Mars Attacks! (1996)

*. When I was looking up information and background on Mars Attacks! I was amazed to find that there were some people who liked this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it on its release, but I’d always heard it was terrible.
*. Well, it is terrible. Given the budget and the talent involved I’d call it spectacularly bad. But it did get some decent reviews. Not raves, but positive enough to qualify as middling. It didn’t deserve that much.
*. Given that it was inspired by a series of trading cards that came out in the 1960s (to which a kind of narrative had been attached) is there much point in complaining about how flimsy the story is? Basically Martians attack. With ray guns. We don’t know why. We don’t know why so many people, including the American president, continue to believe that they come in peace even after they started vaporizing everyone. It’s just stupid.
*. As an aside, in 2012, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the trading cards, Topps came out with a commemorative book with high-quality scans as well as a lot of other related artwork. I recommend the book whole-heartedly. Card 22, “Burning cattle,” helps explain the opening scene here. Nothing in the film does.
*. The all-star cast recalls the celebrity-studded disaster flicks of the ’70s. Every star has their own little story, many of them having no bearing on the main story whatsoever. Jack Nicholson has two roles, one as the president and the other as a Las Vegas casino owner. I have no idea why they bothered with the second. But then I don’t know why they bothered with a lot of these characters. Danny DeVito plays a “Rude Gambler.” He doesn’t even have a name.
*. Once you’ve seen all the stars, and the Martians (highlighted by Lisa Marie as a nitrogen gum-chewing, beehived honey trap), there’s nothing else to be interested in. Director Tim Burton, given far too much liberty to indulge himself, can only spark interest with flippant excess. Much of it is just grotesque though, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s head stuck on a little dog’s body, or poor Rod Steiger being miniaturized and then stepped on.
*. I was going to write more on this but I don’t want to. It’s am embarrassment for everyone involved. The aliens look neat but that’s it. The effects are sup-par, the story slop, and there isn’t a single funny line or interesting idea in the whole damn movie. Costing a hundred times as much, it’s less intelligent and entertaining than the grade-Z SF of the ’60s it was supposedly an homage to. By coincidence it came out the same year as Independence Day, which took the same old idea and played it straight, with equally forgettable results. Just how bad were the ’90s for movies anyway? I think they were pretty bad.
*. Kenneth Turan: “not as much fun as it should be.” Or, as I’d put it: no fun at all.

22 thoughts on “Mars Attacks! (1996)

    1. Alex Good

      Yes, the cards were wonderfully subversive. This movie is a total mess. I hadn’t seen it and was gobsmacked at how bad it was. Textbook example of giving a director too much freedom to do whatever he wanted. A production that needed someone in charge saying “What is this?”

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Much as it pains me to agree, I saw this opening day at the cinema and forgot about it immediately. Something tragic about making such a dry and witless movie when you could make absolutely anything. Not a moment survives.

    1. Alex Good

      It’s hard to believe, but Burton might have thought he really didn’t need a story and that he could just get by with lots of stars and effects.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Went to the MOMA exhibition on Burton, and it was absolutely amazing. Incredible imagination and detail. Much more fun to view as an exhibition like that than to sit through a juvenile movie like this.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I can believe it. Though most of the design elements in this movie are taken straight from the trading cards. It’s not original in that sense, though it is well done.

    1. Alex Good

      They do, but they are identical to what they looked liked in the playing cards (which you can see by clicking on Tom’s post, which he linked above). Right down to their red underwear.

      1. Bookstooge

        I wish. You really don’t remember them “uploading” a virus into the mothership? It is ridiculous on first glance but once you realize that that the aliens HAVE to have compatible software/hardware to embed the countdown, it actually makes sense.
        Still feels silly though 🙂

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t remember any of that. 25 years ago! I seem to recall Will Smith flying into the mother ship and blowing it up somehow. That’s it.

  2. Tom Moody

    I remember (i) Brent Spiner playing a human, (ii) Bill Pullman as the US president, and (iii) Randy Quaid eager for payback after rectal experimentation by aliens.

    1. Alex Good

      That’s scoring a lot higher than I did! I think Will Smith also punched an alien didn’t he? And said something like “That’s what I call a close encounter!”


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