What was Tim Burton thinking?!
Who in their right minds would come off of a film as powerful and nuanced as Ed Wood, and then decide to direct a film based upon a series of trading cards?! There have been attempts to do this before ? like the horrible Garbage Pail Kids film ? but you just don?t expect somebody as talented and artistic as Tim Burton to be helming something as bad as this.
You can understand why Burton may have been attracted to this project. Ed Wood may have won over the critics and the Academy, but it flopped commercially, leading many to question whether Burton?s box office potential was on the slide. With such a big budget to play with, he could attempt to create something which, visually at least, rivalled the Batman films. What?s more, this was a chance to pay homage to the films of Ed Wood in the same way that Ed Wood paid homage to the filmmaker himself.
The film attempts to be a lot of things: an homage to 1950s B-movies, a kid-friendly action film, a parody of big blockbusters like Independence Day, a political satire, a camp comedy and a star vehicle. And it fails at every single one of these. From watching Ed Wood, there is no doubt that Burton is a fan of the director, to the point at which you believe that they are kindred spirits. But just because someone is a fan, it doesn?t mean their tributes are any good as films. The only thing Mars Attacks! shares with Wood?s films is a number of dodgy visuals. There is no attempt made to capture the over-the-top, so-bad-it?s-good acting of Plan 9 from Outer Space or to mimic the absurd premise of Glen or Glenda. Even the deliberately dodgy effects are pushed to the back in favour of brightly coloured CGI: the intentionally fake flying saucers are constantly overshadowed by the red and green blasters which seemed to have escaped from Spaceballs. The whole look of the film is very sub-War of the Worlds, and since the homage doesn?t work, that?s hardly desirable.
As a kid-friendly action film, this manages to tick the boxes in terms of entertaining visuals, and there are one or two vaguely interesting sight gags which will keep younger children occupied. But this is squandered by the film?s more adult segments, for instance the sequence of the President?s Press Officer trying to get laid with three hookers, or a similar sequence in which the same character attempts to seduce the Martian disguised as a beautiful woman. Aside from being a rip-off of Battlestar Gallactica, these scenes are completely inappropriate, even considering the 12 certificate.
Then there?s the question of parody. This film sits happily in the shadow of Independence Day, which was released in the same year and which shares a theme of aliens coming to earth with hostile intentions. Both of them are on one level stupid action movies, but at least Independence Day had the guts to be dumb from the start. It didn?t waste your time attempting to set up complex character development: it knew that the only reason you paid to see it was for the effects. Mars Attacks! doesn?t have the guts to do this: it spends so much time at the start establishing characters we don?t care about and relationships which are needlessly complicated, so that in the end it comes across looking a whole lot stupider.
The film?s attempts at political satire are also below-par. It attempts to send up both the liberal, ?peace-mongering idiots? and the militarist conservatives; in fact one of the better moments in the film is where the gung-ho general is shrunk to a few inches tall and then stamped on. It?s meant to be a great symbolic gesture, but it gets lost amid the torrent of bad speeches and hideous sentimentality, two things you don?t expect from a Jack Nicholson performance. Even its attempts to send up politicians as people only after good publicity are hugely inferior and unoriginal: Dr. Strangelove, Network or Broadcast News were ahead of the game in this area and are much, much funnier.
The camp comedy doesn?t work either. It?s camp, for sure, in its unashamed love of gaudy colours and over-the-top emotions. But it simply isn?t funny. There are a couple of moments which make the corners of your mouth curl up, and the first time round the sight of the aliens might raise a snigger. But the lack of three-dimensional characters or believable situations means that we just don?t invest in their predicament, and hence we don?t laugh. We find Glenn Close?s First Lady so annoying, we?re almost glad when she gets crushed by ?the Nancy Reagan chandelier?. Had there been more time invested in the character to build up this neurotic edge, it might have been funnier. It doesn?t even work as a farce, as the novelty death jokes wear thin really early on.
Finally, there is the issue of the stars. It?s always dangerous having an all-star cast in a film; if the director doesn?t know what they?re doing, it can quickly look like a bunch of rich, successful people enjoying themselves. Sometimes it works really well, like in Paul Thomas Anderson?s Magnolia or Robert Altman?s Gosford Park; sometimes it doesn?t, like the woefully smug Oceans movies of Steven Soderbergh.
Burton?s best films are those in which he takes one or two well-known actors, gets them to do something unpredictable, and then surrounds them with a cast of highly capable, little-known co-stars. Look at Jack Nicholson. In Batman he gave a great performance as the Joker which worked because it was tempered with an equally powerful performance by the little-known Michael Keaton. Here, he has two roles and seems completely undirected in both of them, recycling old mannerisms and coming off embarrassingly bad in the process.
So many good actors like Glenn Close, Jack Black and Michael J. Fox turn up on screen for a few minutes and are then killed off, with little justification and no attempt made to flesh out their character. And if by chance you warmed to Sarah Jessica Parker in Ed Wood, all that warmth goes out the window here. The bottom line is that it doesn?t matter how many characters there are on screen ? they?re so badly thought-out that we couldn?t care less about any of them.
This film is a mess ? a total, unadulterated mess. It?s badly thought out with too many ideas being blended up together and served up to an audience in an unfinished form. The characters are not involving, the performances are unconsciously wooden, the plot is stretched to exhaustion and it isn?t in the least bit funny. There are moments throughout this film in which you think Burton is going to pull it out of the bag, in which you think something interesting is going to happen. But it never happens; and you sit there, irritated and angry at just how badly Burton ballsed this up. It?s a heartbreaking experience, tempered only by the memory of all the good that came before it.