When, not if, the aliens invade, what is our course of action? How do we respond? It is fight or flight. For Tim Burton, it is neither. His reaction and response to the casual invasion of Planet Earth by the little green men from beyond the stars is to continue as best he can, business as normal. Who can blame him? Mars Attacks! is his offering of such a period, as much a mockery of 1950s sci-fi as it is of itself. But Burton casts his net too wide, and as he tries to satirise and jab anything and everything the world around him has to offer, he loses not just his charm as a director, but his ability to string a story together too.
An ensemble this strong can only be wasted. Jack Nicholson struggles to do anything in not one, but two roles. A whole host of other memorable faces and big-name stars are thrown in for good measure, all introduced with no pacing and little variety. They offer even less. Pooling together so many stars is a recipe for disaster, it is just a shame this blowout is a boring one. Harrowingly enough, Tom Jones comes through best of all, playing a caricatured version of himself. In the same location as Jones, Danny DeVito appears also, and the two are responsible for some of the better scenes in the film. The real issue is not the premise or the cast, but the dialogue and direction they are given to work with.
There is room for how different walks of life would react to an alien invasion, Burton has neither the strength nor capacity to look into it. It is a tale of government response, press responsibility, family reunions, the power of Tom Jones and why we must never trust alien invaders. Would we dare make the assumption, as Pierce Brosnan’s Donald Kessler did in saying these Martians are “peaceful and enlightened”? Probably not. We would fire rockets at them until they were too fearful to enter the atmosphere, or too blown to shreds to even formulate such an idea. We flutter between press conferences, doughnut shops, residential care homes and casinos without much rhyme or reason. Burton just takes us from place to place in a horribly disjointed fashion, introducing character after character so these Martians have something or someone to blow up. Montage scenes are waiting for a comedic injection, but nothing comes of it. It is as underwhelming as the bulk of Burton’s filmography.
Infamous these aliens may be, they are strapped to a ticking bomb of mediocrity. As that countdown flirts with total annihilation, it is almost too late for Mars Attacks! to make much impact at all. It does so to some degree. A few golden lines here, some notes of unplanned mania there, and it doesn’t feel like a complete waste of time. But these comedic tones are mired by those bizarre desires of Burton to include so many performers and different narrative strands. It is not as if they overlap all that much, and the only shared topic among them is that they are swarmed by aliens, who scream “Ack! Ack!” in a repetitively tedious tone. A film to quote, but not to view. There are great sight gags within, and it is a damn shame they are not put to better use.