Mars Attacks! (1996) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

On our recent episode of Top Five Movies, Corey, Michael, and I took a look at our favorite Tim Burton films. However, before I was willing to make my list, I figured I would knock out four of his films that I’d never seen, so I could confidently order his films. Mars Attacks! (1996) was one that I’d written off as “not for me” when it came out back way back when I was but a freshman in high school…but, upon finally watching it, I realized how wrong I was, as this film is entirely up my alley.

Mars Attacks! is a fun tribute to the old Sci-fi b-movies!

The world has been surrounded by hundreds of silver space ships from Mars. Their intentions are initially unclear, and the United States President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) is preparing to address the nation. Under the advice of Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), he believes the aliens are likely highly civilized, and attempts to communicate with them peacefully is the right tactic, despite the protests of General Decker (Rod Steiger), who insist on a strong military presence. As the film’s name implies, these Martians aren’t interested in peace, and they have a cruel sense of humor, taking joy in the many attacks they initiate against the people of Earth.

The most obvious crazy part of this film is the cast in this throwback ‘50s style Sci-fi B-movie. The list is insane: Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Jack Black, and others. Nicholson even plays two characters in this movie; one he plays surprisingly small, while the other is larger than life. Both work, and are acted expertly by Nicholson. Haas is one of the biggest surprises, as his character, Richie Norris, loves his grandmother (Sidney) while generally just being a nice guy. He is easily one of the most likable characters in the film but is by no means the most entertaining. That’s not an insult, as everything in this movie elicits some reaction, whether it be laughter, horror, empathy or more laughter. The film is just a blast to watch, and the cast only makes it all the more enjoyable.

The story has moments that remind me heavily of Dr. Strangelove. The scenes in the war room and the talk of nuclear war certainly lend themselves to that comparison, but it’s also the general tone towards the war that warrants it. Of course, in this movie, the bad guys are very awesome looking Martians who apparently are a whole species of sociopaths who take joy in killing. Burton’s aesthetic, which isn’t the norm here but still feels of his for sure, is so great in this film. The Martians zap people who turn to either red or green skeletons, and the visual effect is awesome. There are a number of scenes that just stand out in this film, and they all hold up really well.

Final thoughts…

Mars Attacks! is a great throwback to old Sci-fi, but also a solid comedic entry in Burton’s filmography. This is one of his that I could definitely see coming back to for multiple viewing in the future. I was happy because my daughter decided to watch it with me, and ended up also loving it. For me, this ends up in my Top Five Burton films, and it really worked for me, earning the Must See rating.

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