(1996) director Tim Burton
When Tim Burton released Mars Attacks! back in 1996, he still showed a great deal of promise as one of the most interesting directors in mainstream Hollywood. Coming off his second Batman film, Batman Returns (1995), still visually inventive, his previous film had been Ed Wood (1994), arguably his best work.
And when I saw it in the theaters during its initial run, I considered myself a Tim Burton fan. And I liked it at the time. It wasn’t brilliant. It wasn’t classic. It had some great gags, some great art design, lots of celebrity cameos, a ton of retro ironic humor/homage, but at best, it was good. Not great. It seemed to feed upon some of his prior films, notably Beetlejuice (1988), re-purposing not only characters and gags, but many actors as well.
Looking back now, it seems that his slide into perpetually derivative content blossomed after this film. While he’d “re-booted” Batman and adapted an obscure collection of bubblegum cards into an alien invasion film, he would go on to re-invent Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow (1999)), unsuccessfully re-boot a retro-1970′s franchise (Planet of the Apes (2001), redo Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and adapt stage-musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). His affinity for re-inventing pre-existing narratives, characters, and franchises is only second to his affinity for using Johnny Depp.
But while I’ve soured on Tim Burton, I still see most of his films. And when the kids and I ended up watching Beetlejuice, I started considering his other films that they might enjoy. We saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which they liked, though not as well. I thought since it reminded me in several ways of Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks! might be fun.
It’s a confection of humor, but it has some pretty awesome gags. The Martians, who speak in voices that sound like “Aack Aack, Ack Ack Ack Aaack!”, then chasing humans down with ray guns using a translator to say “Stop! We come in peace! We are your friends!”, having such contempt for human life that they kill indiscriminately and sew heads onto dogs and a dog’s head onto a human body.
Really, it’s a lampoon take on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. With a tip of the homage/ironic hat to the George Pal-produced version of that film from 1952 as well as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and much more. I’ve read that originally Burton wanted to use stop-motion animation for the aliens as a further acknowledgement of Ray Harryhausen, whose flying saucers from the 1956 film are specifically recognized. Budget drove them to computer animation, and it’s still a great style.
The aliens, with their green skin, bulbously brained crania, bulging eyes, and skull-like jaws, are a perfect cartoon of old-fashioned extra-terrestrial life. They are both comic and creepy.
The finale, in which the aliens are defeated by the yodeling voice of Slim Whitman (instead of common microorganisms as in The War of the Worlds), is some great sublime joke, as sublime as the simplistic solution that Wells had dreamed up, but sort of a classic end-gag. With the parallel music of Tom Jones’ ”It’s Not Unusual”, to which the planet is rescued and the forest animals all convene, it’s really has some funny stuff in it, limited as it is.
The film actually depicts perhaps Burton’s most fervent misanthropy of any of his films. Champion of the outsider, the dopey doughnut shop employee (Lukas Haas), the dark solitude of the president’s daughter (Natalie Portman), or occasional others, the film is gleeful in its punishment of the greedy, rich, selfish, self-absorbed, and “small-minded”. Really of all of his films, this one might be the most far-reaching in its critique of the elements of culture and society that perturb Burton, rather than his consistent appreciation of the people who are cool but out of step with the rest of the world.
The kids quite enjoyed it. Clara actually wanted to watch it again, liked it enough to watch it again. It opened for me a further interest in the “alien invasion” film, something percolating within me for a short while of late. It also made me think that I would like the kids to see some of the films that inspired or influenced this parody/satire/salute.
Burton is an enigma of sorts, but more than anything a bit of a disappointment. Not long after Mars Attacks! I had written him off of ever making a truly great film. Still, his work can be fun, is often beautifully designed, occasionally can be quite funny and piquant. But more often than not, not as good as it could/should be.