When Tim Burton tackles a cinematic subject, you know the results are going to be artistically anarchic. From his fascinating short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, to his big budget takes on Batman and the Planet of the Apes, this iconic filmmaker finds the idiosyncratic soul in almost all the material he approaches. The results are always visually inspiring, quirky, arcane, and wholly original. So it’s a shame that his 1996 epic Mars Attacks! Never reached a wider audience. In an odd twist of fate, the film had the unfortunate luck of following Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s more serious interstellar invasion film Independence Day to the Cineplex. Indeed, after seeing the world decimated by pissed off extraterrestrials, Burton’s subtle apocalyptic satire just didn’t seem quite as funny, and audiences stayed away in droves. By doing so, they missed a sensationally subversive sci-fi comedy. Based on a controversial Topps trading card set from the ’50s and ’60s, Mars Attacks was an EC Comics approach to the mainstream popcorn extravaganza. It combined riffs from the seminal ’70s disaster films with lifts from the likes of Stanley Kubrick (Jack Nicholson’s Peter Sellers-like dual roles) to the blaxpolitation classics of the era (complete with Pam Grier and Jim Brown in prominent roles).
But it’s the Martians that make the biggest impression here. Utilizing an early version of CGI, and the extensive physical effects his films are known for, Burton gave what could have been your standard alien bad guys a distinct dimension all their own. Aside from looking exactly like their cartoon counterparts, these slapstick spacemen with the corpse-like demeanor were a constant source of sensational sight gags. In fact, instead of purely playing the villainous antagonists that the cards conveyed, Burton’s ridiculous rogues were a gleeful Greek chorus, mocking the Earthlings in all their human faults and foibles. The Martians manage to play on each and every one of mankind’s sinful slights, from the military’s unreasonable arrogance (as expertly exemplified by the late great Rod Steiger) to the shady sexual secrets inside the corridors of power. Indeed, with the latter, Martin Short gets a chance to shine as a Presidential Aide who attempts to bed a decidedly dim hooker who’s actually an alien in disguise. With its irreverent approach and stellar production design, Mars Attacks! is a marvel. It remains one of Burton’s most slick, satisfying efforts.