by Gary Lucas
Mars Attacks! is a Tim Burton film that was released in 1996. The budget is estimated to be around $70 million. Unfortunately, budget didn’t correlate to quality.
The film was based off of Topps trading cards that were released in 1962. They depicted some fairly graphic imagery that got the company into hot water. Right off the bat I was wary of this movie, given there hasn’t been the best run of movies that were based off of toys. I was right to be wary. It seems as though trading cards don’t transfer any better into movie format than Double Dragon did. The reason for this could be that the plot was underdeveloped and not very well thought through.
The Topps trading cards didn’t have much basis on their own to be adapted into film. Because of this, an original script was needed. Unfortunately, the film focused less on any plot whatsoever and more on its dark humor and featuring imagery similar to that of the trading cards. Whatever plot there was originally seemed to get lost in the weeds. There are a multitude of plots revolving around a large amount of characters which don’t seem to overlap very much. Each barely gets any time individually. The plots do not have room to breathe on their own or develop into anything thoughtful because of the sheer amount of completely separate plots.
Something that got lost along with the plot was any sort of character development or even a sense of connection to any characters. Since no character got much time for their own plot, the audience is left unaffected by any sense of danger that the characters are subjected to. This also means that any sense of safety or accomplishment means next to nothing to the audience given they can probably not even remember half of the characters’ names. Most of these characters don’t get the time to develop a real personality and most of them are fairly forgettable. The characters who do have some form of personality or are memorable in some way are the equivalent of cardboard cutouts and caricatures. General Decker is simply angry all the time and that’s his entire character. Richie’s grandmother has dementia. Richie is a black sheep in the family and that’s as in depth as things really get with any of the characters. That would be to say, that’s as in depth as it gets with any of the human characters.
My favorite aspect of this movie by far is the Martians. I don’t like the Martians because of the gruesome acts that they are shown engaging in, though it is a bonus and adds to their character. The Martians are actually the most in depth characters in the entire film even though they don’t speak a word of English, or any language from Earth. Through all of the “Ack Ack Ack”’s lies a species of alien with a twisted sense of humor. This is not initially apparent, though. The audience is often left in the dark regarding what the aliens’ true intentions are. It isn’t a sure thing at first whether or not the aliens mean peace or harm or whether their actions are because of a miscommunication or rather because they wish to bring destruction to Earth. Seeing the Martians act in ways that you would not necessarily assume and through this getting a good sense of their character is the only thing that gives any sense of depth or suspense to the film. The writing of the Martians is thoughtful, and is frankly the only thing that makes the movie worth watching in regards to the writing as a whole.
Something that I enjoy but know that many audience members might be turned off by is the animation of the Martians. Tim Burton has always had a knack for stop motion animation and started Mars Attacks! as stop motion as well. Once he was shown what sort of animation computers could produce, though, Burton agreed to make Mars Attacks! via computer animation. Though it was animated on a computer the animators still used the techniques used in stop motion animation. This led to an odd rigidity of the characters and an unreal feeling to it. That is something that Burton is known for, but seeing it done on a computer and the product being surrounded by very real actors can be unsettling and fever dreamy. The animation is something that I can easily see someone being put off by, but I think it’s a matter of preference.
Overall it is hard to get into this film unless you came just to see animated Topps trading cards. The plot and characters are both lacking in more ways than one. I believe that this movie had great potential. Had there been more focus on a small amount of plots and characters it would have been a movie worth getting invested in.