Monday, October 11, 2010

Mars Attacked!

I remember sharing a thought with my father at the dinner table, back in 1996. I had just been to see Tim Burton's Mars Attacks and, being only 11 at the time, I mused "I can't decide which is my Favourite Movie of All Time," (capitalisation after the fact, naturally) "Mars Attacks! or Independence Day."

My how the times have changed.

Mars Attacks! Independence Day

Back then I was far from the movie connoisseur that I am today (hah, the readers laugh as they scan for evidence that I think Step Up 3D was a legitimately very good movie, but moving on). I seem to remember being the video shop more than actually watching the movies, but I was definitely a fan of the cinema and went much more regularly than the average statistic of, what? Twice a year? How do those people live?!?

Nevertheless, yes, my biggest cinematic quandary of the time was whether I preferred the aliens-blowing-shit-up bonanza of Roland Emmerich's Independence Day or the aliens-blowing-shit-up campfest of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! If I could take it all back I would, and profess my undying and never ending love for Burton's comical, wacky, lovingly retro goofball of a film before realising what a fool I was for holding Emmerich's film in such high esteem.

When I rewatched Independence Day, for the first time in a long while, a year or so ago, I cringed and laughed. And not just at the stuff that the 11-year-old me could spot as absurd (the cola can sequence, the tunnel explosion sequence), but at so much more. In fact, I seem to remember the cringing and the laughing much more than the film itself, which is a bad sign, indeed. As a visual feast it's still bloody entertaining, those explosion scenes would still be bang for buck on the big screen and Will Smith had a tonne of energy at his disposal, which made him so good to much in even the most pandering of material. Still, the rest? It's basically a bunch of silliness that I wouldn't think about unless someone broached the subject.

As for Burton's Mars Attacks!? I watched it last night, for the first time in years, and I was so happy to find that its exuberance and spirit are still there in bucketloads. It's really like watching Burton's love affair of classic B movies splashed on the screen in a near-dizzying display of greens, reds and spectacularly designed set pieces. I think there is a lot of be said, too, for the creativity on display. Sometimes directors such as Burton (same goes for the likes of Wes Anderson and others), who have a tendency to repeat themselves stylistically, can still do so much to make their trademark style being fresh, vibrant and new.

How can you go wrong with that cast? They're A-C-T-I-N-G and some of them are hilariously bad, but isn't that part of the fun? It's a shame to think of what happened to Sarah Jessica Parker, actually. As much as I love her in Sex and the City, it also ruined her a genuinely interesting cinema actress. Gone are movies like Ed Wood, replaced by Have You Heard About the Morgans? Meanwhile Danny Elfman's music here is some of the best he's ever done and oh how I would have loved to have been able to overhear Burton's call to Barbet Shroeder!

Mars Attacks! may not be his last great movie (I'd vote for Sleepy Hollow as the final film before The Drop Off, although Sweeney Todd certainly has its moments), it's most definitely the last Burton film that is even remotely surprising. Even Burton's tackling of musicals (the aforementioned Sweeney Todd) or "mature" drama (as in, it was meant to appear as if Burton had grown out of the gothic nature of his previous works, but instead there ended up being more maturity and humanity in Edward Scissorhands than in Big Fish) felt like he was paddling in the shallow end of creativity. In Mars Attack!? Well, when a character asks "What was that?" I kinda got the feeling that Burton was having fun in making sure his audience was asking themselves the same thing as the credits rolled and they left the cinema.

Mars Attacks! may appear to be an innocuous and frivolous martians attack type of film, but it is deeply rooted in Burton's love of science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s. There are times when the aliens, which don't have the quality CGI of other visual effects heavy films of its time, even appear to move like the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts (oh to have this movie made with stop motion aliens like Burton initially envisioned!) There isn't an inch of this film that isn't filled to the brim with love and devotion, which is hardly what can be said for the bombast of Planet of the Apes, the weeds of Alice in Wonderland or the queasy unpleasantness of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is why I am excited for Burton's Frankenweenie adaptation more so than The Addams Family.

It may be hard to believe, but there are moments in Mars Attacks!, and, for that matter, other earlier Tim Burton films, where the screen isn't completely filled with thingamajig mumbo jumbo dowacky bricker brack nonsense. Some of my favourite shots, actually, are moments where my attention was focused on one thing and not 20. The sight of an apartment block where the entire front wall is missing and we can see inside six individual flats, a military fleet crossing the desert, Annette Bening emerging from a cave, the textures on a martian text and Jack Nicholson all alone in a presidential war room are just some of the examples. Of course, there are parts where Burton's eye filled the screen to its edges, but like the moment when a group of fleeing Las Vegas residents find themselves trapped in a dump of abandoned casino art, it feels meticulous and calculated as opposed to messy and tacky. Take any shot from Alice in Wonderland and I can't help but feel that Burton just wanted to fill the screen because his computer allowed him to do so.

Of course, perhaps I'm putting too much credit onto what was meant to be not much more than a loving tribute to the films and hobbies of Burton's youth. Yet it's hard not to put it in such a loving spotlight when, not only was it a movie that I had such fondness for in my youth (and, to this day, still thinks is an excellent, funny movie), but also because it's one of the final movies in the vintage run of a director that was such an important part of my early years as a cinephile. I'll always have Mars Attacks!

No comments: