Mars Attacks (1996) Review

latestThis movie makes me happy. It makes me laugh. It leaves me with a fat grin on my face every time I see it. Jack Nicholson as POTUS and a sleazy car salesman in the same film! I can remember seeing this bit of craziness on opening night 20 years ago (this December!), hot on the heels of Independence Day, and holy moly this was NOT ID4. Laying a fat egg at the domestic box office, Mars Attacks! remains one of Tim Burton’s most underrated and underappreciated films. It’s a hoot and a holler, completely entertaining, with its tongue planted very, very firmly in its cheek. It’s silly, it’s reverential, and it looks absolutely fabulous in a purposefully low-tech and kitschy manner. The playful score by Danny Elfman is one of his best, the opening title sequence is an all-time classic, and the absurdly star studded cast is a roll call of the likes that is rarely seen outside of one of the old-school Irwin Allen disaster films. 

The film had a very long development process, with names like Alex Cox and Martin Amis taking early and separate stabs at the property, which was famously based off of the 1950’s era Topps Trading Card series, before final screenwriters Jonathan Gems, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski put the finishing touches on this most ridiculous and clever and all together wild film. In retrospect, it’s very easy to see how this material must’ve set Burton’s world on fire, as it was a chance for him to make an outsized version of an Ed Wood movie, and given his love for that iconic filmmaker, seems almost like one of the most expensive personal love letters that a director has ever made.


The visual design of the aliens is aggressively awesome, I love the fact that they only say the phrase ACK-ACK, and when their heads explode inside of their space helmets – priceless! It’s a pity that critics couldn’t just embrace this film for what it was and have some fun, as they seemed eager and almost happy to pounce on this back in the day. And audiences weren’t likely expecting the light and breezy and absurdist tone, especially after the traditional heroics and bombast from Independence Day just a few months earlier. Mars Attacks! is a film that I could watch any day of the week, and whenever I come across it on the movie channels, I almost always have to pick it up in progress, as it’s never not a delightful pisser.

Review by Nick Clement

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