Jack Nicholson stars as the President of the United States, who has trouble deciding what to do when the Hubble telescope detects a fleet of flying saucers from Mars heading for Earth. His press secretary (Martin Short) thinks this is a great PR opportunity while the Army General (Rod Steiger) is sure that the only logical thing to do with the arrival of these damn dirty aliens is to kill, kill, kill! But the scientific consultant of the White House (Pierce Brosnan) is positive that if the Martian civilization is advanced enough to have the technology to come to us, they’ve gotta be peaceful. So through the media, they announce this historic event to the world, or more precisely to the film’s gallery of colorful characters, starting with the First Family. Glenn Close is near-perfect as a First Lady obsessed with the decoration of the White House, and Natalie Portman is neat as an ordinary, bored teenager who just happens to be the daughter of the Commander in Chief.
The movie also features Michael J. Fox as a GNN correspondent frustrated that his smart, objective work is less appreciated than his girlfriend’s airhead, superficial show. She’s played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s really fun as this bimbo in art deco clothes who always carries her pet Chihuahua with her. Lucas Haas is a slacker who works in a doughnut shop and lives in a trailer park with his gun-loving redneck parents, who wish he was more like his army brat brother (played by the always enjoyable Jack Black). Then there’s blaxploitation stars Pam Grier and Jim Brown as a bus driver mother and her former heavyweight champion ex-husband, who now works as a greeter in a casino in Las Vegas, where we also meet a greedy and sleazy Southern billionaire (Jack Nicholson again, unrecognizable) and his tormented, New Agey wife (Annette Bening).
Besides the all-star cast, the movie’s most enjoyable treat is the Martians themselves. They’re the way we envisioned them in the ’50s, all green with big giant heads and bulgy eyes, and they’re so wicked! They don’t come in peace: they just want to kill all humans by zapping them with their ray guns and have fun doing it. I really love the way the digitally created Martians look and move. Tim Burton too has a lot of fun with them: he has them blowing up a lot of stuff, as well as killing most of his cast!
“Mars Attacks!” is packed with memorable sights and hilariously ridiculous ideas. There’s cows on fire, a dog with a human head, aliens in red Speedos, a mysterious bodacious woman with huge hair who waltzes through the White House, severed heads kissing, people combusting to their bare skeletons and Martian brains exploding and splashing their space helmets full with green goo, Jim Brown going mano a mano with the alien bastards… We even get to see Tom Jones taking part in the action and cute little animals bopping to “It’s Not Unusual”!
There’s just one problem with this movie. It’s obviously a satire of cheesy sci-fi, among other things, yet at times it’s hard to know if Burton is spoofing it or just indulging in it. Often, there isn’t any joke made about a thing: the joke is the thing. For example, Burton doesn’t really have a witty take on the old-fashioned flying saucers: he just shows them and enjoy their kitsch. “Mars Attacks!” is still a refreshing movie, especially if you compare it to the other alien attack movie of 1996, “Independence Day”, which was as dumb but wasn’t aware of it. And you can’t deny Burton’s amazing imagination when it comes to art direction and the visual style of his movies. At worse, “Mars Attacks!” is eye-candy and terrific entertainment.