Who doesn’t love ‘Mars Attacks’?
OK, a lot of people, actually. The film barely rates above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who hate it seem to hate it with a passion even stronger than the people who liked it. Something about the film doesn’t just distance people from it, it outright infuriates them. The movie was a box office disappointment that barely made back its production budget, and even though it won some awards, it’s a film that never seems to be trying to win over its critics. In fact, I’d argue (actually, I’m about to argue) that this was part of the internal logic of the film. Burton isn’t just satirizing the tropes of a Hollywood blockbuster in the way that Zucker and Abrams might; he’s satirizing the entire idea of the tentpole summer movie. And whether you love it or hate it, you have to admit, he did his job perfectly.
For those of you who haven’t seen ‘Mars Attacks’, it’s a pretty straightforward plot; aliens from Mars arrive on Earth, and while the early portion of the film is taken up with speculation about the motives of our first extraterrestrial visitors, they make their intentions clear pretty fast: They’re assholes. They come to loot, pillage, murder and destroy, seemingly for no reason other than the sheer manic joy of it (“seemingly” because they speak only in repeated, seal-like barks that they translate themselves with…questionable reliability. “DO.NOT.RUN! WE.ARE.YOUR.FRIENDS!” the translation machine barks out, as the Martians holding it gun down anyone foolish enough to stop.) Various characters flee, fight, or hide from the Martians, until just by chance, the plucky hero of the film discovers their secret weakness. Once it’s used on them, the alien menace is easily defeated. (For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the Martians’ secret weakness. It’s a great gag, though.)
The plot isn’t just straightforward, though. It’s downright generic. It’s every alien invasion flick, half the disaster movies out there, and a good chunk of the horror films. On paper, this sounds just like the kind of brainless popcorn flick we’re supposed to go out to the multiplex and see on opening weekend. Even the list of actors doesn’t give away the game; Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Lukas Haas…really, the only overt comic actors in the whole film are Martin Short and Jack Black, and they’ve got bit parts (and this was before Jack Black made it big.) To the untrained eye, this looks and sounds like a major Hollywood movie.
But when you watch it, you become aware of a peculiar alchemy. Nothing about this film is accessible. The concept is based on osbcure trading cards from the 1950s. The White House scenes play like something out of ‘Doctor Strangelove’ instead of ‘Independence Day’. The scenes of destruction are played for black comedy instead of shock and awe. Natalie Portman and Lukas Haas, the obvious romantic pairing, barely even speak to each other; most of the romance in the film comes from Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on a chihuahua’s body confessing her undying love to a bodiless Pierce Brosnan. The President isn’t an action hero; he isn’t even a wise mentor. He gets killed by a novelty joke handshake (in what may be a parody of a previous Burton/Nicholson sequence.) The use of nuclear weapons, played for drama for most of the film, is turned into a stoner gag. Every classic trope that we’ve come to expect is turned into an in-joke so strange and obscure that it becomes obvious, at some point, that we’re not supposed to get it. The film turns “blockbuster” into “cult” and pushes the limits even of that. The message of ‘Mars Attacks’, which hits you somewhere around the halfway point, is Tim Burton saying, “Can you actually believe that someone gave me this much money just to make a motion picture?”
Burton isn’t just satirizing the elements of a summer blockbuster, he’s satirizing the need for one. He has taken what is meant to be the most generic possible genre of film and made something intensely personal, something that only he could love (although he’s obviously willing to let other people go along for the ride if they’re willing to come on his terms.) It’s a savagely brilliant indictment of the lowest common denominator, as expressed through brain-headed guys blowing up the Taj Mahal after they take their pictures in front of it…and when you look at it like that, is it really any surprise that it wasn’t popular?