After completing his love song to the man recognized as the world's worst director in 'Ed Wood,' Tim Burton set his sights on making a tribute to the worst movies from his youth with 'Mars Attacks!' One is for the creators; the other for their creations. With a large, all-star cast, the irreverent and visionary director of 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure,' 'Beetlejuice,' and 'Batman' aims at making a big-budgeted eulogy glorifying the terribleness of sci-fi B-movies from the past and uses forgotten, cult trading cards as the inspiration for accomplishing this. Mixing black, surreal humor with some political satire, the absurd comedy is a highly entertaining hodgepodge of wild nonsense. Unfortunately, part of its madcap ambition gets the best of the production and ends up as part of its drawback.
The entire opening sequence of 'Mars Attacks!' makes clear Burton's intentions, what he was aiming to achieve with this wacky sci-fi farce. While Danny Elfman's musical score channels the signature theremin-sounds of Dr. Samuel Hoffman, we see the surface of the red planet releasing thousands of hubcap-shaped flying saucers. The sights and sounds are taken directly from our collective memories of UFO sightings and the movie 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,' down to the way the discs spin and shoot lasers from a small satellite dish underneath. In fact, the director makes an obvious reference to the 1956 B-classic later on with the Washington Monument collapsing on a troupe of Boys Scouts. The rest of the film is a parade of endless movie nods and cultural jabs (if I'm not mistaken, this was one of the first to crack a "can we all get along" jokes).
The cast is clearly in on the joke, as many of the actors seem to savor their moment as stock characters. Michael J. Fox plays a funny self-absorbed TV journalist while Sarah Jessica Parker is his girlfriend, a fashionista talk-show host. Glenn Close is a snobby First Lady obsessed with the interior decorations of the White House, and Annette Bening is great as a wealthy Vegas wife with a more hippie liberal mindset. Jim Brown doesn't really do much as a former boxing champion except fight his way back home, but Martin Short is almost too good as the creepy, sex-crazed Press Secretary. Sadly, the cameos with Danny DeVito, Pam Grier, and Tom Jones are mostly forgettable. And I wonder if anyone explained to Luke Haas and Natalie Portman that they were making a comedy, because they look bored and uninterested through most of the movie.
Ultimately keeping the show alive are the three performances which serve as constant reminders that the movie is after all just a spoof. Pierce Brosnan ('The World is Not Enough,' 'The Thomas Crown Affair') fits terrifically in the role of the overly-confident egghead Professor Kessler, a standard figure of most all 1950s sci-fi B-features. Joining him in another established must for this sort of material is the fantastic Rod Steiger ('On the Waterfront,' 'The Pawnbroker') as the gung-ho and belligerent General Decker. He is utterly hilarious as a man always at the ready to deploy nuclear weapons and as a comical reminder to Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove.' The only thing to best them is the always lively and animated Jack Nicholson, taking on two completely opposite roles and delivering great entertainment while doing it.
Sadly, for all its charisma and enthusiasm, 'Mars Attacks!' exhibits one minor discrepancy holding it back. The narrative is simply too self-aware, meaning that it never allows itself a moment of seriousness. In its attempt to mimic those films of the past, Burton forgets what makes them so special, which is a genuine desire to create a big sci-fi disaster flick in spite of a limited budget and the cheesy visual effects. The film is so intent and motivated on being a parody, practically announcing it every chance it gets, that a good deal of its enchantment and clever allusions are often lost in the alien encounter and nonstop CGI mayhem. Still, Burton's B-movie spoof has its moments of amusement, and it does sometimes feel like it belongs in a theater with buzzers under the seats and a little person in a big-headed alien costume running through the aisles.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings Tim Burton's 'Mars Attacks!' to Blu-ray on a BD50, Region Free disc and housed in a blue eco-keepcase. Once in the player, the disc goes straight to the main menu, which looks identical to the DVD.
Tim Burton's wacky alien invasion makes contact on Blu-ray with a generally satisfying 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1).
On many levels, this is a definite improvement, with many beautiful, highly-detailed scenes that can exemplify the benefits of the format. Alas, the problem is with an inconsistent transfer, which tends to interrupt the presentation's overall enjoyment. For every clearly visible fine detail and revealing facial complexion in close-up, there are moments of softness and some evidence of noise reduction. It doesn't completely ruin the video, but it can be distracting.
On a more positive note, contrast is crisp and comfortably bright, while blacks are deep and accurate, providing the picture with good depth and clarity. Although shadow delineation is by and large strong, there is one glaringly obvious instance of black crush at the one-hour mark when Martin Short's character first talks to the Martian Girl outside the White House. The color palette is vibrant and intentionally overly-saturated, especially in the primaries, to give the movie a wonderful cartoon, comic-book energy.
Taken as a whole, the movie looks quite good, but a few inconsistencies can potentially distract from enjoying the video presentation.
For the most part, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack makes for a highly entertaining and engaging listen. But like the picture, the lossless mix also lands to home theater with some distracting inconsistencies.
There's plenty of clarity detail filling the entire soundstage where most all discrete effects are located, creating a fairly expansive and wide soundfield. Dynamics can be quite broad and spacious in a few action sequences though it's nothing truly impressive. Other scenes tend to show a somewhat narrow imaging and movement is unconvincing. The low end seems robust as well in several sequences, but it more often than not feels a bit jumbled and booming rather than cleanly responsive and refine. Making matters worse is vocals not balanced well with the rest of the track as dialogue can be difficult to make out sometimes and is frequently drowned out by much of the action.
In the end, 'Mars Attacks!' comes to Blu-ray with average high-rez audio that requires some fiddling with the remote.
For its first interstellar visit onto Blu-ray, 'Mars Attacks!' lands as a bare-bones release, forgetting to included the isolated score and trailers from its DVD counterpart.
A mix of absurd comedy with political satire, 'Mars Attacks!' is a highly entertaining hodgepodge of wild nonsense, a homage to the cult sci-fi B-movies of Tim Burton's youth. With a large ensemble cast, the movie has its moments where it properly pays tribute to the genre, but it also forgets how to truly recreate the feel and desire behind their making. The Blu-ray, too, has its moments in the audio/video department, but they never really impress. The barebones release will likely only attract fans, but the overall package will ultimately serve best as a rental.