Two Cents: MARS ATTACKS Turns 20!


Two Cents
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

There are weird Tim Burton movies.

And then there are weird Tim Burton movies.

And then, there is Mars Attacks!

A black-hearted, cruel, destruction-fueled blockbuster comedy, Mars Attacks! took some of the biggest names of the 90s (including Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Annette Bening, Danny Devito, and of course Jack Nicholson in a dual-performance) and ran many of them through a meat-grinder, all while giddily laughing at the mayhem.

Mars Attacks! was originally inspired by a series of trading cards, infamous for their colorful brutality. For example:

Not subtle, that. A movie version was originally developed by Repo Man‘s Alex Cox, but the project floated around until it landed on Tim Burton’s desk. And Burton, well, he Tim Burton’d it.

Mars Attacks!
had the misfortune of opening in the wake of Independence Day, a film that lovingly recreated the exact tropes that Mars Attacks! was clubbing with a blunt bat of ironic detachment. Folks in 1996 favored sincerity, we suppose, and Mars Attacks! was abandoned like so many multi-colored skeletons.

But the film has endured as a cult oddity, and our own Frank suggested we watch it for the film’s 20th Anniversary. It may not be anyone’s idea of a Christmas classic, but maybe the team can find some merriment in Mars Attacks! after all. Or failing that, we can settle for flaming skeletons.

Did you get a chance to watch along with us this week? Want to recommend a great (or not so great) film for the whole gang to cover? Comment below or post on our Facebook or hit us up on Twitter!

Next Week’s Pick:

Mike Dougherty has crafted a strange sort of niche for himself in the last few years, securing himself as the go-to guy for “holiday-centric horror”, a subgenre previously untouched since the slasher boom of the 80s. Dougherty’s directorial debut Trick ‘r Treat was abandoned theatrically but almost immediately attracted cult adulation and has only grown since then. Now, he’s getting called up to the big leagues to direct the upcoming Godzilla film.

But before we lose him to the blockbusters, genre fans had one last treat. Krampus drew thrills and chills last year with its tale of Yuletide terror, with the demonic anti-claus wreaking havoc on a cast that includes Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Fargo’s Allison Tolman.

Join us next week as Two Cents determines whether Krampus is a true gift, or just cinematic coal. It was an ubiquitous Black Friday deal, so we know some of you have recently picked it up. Cinemax subscribers can get it via Amazon, and if nowhere else, you should also be able to rent it from a Redbox easily enough (it’s oddly unavailable to rent via the streaming services we checked out).

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)!

Our Guests

Trey Lawson: Mars Attacks! is the best movie based on a series of trading cards ever made. Of course, that’s not saying much, considering its primary competition in that category is the abysmal Garbage Pail Kids Movie. A comic account of earth’s disastrous first contact with extraterrestrials, the film is in many ways to Independence Day what Dr. Strangelove was to Fail-Safe – ostensibly unrelated productions which nonetheless tackled the same material with vastly different tones. (The Strangelove connection is especially clear in Jack Nicholson’s double casting and the scenes set in the “war room.”) In addition, the aliens and technology in Mars Attacks! calls to mind the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen – in particular the 1956 film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. And on top of all that, the huge ensemble cast of celebrities evokes the star-studded disaster movies of Irwin Allen.

That’s a lot of background, but tl;dr – the film’s inspirations and references are interesting and varied.

On top of that, the film’s sense of humor is pretty sharp. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of easy targets to go around – the self-centered journalist, the naïve scientist, the war-hawk general, etc. But the film eliminates these broadly drawn characters with gleeful abandon. In some respects, the performative nature of politics in the White House scenes feels even more relevant today than it did in 1996. Jack Nicholson is very good (especially as the president), as are Glenn Close and Natalie Portman as his family. The cast is so big that it’s hard to cover everyone – Pam Grier and Jim Brown, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J Fox, and Pierce Brosnan all appear. Martin Short is deliciously sleazy, and Lukas Haas, Jack Black, Sylvia Sidney, & the great Joe Don Baker are fun as a redneck family that wouldn’t be out of place in my hometown. But the MVP of the film is Tom Jones, who makes the most of his brief cameo – especially in the closing scene of the film. His presence, along with the Slim Whitman deus ex machina, are easily my favorite parts of the film.

Mars Attacks! is not Tim Burton’s best film, but many of what some might see as flaws are really holdovers from the types of movies it is parodying, and often those moments play with a wink at the audience. The humor is dark, surreal, and (despite its failure at the box office) well worth revisiting. (@T_Lawson)

Brendan Agnew: Mars Attacks! is a movie that I haven’t seen in a long time, but remember really liking as a teenager. Revisiting it for the column, I managed to pinpoint what about it appealed to Young Brendan.

This movie is MEAN AS HELL.

If there’s a notable shift in the 90’s revival of disaster blockbusters from their Irwin Allen roots, it’s that the 90’s films traded in the 70’s cynicism for a more idealistic message of hope and unity, of intelligence and teamwork. Mars Attacks! has no time for that, whatsoever. Part riff on ID4‘s structure and the boilerplate “cast of thousands” approach (most of whom the movies actively despises), part winking send-up of Ray Harryhausen movies of the ’50s (notice none of the soldiers have even Vietnam-era weapons), this isn’t a great film so much as a lot of great jokes in search of a good story. The structure is janky and the editing is choppy, but there are still punchlines that land like gangbusters, and extended gags (notably the romance between Pierce Brosan and Sarah Jessica Parker) that are jaw-droppingly dark.

Call it the ultimate “your mileage may vary” film, but if you’re hankering for something to put you on the good side of a bad mood, there’s a lot worse you can do than watching a bunch of Martians burn down Congress. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Frank: I remember first clamping eyes on Mars Attacks! as a youngster 20 years ago when it was marketed as one of the big Christmas releases of 1996. Two things became quite apparent almost from the film’s start: a) no one was going to get this movie and b) it was my favorite movie of the year! Mars Attacks! is essentially Tim Burton doing Irwin Allen with everyone from Danny Devito and Jack Nicholson to Sarah Jessica Parker and Natalie Portman included in the starry cast. The film also happens to have one of longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman’s best scores. The opening credits sequence featuring a collection of flying saucers is made all the more adventuresome and gleeful thanks to his impressive work.

While audiences of the day looked at the film as a poor imitation of that summer’s mega-blockbuster Independence Day, it took a certain kind of moviegoer to appreciate Burton’s aim, which was to pay tribute to the “martians invade the earth’ genre of the 50s.” He does this brilliantly by not only populating the film with star after star (some of whom actually survive), but also through the film’s hyperreal look which features a 50s sensibility mixed with 90s touches. But it’s the humor which stands up best of all with it’s darkly funny approach to the proceedings that only Burton could get away with. How can one not laugh when a sexually ambiguous reporter asks: “Do the martians have two sexes like we do,” or when, after watching the Martians obliterate a room full of congressmen, an elderly retiree points to the TV and laughingly exclaims: “They blew up congress! Ha ha ha”” Also, in light of recent events, who wouldn’t want to have Nicholson as President of the United States?! Now more than ever, there’s nothing but sheer comfort in hearing him proclaim: “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad!” (@frankfilmgeek)

Brendan: This and Ed Wood feel like a one-two punch final volley from Tim Burton, rebellious art kid loose in the studio factory. The nuclear-force bombing of both (and the critical drubbing received by Mars) seem to have snuffed out some of the wild-haired weirdo’s wild weirdness. Burton has made good films since (I’d count Big Fish as among his very best) but his hotstreak died fast and he remains only sporadically inspired in the 21st century.

If that is the case, Original Flavor Burton went out with one helluva bang. Mars Attacks! is a mess, but it’s an exhilirating mess, and when the film really clicks into gear it is one of the most bizarre fucking things I have ever seen with a studio logo attached to it. The subplot involving the romance between Pierce Brosnan’s severed head and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head (grafted onto a chihuahua…I mean, COME ON. HOW DOES THIS EXIST? DID EVERYONE AT THE STUDIO JUST GO HOME THAT DAY? I think you’d have to go back to Gremlins 2: The New Batch as the closest cousin to this film’s balls out anarchy. Both films find filmmakers taking the house money and promptly burning down the house so they can dance in the film.

Mars Attacks! has no reason to exist, but its very existence fascinates and delights me.

Austin:Like the aforementioned Gremlins 2, this is a brand of silly anarchy and humorously reckless cruelty that my wife and I are both pretty fond of. Mars Attacks takes the comedy and violence of its premise and runs with it as far as it will go, setting up tons of character simply for the purpose of mutilating or disintegrating them later.

The cast is almost impossibly impressive, and over the years I’ve appreciated Mars Attacks even more as I’ve started to learn more about movies in general. Besides the obvious star-studded primary cast of A-listers, there are a ton of other terrific actors representative of older cult film fare like Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Rod Steiger, Joe Don Baker, and Paul Winfield. Plus budding stars like Jack Black and Natalie Portman, not to mention some surprise cameos.

The big whiff from this movie, though, was the decision to use poor CGI instead of stop motion as Burton had originally envisioned. This would have been not only more fun and interesting to look at, but a meaningful throwback to the atomic age sci-fi that the film is clearly paying homage to. The computer animation simply doesn’t hold up, though I imagine some would argue that’s part of its cartoony charm.

Still, Mars Attacks is lovably goofy and insane. It’s not unusual to love this movie. (@VforVashaw)

Did you all get a chance to watch along with us? Share your thoughts with us here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook!

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.