Netflix knows me so well:  A full-throated endorsement of Mars Attacks!


Via Warner Bros.

Advisor, Advisor

At 7:40 on Saturday night, I gave myself the deadline of 8 PM to find and start a movie. Thus began my laborious trudge through my watchlists on Netflix and HBO, as well as their recommended options, in search of the perfect movie to watch.


I had the house to myself, and typically that means I would choose a classic action or martial arts movie, something with zombies, or one of all-time greats (often in black and white). When I started my search though, something caught my eye.


Netflix has really been pushing Mars Attacks! (1996, PG-13). It was the first promo to autoplay on the app, and 20+ minutes later, the film I watched, delightedly. 


The film, a sci-fi comedy directed by Tim Burton, based on an old trading-card game and featuring a truly all star cast, spoofs many tropes of classic sci-fi and cinema, and it kept me laughing and smiling the whole way through. 


Initially, I was turned off by the promo, but intrigued by the blurb. The animation of the Martians looked (and ultimately was) cheap and old-fashioned, but it turned out charming and deliberate. 

via Warner Bros.

The blurb and cast, however, were what sold it: a cult classic by Tim Burton, where Earthlings discover their neighbors aren’t friendly, starring Jack Nicholson (in dual roles,) Annette Benning, Glenn Close, Danny Devito, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Natalie Portman, and a young Jack Black.


What a superstar lineup! Still, it took some convincing. I let Netflix start the first minute, then had second thoughts and almost switched to Training Day, but went with my guts and opted for funny and charming over dark and heavy. 


Mars Attacks! was released in 1996, the same year as the Will Smith blockbuster Independence Day, and deals with the same idea: unfriendly Aliens invading Earth. Burton’s film however stands up much better, for this viewer, than a bloated action film with dated CGI.


The story runs chronologically, with some events overlapping, but our camera leaps across the country, from DC and the levers of power, to Vegas and the Nevada desert. 


It follows a mishmash of different characters, showing how every person from the President, First Family, generals and journalists, down to gamblers, a washed up boxer, a doughnut shop worker and a new army recruit, has their life immediately and drastically altered by the arrival of the Martians.


The Martians themselves are incomprehensible. They proclaim peace, but annihilate almost everyone in their path. They speak in only “Ack” sounds, which are rarely translated, and their desires, beyond learning about Earth and its inhabitants, are never made clear. 

via Warner Bros.

This incomprehensibility, along with general miscommunication and misinterpretation allow for the madness of the film. Everyone is trying to do the right thing, and almost everyone is doing it the wrong way. Still, nearly every joke lands and it all looks great, once you accept the intended cheesiness and camp.


Burton, known for his gothic and often grotesque aesthetic, presents a film much more in the vein of Beetlejuice than Batman or Nightmare Before Christmas. The Martians’ laboratory is really the only place where Burton’s freak flag flies. Elsewhere, he presents a well-lit, recognizable America, with all its chintz, glam, and folksiness. 


The cast, as mentioned above, keeps the subject material and delivery from becoming too derivative or simplistic. I challenge any viewer to settle on one character who they are most interested and invested in. 


Almost every character, and there are many, has something that draws you in and demands you wonder about their life. For me, I was most interested in the boxer Jim Brown, played by Byron Williams, and Richie Norris, portrayed by Lukas Haas.  


Jack Nicholson, always electric on screen, was in dual roles, as both the President of the United States, and a big dreaming casino magnate. 


The film not only looks great, with practical effects and great acting, it also sounds great. Danny Elfman’s score fits the energy perfectly, and the sound editing for effects is engrossing and helps augment the action. Best of all, the jokes are delivered rapid fire and almost every one lands.


As a spoof, Mars Attacks! works well. Burton nods to the traditions of sci-fi and filmmaking. He looks both backwards to Cold War fears of nuclear destruction and forwards to a nation more interested in talk shows than news, and a people glued to screens and often ignorant of greed and climate change.


The erratic nature of the plot keeps you invested, and when I paused it at the 45 minutes for a snack I said to myself, “I hope there’s an hour left,” and luckily there was. The twists are fun and mostly unpredictable, and characters die and succeed with a pleasant randomness. All in all, it kept me watching, and I had no real desire to even check my phone. 


Yes, the CGI in Mars Attacks! is dated, but it feels consciously and deliberately so, and the practical effects totally make up for it. There is something so wonderful and jaw-dropping about watching real explosions on film, as opposed to digitally touched up creations on a green screen. 


The aliens look silly, and some of the jokes (especially the only two references to LGBTQ+ persons) are unfunny and passe. The story (due to budget constraints) is Amero-centric and at times thin. But, the acting, the percipience, and the irreverence all more than make up for any shortfalls. 


I absolutely loved watching Mars Attacks! You will too, and you should bring your whole family along for the ride.