The Quarantine Stream: 'Mars Attacks!' Proves Tim Burton Didn't Always Need a Gothic Circus To Have Fun

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Mars Attacks!

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Based on the comic book of the same name, this sci-fi comedy modeled after classic B-movies finds Earth being invaded by some tricky aliens from Mars. An incredible, all-star ensemble cast tries to survive, including Jack Nicholson in dual roles, Annette Bening giving an all-time great comedic performance, and a who’s who of supporting cast members all having an absolute blast.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: If you look at the filmography of Tim Burton over the past 10 or 15 years, you’d never know that he used to dabble in movies that didn’t have anything to do with weird kids or strange, gothic circuses. But, believe it or not, there was a time when Burton delivered movies that were a lot more fun, digging into delightfully twisted satire rather than stories that seem tailor-made to sell Hot Topic merchandise. One of his best is the 1996 sci-fi comedy comic book adaptation Mars Attacks!, and it still holds up today.

The year before Mars Attacks! was released, Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a movie starring Johnny Depp as the infamous filmmaker behind Plan 9 from Outer Space, largely regarded as one of the worst films ever made. So it’s only appropriate that Mars Attacks! follows a lot of the same sci-fi B-movie tropes that make some classic movies from the 1950s and 1960s so hilarious to watch. But Burton presents them with a modern satirical lens, as well as visual effects that were very impressive at the time. In fact, because of their intentionally simplistic and classic aesthetic, they still look pretty damn good after nearly 25 years

Aside from the comedy that comes from our invaders from Mars, whose antics only get more cartoonish as the movie goes on, the real draw of Mars Attacks! is the massive, mind-blowing ensemble cast. The movie includes Jack Nicholson having having the time of his life as the President of the United States and a high-rolling, eccentric casino owner, Annette Bening as a flower child space case, Michael J. Fox as a cocky, smarmy reporter, Sarah Jessica Parker as his E! News-esque anchor girlfriend, Martin Short as a sleazy press secretary, Rod Steiger as a trigger happy general, as well as Lukas Haas, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, and singer Tom Jones as himself.

Mars Attacks! not only serves as a fun send-up of classic sci-fi movies, but i arrived six months after the release of Independence Day, so it also felt like somewhat of a parody of the large scale alien invasion action flick too. Honestly, this might be the last truly fun movie that Tim Burton directed. And don’t you dare try to bring up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to prove me wrong.

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