Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With A Quiet Place Part II postponed, check out these earlier movies about hostile alien invaders, all available to rent digitally or stream from home.
The year was 1996, and movie theaters barely had enough time to recover from the first assault from beyond the stars before the next fleet of spaceships hovered in over the horizon. Independence Day arrived first, heralded by a Super Bowl trailer that blew up the White House—a mere preview of what it would do to its fellow summer blockbusters at the box office. But Mars Attacks! had actually been around longer, languishing in development hell since Alex Cox first took a crack at adapting the infamously gory Topps trading card series in the mid-’80s. When Tim Burton and Jonathan Gems rescued the property a decade later, they put its throwback flying saucers on a collision course with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s sky-swallowing City Destroyers—prompting a skittish Warner Bros. to eventually move Mars Attacks! to the fittingly cheeky, Christmastime release date of Friday, December 13.
Both films are hybrids of vintage genre fare: drive-in-ready alien-invasion spectaculars crossed with the star-studded Irwin Allen disaster films of the ’70s. Both aim their lasers at some of Earth’s most recognizable and cherished landmarks. And both make room for rousing, highlight-reel speeches from an American president. But only Mars Attacks! punctuates that address with a lethal punchline from an interstellar gag gift. And while that wasn’t much help with ticket sales in 1996, it makes all the difference now: Mars Attacks! is the more enjoyable watch today, especially when viewed as the hour-and-a-half-long raspberry blown at the end of Tim Burton’s first act as a director.
Go looking for Burton’s visual signatures in Mars Attacks!, and you’ll mostly come up with a pile of iridescent bones. The look of the film stems from the trading cards, the story of which Burton and Gems loosely adapt into a transcontinental sci-fi farce in which marquee names like Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close haplessly swat at Martians who attack first in response to a cultural misunderstanding, before deploying wave after wave of saucers, mechs, and ground troops seemingly just for the hell of it. A prevailing shits-and-giggles spirit buoys Mars Attacks! whenever it threatens to sink under its destructive din. Where else are you going to see Nicholson deliver an exaggerated portrait of diplomatic dignity and the “Jack is back” chaos of a craven Las Vegas casino owner in the same movie?
The most Burtonian facet of Mars Attacks! is in its rooting interests. The big stars all occupy prominent roles in the movie’s government, media, and military, but none of them play heroes. Their characters are the stupidest people to ever live, and that stupidity dooms them all to obliteration, vivisection, or some other ignoble, classroom-doodle fate. Mars Attacks! is a movie where the then-reigning James Bond literally goes to pieces aboard a Martian craft, where Sarah Jessica Parker’s head gets attached to a dog’s body, where Rod Steiger’s hawkish General Decker foolishly goes against that old cinematic adage about fighting in the war room. The future of the human race ultimately rests in the hands of the outsiders, the outcasts, the uncool. In other words, Burton’s type of people: a donut-shop employee (Lukas Haas), his grandma (Sylvia Sidney), Lydia Deetz reimagined as the First Daughter (Natalie Portman), down-on-their-luck divorcés played by aging Blaxploitation icons (Pam Grier and Jim Brown), a recovering alcoholic (Annette Benning), and Tom Jones (Tom Jones).
But that’s all assuming we’re not meant to be cheering on the Martians, the quacking sadists who retrofit a scientist’s translation machine to sarcastically burble “Don’t run—we are your friends” at the Earthlings they’re about to skeletonize. They’re the real stars here, lavished with post-production affection: The creeping unease of their approach signaled by distinctively humming saucers and trilling ray guns; their fleshless faces rendered in then-state-of-the-art CGI. (If Burton had had his druthers, more time, and $200 million lying around, they would’ve been Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion puppets.) Unlike more anonymous extraterrestrial threats, these Martians have presence, personality, and a comical sense of menace. Wreaking global havoc in the montages that are the most direct translation of their wax-packed source material, they resemble nothing less than intergalactic cousins to the other little green troublemakers in the Warner stable. And like the Gremlins, Mars Attacks! invites us in to cackle with its antagonists, as they shake up cocktails and monitor the destruction from above.
That’s another key distinction between Independence Day and Mars Attacks!: The grim-faced seriousness of the former (give or take a Randy Quaid) almost feels like it’s trying to apologize for the cheap thrill of watching humankind’s monuments to itself crumble to the ground. In a garish, noisy, and rude style befitting its tacky roots, Mars Attacks! makes no such apologies. In its cockeyed view, the end of the world is just something else to watch between a Godzilla movie and a Dukes Of Hazzard marathon.