Daughter captures the desired tone better than the film she’s in. The late introduction of Tom Jones as a crucial character also provides one of the better non-sequiturs.
Back in 1996, this difficulty was redoubled by the film arriving just months after Independence Day became the biggest hit of the year. Burton has since remarked that it was like they inadvertently made the “MAD magazine version” of the global blockbuster, which may go some way to explaining why it gained a more muted response from audiences. The Christmas release date didn’t help either.
Still, for all of its many flaws, Mars Attacks! is weirder and more entertaining than a bloated, off-kilter tentpole like this has any right to be. It has all the courage of its convictions with the icky weirdness of it all, albeit with little of the affection for janky old B-movies that Burton showed in Ed Wood. Despite having one of the best human casts of the 1990s, it’s the alien characters and their sick and violent sense of humour that stand up to repeat viewings. Ack, ack, ack!
Mars Attacks! is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.