It's just another ordinary day in May, but in Kentucky there's a strange sight: a herd of cattle stampeding down the road, all ablaze. It doesn't make the national news, but whatever is responsible for it will soon as the massed forces of the planet Mars take flight from across the gulf of space, headed straight for planet Earth. The President of the United States of America (Jack Nicholson) surveys the information his military and scientific advisers have brought him and mulls over what action to take. General Decker (Rod Steiger) demands that defences be prepared for a battle, but Professor Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) asks for cooler heads to prevail, saying that the technologically advanced Martians are obviously peace loving. How wrong can one man be?
In the Tim Burton canon, Mars Attacks! is often forgotten about in the shadow of the more financially successful Batman or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the cultier Ed Wood, but this film is just as much a tribute to Wood's preferred line in science fiction as Burton's profile of the director. Only this time around, the audience may still be in a privileged position to observe the characters and their deficiencies, but here there's a gleeful urge to send them up mercilessly instead of amused sympathy. In the nineteen-fifties alien invasion tales the threat was taken seriously, and may well have been standing in for real world worries, yet in this it's American culture that's fair game.
During the nineties there was a love of mass destruction in the Hollywood blockbuster, as they weren't worth their salt if there wasn't at least one huge explosion featured, and Mars Attacks! doesn't disappoint on the grand scale chaos front, almost parodying the contemporary excesses of the likes of the far more straight-faced Independence Day. It was based on a bubblegum card series of the sixties which was the cause of outrage among parents when the extent of the violence contained in them became clear, although you can't imagine many protesting about the silly, cartoonish horrors on display here.
Screenwritten by Jonathan Gems, the film has an all star ensemble cast to fill out the roles of the poor saps who either get zapped or see their world crumble under the Martian death rays. It's strange to witness such an array of talent hamming it up for goofy laughs (OK, maybe not in Nicholson's case) in what is basically an over-budgeted B-movie, but it doesn't harm the sense of fun any. In fact, there are so many different actors and actresses that none of them really get a chance to shine, their scenes being more like vignettes rather than part of a strong storyline. Perhaps due to this, Nicholson has two roles to increase his screen time, both the President and a conman planning to build a hotel in Las Vegas, where half the film is set.
There is a way to survive the slaughter, and that's to be disadvantaged or something of a social misfit - either that, or be Tom Jones. The President's daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman) is neglected by her parents, with her mother (Glenn Close) more interested in the White House furnishings; meanwhile, her male counterpart is Richie (Lukas Haas) who lives in a trailer park and in the shadow of his soldier brother (Jack Black). His senile grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) proves to be very important, or specifically her musical taste does. There's plenty of wackiness to be enjoyed, all down to the computer generated Martians and their playfully cruel sense of humour - watch out for Lisa Marie as the gum-chewing Martian Girl for some perfectly pitched weirdness. However, the film's unswerving irreverence concerning everything, even happy endings, makes it easy to dismiss as an expensive bauble of relentless jokiness. Music by Danny Elfman.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.