Bad Movies We Love: Mars Attacks!

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Long before Natalie Portman and Annette Bening battled for Best Actress, they clamored for the title of Most Irrelevant Supporting Character in Tim Burton's schlock-'n-awe alien invasion epic Mars Attacks!. This movie is bad. It knows it's bad. It's $100 million worth of bad. But Burton gets one thing right in this ensemble B-movie throwback: Every time we meet a disposable character (which is often), the movie finds a way to -- get this -- dispose of him. Clever and kind of fun! Let's meet these great dolts.

First, a comprehensive Mars Attacks! synopsis: Earth is being attacked by aliens, but Earth is full of embarrassing people played by bored Oscar nominees. Go aliens, go! Synopsis over.

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Now for the lovable, thoroughly embarrassed ensemble: Here's humorless President Jack Nicholson. He's heard about these aliens and reacts to them with the kind of monotone rancor you expect from mall cops, Tilt-A-Whirl operators, and Jack Nicholson. You understand. Ready to die. He acts like he ordered a martian apocalypse on Amazon and it arrived two weeks late.

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Here's first lady Glenn Close. She dresses like if Lady Bird Johnson gave up the White House to become a hostess on Card Sharks. Beautifying highways and overturning aces! She, too, understands the gravity of the alien invasion: "They're not going to eat on the Van Buren china!" she squawks. Exhibit A: Bad movie. Exhibit B: We love.

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Their daughter Taffy is wise beyond her years, but eats pizza. That's what she brings to the table.

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Pierce Brosnan plays a pipe-piping anatomy professor who acts as a consultant to the president. He combs his hair and uses a British accent (fake, no doubt), and that's how you know he's going to die.

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Oh, good. Here's Jack Nicholson playing someone else. Looks hilarious. Next.

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High Holy Sorceress Of Terribly Bad Movies We Love/Despise Sarah Jessica Parker is a daffy talk show host with a mad crush on Brosnan. The two will meet a grim fate when aliens decide to capture them, shrink them, and reattach their heads to animal bodies, but they're thankful to escape the press junket for I Don't Know How She Does It.

OK! Only 815 more characters left.

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Danny DeVito is someone.

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Annette Bening plays a meditating, genie-panted hippie who wants us to chill out, eat granola, and lay off about Hilary Swank kicking her ass twice. I have to hand it to Mrs. Beatty: She takes the lamest archetype of all the characters and infects it with charm. She looks like Jessica Hahn paying tribute to Barbara Eden, but that's an absinthe nightmare I can enjoy for a short while.

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Michael J. Fox must've showed up for two days of filming and a bag of Baked Lays, because his part in Mars Attacks! is so over-before-it-begins that you wonder if his contract said something complicated that required removal of his Doc Hollywood shades to read (which, in my mind, he refused to take off in 1991 and has worn defiantly ever since). He's Sarah Jessica Parker's boyfriend for the first 20 minutes of the movie. And then, you know, aliens arrive and send him to the great Spin City in the ether.

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Uh, what? If you last saw Mars Attacks! when it came out in '96, I doubt you remember that Pam Grier was in it. I'm guessing so because I re-watched Mars Attacks! yesterday and forgot Pam Grier was in it today. Yeah. She plays a mom. Of a couple kids. I guess. Fun fact: One of her kids is Ray J., that Kim Kardashian sexer who acts as a brother to Brandy during his more shameful moments. Cool!

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Of course Martin Short shows up. Of course. The year is 199everything, so Martin has to play either a buoyant supporting comic or a creepy supporting fiend. The latter is the case here. He's seduced by a dolled-up alien with a Jayne Mansfield wig who soon murders him. That's exactly what happened to him on Damages.

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Good lord, even stars from the future are in this. Jack Black plays a military officer who tries to run from aliens. That idiot jokester. But seriously, it is Jack Black, even though it sounds like we're making up cameos now. "Look for Lady Gaga as an eight-year-old alien midget in a Carol Channing wig, and Justin Bieber as a sperm." Just kidding! You were fooled.

Before I die alone in this empty box of Cheez-Its, here's an actual list of the other bit roles: Rod Steiger plays a general, Christina Applegate plays Jack Black's girlfriend, Lisa Marie Smith plays a martian, and Sylvia Sidney plays a snark-addled grandmother whose grandson Richie (Lukas Haas) discovers that the invading aliens explode when exposed to the Slim Whitman song "Indian Love Call." Again, that's right: A randomly selected song kills the aliens, who have throttled 98% of the planet, and our movie ends with Natalie Portman's pizza-loving smart aleck congratulating Richie and his grandmother for their discovery.

"Thank you, honey," Sylvia Sidney coos. "But don't you dare let this happen again."

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I'd say the same thing to Tim Burton, except I want more movies like Mars Attacks!: I want less plot, complication, and reality when it comes to ensemble farces. I'd much prefer caricatures in Annie wigs, game show hostess prints, and sequined cowboy hats. When enough stupidity is balled up into one movie, it feels like a teaspoon of napalm working its way through our insides and filling us with momentary fire. Sure, too much would ruin us and civilization, but the proper dosage is a happy fire to our insides. See below.

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Comments

  • metroville says:

    Mars Attacks! is to Burton as Burn After Reading is to Coen: "Look! We're all famous and dying intermittently and isn't that hilarious?"*
    *(MJF's aforementioned abrupt death scene actually is quite hilarious because he wasn't all fancy about it.)

  • NP says:

    I love this movie! I remember going to see it the day after a particularly nightmarish acid trip. What a bizarre couple of days.

  • stolidog says:

    One of the most awesome movies out there, actually.

  • Ugarte says:

    Love the Card Sharks reference. Used to watch that everyday on GSN during my lunch break.

  • Louis Virtel says:

    There are moments when it's completely painful, but look at Bening. Look at her.

  • Allan says:

    You didn't mention Tom Jones!!! How can you forget to mention Tom Jones. Tom Jones shows up in Vegas half-way into the movie, makes some awesome sauce for the viewers and is gone. Tom Jones is awesome, Mars Attacks! is awesome. The two of them together is the awesome pinnacle of Western Civilization.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Oh no, no, no, au contraire. This is a Bad Movie I Hate, chiefly because it's so desperately trying to be a Bad Movie you Love. This review makes it sound like the film is a wheeze, but it's so excruciatingly knowing that it spends most of its time insulting the audience's intelligence and attention. It's too busy making fun of other films and narrative conventions - not in a satiric way, more with a kind of brainless cynicism - to have any kind of emotional centre itself, an omission for which it constantly congratulates itself in the most infantile ways. It's insufferable.
    Bening does invest her character with a daffy charm and proves surprisingly handy, and the SJP-dog skittering around on the spaceship lab-table's surface is a chuckle. Apart from that, save yourself the rental fee: go out in the backyard on a windless night, look straight up and spit repeatedly for the same net effect.

  • TurdBlossom says:

    Compared to Starship Troopers, which came out the same year (and possibly around the same time) Mars Attacks is almost genius.

  • herb says:

    No, actually Starship Trooper is more of a direct hit than Mars Attacks in this adult's opinion. Starship's ridicule of go-go military brainwashing would be unthinkable today. Mars Attacks was actually pretty boring, but it's improved somewhat with time. Jack Nicholson wasn't so hot in this, though the scene with Lisa Marie in the White House is killer.

  • NP says:

    +1 on _Starship Troopers_

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