***/**** Image A- Sound C
starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan
screenplay by Jonathan Gems
directed by Tim Burton
by Jefferson Robbins When Tim Burton calls in his Hollywood chips, it's usually, to our benefit, to facilitate his darker impulses. 1989's Batman gave him free reign to make Edward Scissorhands, for instance, and Warner Bros. incubated the bitter confection of Sweeney Todd after raking in more traditional bucks on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I daresay one of those Burton Unbound documents is his A-list romp Mars Attacks!, which today gives off strange vibrations that echo forward as well as back. It's a '50s UFO-invasion flick farce, of course, based on a 1962 trading card set illustrated by, among others, comics great Wally Wood. It's anarchic, unexpected ("Wha? Trading cards?" we all said at the time), and darkly funny. It plays in the massive footprint of the same year's Independence Day, and in its more biting moments, it somehow speaks to the great collapses of the subsequent decade.
See the Twin Towers gleaming and proud in the film's establishing shot of Manhattan and try not to remember how gone they are. See Paul Winfield's yes-man general ("Didn't I always tell you, honey--if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things were bound to happen!") sent on the first disastrous embassy to the visiting Martians, and think on Colin Powell's good-soldier cavilling before the United Nations in 2003. See the political expediencies and overconfidences and blithe assumptions that comprise disaster response in Burton's world, then lay them over Lower Manhattan, Baghdad, New Orleans, the Gulf Coast... The director populates his deathscape mostly with characters not just too stupid to govern their nation or themselves, but in fact too stupid to live--it's only catastrophe that reveals the sham passed off as a durable social order. By the time Lukas Haas delivers a speech encouraging Americans to go live in tepees again and Tom Jones, Hero Pilot, starts swingin' in a desert oasis of friendly animals, you realize Burton is at least ironically on the side of those with simple dreams, not the ziggurat builders and leaders of men.
A flotilla of Martian saucers heaves into view and reaches out with radio messages. (Advance parties have already set a herd of Earth cows on fire before sending the go-ahead to the homeworld fleet, granting a glimpse of the Martians' probable true character.) The best minds employed by the U.S. President (Jack Nicholson) are unerringly wrong about the invaders, save for hawkish General Decker (Rod Steiger, killing it), who smartly wants to nuke everything that says "Ack!" The wonderfully designed and endearingly CGI'd Martians want to conquer us, yes--they go so far as to plant their flag in the chest of a head of state. But what's interesting is that we're never reeeeally sure of the cause behind the conflagration--whether the quacking Martians came with havoc in mind, or suffered an unforgivable slight at the greeting ceremony; whether they're lying outright about their peaceful intent, or the universal translator is simply on the fritz. Other than mayhem, there's not a semblance of motive to be found for their perverse immolations and vivisections--the Martians are a force of supernature.
Burton pokes at B-pictures--like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, whose spaceship-smacks-the-Capitol-dome gimmick gets a callback--and mainstream classics alike, endlessly tweaking his own satire. Nicholson's dual roles of President Dale and Vegas casino developer Art Land echo Dr. Strangelove, though Nicholson is no Peter Sellers; Land is Dale with a dodgy hick accent and a fake nose. Michael J. Fox is set up as a self-absorbed would-be hero, only to become the butt of a Yojimbo gag. After taking on the invaders mano-a-mano (one-upping Will Smith's Independence Day knockout punch by a factor of roughly a thousand, wearing Egyptian garb that amplifies his black-icon status), Jim Brown's return to his sundered home harks back to The Searchers. The picture also amazingly ripples ahead in time to Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Our geek-hero director may only be out for a misanthropic lark, but there's a synchronicity at work. His cast is wonderfully attuned to the absurdity Burton has in mind (well, Natalie Portman as the First Daughter seems merely kind of bored), and if it's almost never laugh-out-loud funny, Mars Attacks! tickles on several fronts--not least its willingness to kill any castmember at any time, and to point out how dopey they were for expecting to survive in the first place.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Extras? What extras? Warner shepherds Mars Attacks! to Blu-ray with nothing but the main feature in place--not even the trailers and music-only audio track found on the DVD release. (New here is the usual Blu-ray shitload of subtitle options.) There appears to have been an investment made in picture quality, however--fleshtones are natural and warm (except, say, Lisa Marie's wasp-waisted alien seductress), while Burton's signature candy colours (mostly in the alien costumery) get proper notice. If there's any waver to this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, it's in the F/X shots of the alien fleet: although every effort is made elsewhere to put aliens and human players in the same space, the saucers just don't look like they're there. I hope that's intentional, a nod to the unreality of most '50s saucer effects. By contrast, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is nearly criminal, muffling front-channel dialogue yet blowing out the carnage and Danny Elfman's (apropos) score through all speakers. So you turn up the volume to catch a conversation, only to find yourself wiping blood from your ear the next time a death ray incinerates a tank. This film is worthy of the HD format, but it needs a do-over, with a sonic spread that does it justice and supplementary content that explores it meaningfully. Originally published: November 29, 2010.