So Bad it’s Good: Mars Attacks! (1996)

So Bad it’s Good: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Jim Brown, Annette Bening, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lukas Hass.
Plot: The people of earth struggle to fight against a hostile alien race intent on destroying all life on Earth, whilst having fun in the process.

I remember when I first saw Mars Attacks! I was genuinely quite terrified of it, but in all fairness I was around 7 or 8 years old and still couldn’t sleep without a light on. Just the idea of a superior alien race invading earth, simply for their own amusement, really got to me. Needless to say, I never really registered the comedic tone that the movie had. Watching it now gives me an entirely different perspective.

Mars Attacks! is a film that depicts what happens when Earth comes into contact with a malevolent race of lifeforms from Mars. The president (Nicholson) hopelessly does everything he can under the guidance of his aide, professor Kessler (Brosnan) to maintain peace and to avoid any conflict, being convinced that an advanced alien species would not be interested in war. It soon becomes clear that contrary to his beliefs, the Martians are only here to entertain their twisted sense of humour by destroying all life on the planet. This then forces the people of America to fight back in any way they can.

Mars Attacks! on face value is pretty bad. The overall plot seems cheap and lacklustre, the CGI is awful by today’s standards – even for the 90s in fact – and the majority of characters just ooze unlikeability, but that’s precisely the point of the whole film. The main problem I feel people have with the film is that it’s taken too seriously, when all it really is, is a spoof of the 1950s Sci-Fi films; it’s a film that essentially makes fun of itself. Mars Attacks! has all the conventions of that sci-fi B-movie style that films in the 50s had; in particularly that signature creepy soundtrack that was used in virtually all 50s alien films and the Star Trek series. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, it’s supposed to be cheesy, and it really gives the film that 50s Sci-Fi ambiance.
Speaking of over-the-top, the film includes an incredible star-studded cast including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Pam Grier, Jack Black, Sylvia Sidney, a young Natalie Portman and even Tom Jones. With a cast so vast and full of a-listers, every scene is guaranteed to have a recognisable face and really adds to the film being a ‘spectacle’. Tom Jones playing himself in a film about aliens attacking Earth; what more could you need?

About 90% of the film features the Martians rampaging around America, shooting people with their super-soaker guns that reduce people to skeletons, which regardless of how bad it looks is still fantastic. The Martians themselves are reminiscent of the gremlins from Gremlins (1984). Evil, mischievous creatures that are cruel and violent, with a twisted sense of humour. Like the gremlins, the Martians never really seem a huge threat because they come off as more cheeky and mischievous with a thirst for humour, which always comes across as a sign of vulnerability and weakness. The Martians aren’t the typical  2-dimensional, evil aliens from most Sci-Fi films, they have personality and they steal the show. This adds to the overall light tone of the film. In truth, it’s actually a nice change from Tim Burton. This film stands out from all of his other work, despite following his signature style of blending dark themes with comedy.

Normally in So Bad it’s Good I make a point about how bad acting is hilarious to watch and is actually part of the formula that makes bad films watchable. However, in Mars Attacks! it’s not bad acting, it’s overacting. Jack Nicholson does this to perfection, making sure all of his presidential speeches and lines are executed with just the right amount of cheese. Other overacted, short appearances from Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito and Rod Steiger also help to create shallow and arrogant characters that Tim Burton cleverly uses to surmise American culture and everything he sees to be wrong with it. Characters such as Richie (Hass) and Byron (Brown), the relatively unknown actors of the bunch, maintain a modest screen time because they value the more traditional themes such as love and family life, which actually end up keeping them alive and being the key ingredient to saving the day .

Overall, Mars Attacks! is an entertaining film. It’s not necessarily laugh out loud, or a fall off your chair kind of comedy, but it’s a nice refreshing look back on Sci-Fi B movies of the 50s and is definitely one to recommend if you’re a fan of that era in cinema. It has a star cast who overact the hell out of the film and probably the most realistic portrayal of an alien invasion you will ever witness. A lot of people misinterpret the film’s style and overacting for being cheap and insignificant, when in reality, behind the film’s shallow surface is a nostalgic trip back to the 50s, along with a tragic reflection of the contemporary, shallow assimilation culture of America. Mars Attacks! is very much a misunderstood film.


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