‘Mars Attacks!’ pokes fun at more than you’d think

By Marilyn MacLaren, Staff Writer

Those familiar with director Tim Burton and his style of filmmaking can instantly recognize his dark gothic flair, with films typically featuring a familiar cast of actors time and time again. Films such as “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) and “Corpse Bride” (2005) represent themes that make up the majority of his filmography. 

Yet, Burton has completely broken away from these darker tropes before and has successfully shown his range as a director as he ventures into different motifs. With that in mind, here’s a look at certainly one of his zaniest films, bringing both camp and comedy to a beloved genre.

“Mars Attacks!” (1996) is a comedic science-fiction film that spoofs the alien invasion genre from the 1950s. The film features a star-studded cast with actors like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Danny Devito and Martin Short, as well as up-and-coming 90s stars such as Jack Black and Christina Applegate. 

Despite the large cast, each character gets to shine and has a role to play in the invasion, even if only featured in a small portion of the film. The character of Private Billy Glenn, played by Jack Black, is quickly killed off in the Earth’s first encounter with the Martians, stupidly running headfirst into battle holding the American flag as he meets his end. Yet, he becomes a war hero, a martyr representing courage and sacrifice, missing the mark on the reality of the consequences of his blind patriotism. 

Although its central focus is on parodying the genre through its comedic approach, as seen in the familiar iconography of the Martians and red-green skeletons as the remains of their victims, the film has satirical potential. 

How the film portrays the U.S. government’s response to the alien invasion is similar to the treatment of Billy’s death, which is full of fumbles and jabs at the truth without understanding the consequences.

The president, played by Nicholson, is an overly patriotic caricature who is hilariously optimistic about the Martians and their intentions for coming to Earth, seeing the invasion as an opportunity for political gain by strategically choosing peace. 

These similar stereotypes are seen in the leaders he surrounds himself with when taking advice on what to do about the invasion. He becomes torn between the bloodthirsty general, who’s ready for war at the drop of the hat, and his lead scientist, whose flimsy logic preaches peace and unity with a more advanced species.

A particular scene solidifies this image of the president as he takes his last stand cowering in a bunker, delivering a heartwarming speech to the aliens to make peace and put all the bloodshed behind them. 

Complete with patriotic music swelling the scene and the Martian ambassador shedding a dramatic tear, the buildup invites irony into the scene as the aliens once again do the exact opposite of their declarations of peace. 

Naturally, the president is killed via a Martian flag being planted in his chest as his body lies on the model of the attack formation. It may seem like all hope is lost, yet a strange solution is found to stop the aliens by finding their weakness in “Indian Love Call” by Slim Whitman (1952).

The song is played throughout the planet, destroying the aliens one by one, with a happy ending for Earth. Filled with nuance, this film is a perfect revival of the genre with its own twists and turns that the cast and Burton provide.

 

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