Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Mars Attacks! is a crazy sci-fi comedy based on a series of popular trading cards. It's quite a slight film, as you'd expect from such source material, but it's also very funny in places and full of great homages to sci-fi films of yesteryear. Jonathan Gems was the man who put a script together for the alien antics while Tim Burton was in place to direct the madness.

The plot is summed up by the title. That's it. Really. What the alien invasion premise does is allow Burton to deliver a number of amusing, and often visually striking, vignettes to the audience, be it a herd of flaming cattle or a number of warped experiments taking place on a spaceship. Many of the moments in the movie are inspired directly by images on the trading cards, but there are still a few characters allowed to develop in between the set-pieces. Jack Nicholson plays the President Of The United States, with Glenn Close playing his wife and Natalie Portman the fed up daughter. Jack Nicholson also plays a man setting up the business deal of his life. Annette Bening is the woman in his life, trying to keep her spirit positive while surrounded by the corrupting, garish influence of Las Vegas. Michael J. Fox and Sarah Jessica Parker are two very different TV personalities, Pierce Brosnan is a scientist optimistic about the aliens and Rod Steiger is a not so optimistic general. Jim Brown wants to get back to his family, Martin Short wants to use his position as Presidential advisor to get with women and Lukas Haas wants, well, very little as he's the generally content sort.

As you might expect from a movie based on a series of trading cards, Mars Attacks! is more a series of amusing vignettes loosely strung together than an entirely flowing, coherent movie. It's anarchic and fun in a way that may put many people off, but I happen to like anarchic and fun. Think of some Ed Wood movie fused with any cartoon that featured Marvin The Martian and you're close enough.

Tim Burton is in his comfort zone, the film certainly feels as if he was left to his own devices and he has fun bringing the vibrant, retro imagery to life. The handling of the material is affectionate, the handling of the cast less so as they're killed off or experimented upon with not even a second thought for A-list status or billing order. As well as those already mentioned, all of them admirably going along with every preposterous moment, there are appearances from Jack Black, Pam Grier, Danny DeVito, Christina Applegate, Lisa Marie and Tom Jones. Yes, THAT Tom Jones. Playing himself, amusingly enough.

If you grew up with imagery of flying saucers that were actually saucer shaped, little green men who flew around the universe looking for people to menace with their ray guns and sci-fi b-movies that were as colourful and inventive as they were, oftentimes, cheap and cheerful then this is the movie for you. It recalls all of those elements with love and then uses them for lots of silly gags. Whether or not you actually enjoy the gags is another thing entirely, but you will enjoy plenty of imagery reminding you of aliens as envisioned in decades gone by.


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