As a child, [Tim] Burton was, by his own admission, moderately destructive. He would rip the heads off his toy soldiers and terrorize the kid next door by convincing him that aliens had landed.
--Mark Salisbury, Burton on Burton
The pinko commie Independence Day, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! orders an invasion of little green men not to reinvigorate our all-American bloodlust, but to make us look like complete and utter boobs. On the surface, this sci-fi epic seems to revisit The War of the Worlds and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, sporting an "otherworldly" theremin score and some proudly lo-fi FX. But in the '50s, Mars Attacks! would have been politically alien enough to put its maker on trial for subversion. And even today, the film's cavalier take on our national security sticks out, especially by comparison to the warmongering ID4. If Mars Attacks! fails to recoup Warner Bros.'s $80-million investment, it would be because the multiplex kids, consciously or not, have found its lack of patriotism disconcerting. Indeed, it's no family-style invasion movie in which an old gramma gleefully exclaims, "They blew up Congress!"
Appropriately, Burton's filmic assault takes its name from the Cold War-era Topps trading cards that were pulled from the U.S. market after three months, ostensibly because they were too intense for children. (No doubt it was adults who deemed them inappropriate, as was the case with Burton's brilliantly aberrant Batman Returns.) Flaunting a dangerous sort of bad taste, the film's invaders are vicious creatures who fire squiggly laser beams from their ray guns and speak in a menacing mix of bark, hiccup, and cackle; it's because they're laughing at us that their "aack-aack" sounds suspiciously like a "yuk-yuk." With their emaciated skullheads, brittle teeth, ping-pong eyeballs, and curlicue brains that resemble those heinous bouffants from the '60s, the Martians park their spaceship in the Nevada desert, proclaim they have "come in peace," and almost immediately lay violent waste to our welcome party. Like Burton's Joker from the first Batman (or the anti-Spielbergian puppets of Gremlins), these screwball E.T.s are cultural anarchists, as eager to deface works of art as to blow up the world.
Of course, given the director's typically bizarre sense of casting, the Earthlings in Mars Attacks! could be from another planet themselves. Only in a Tim Burton production would such cult icons as Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Tom Jones (as himself) share blockbuster time with establishment stars like Glenn Close and Jack Nicholson--the latter playing both the U.S. president and a crass Las Vegas land developer, as befits the filmmaker's trademark interest in duality. While Nicholson's hillbilly casino magnate suffers delusions of grandeur, his chief executive is a delusional diplomat, believing he can invite the aliens over to the White House for dinner and then absorb them into the New World Order. "Soon we will become one solar system!" he proclaims, not counting on the angry red planet's strong desire to do things its own way.
So, which of our real presidents is being skewered here? In that he's being played by a movie star, Reagan would seem the best bet; equally indicting is the character's method of invoking Abe Lincoln and Leave It to Beaver in the same sentence, and his TV-friendly knack for putting a positive spin on ugly truths. "I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them," he says after the Martians' eradication of Congress, "and that ain't bad!" As opposed to ID4, the Achilles' heel that invites this disaster isn't weakness so much as overconfidence, which may be what pisses the Martians off in the first place. In any case, it's plenty easy for these aliens to exploit our gullibility, announcing "Don't run, we're your friends!" during a siege on the Vegas strip, and tricking two dim-witted humans (Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan) and one poor Chihuahua (played by Burton's own dog, Poppy) into serving as scientific guinea pigs.
Since the running gag in Mars Attacks! is that we as a species are pretty much getting what we deserve, the biggest laughs have to do with the aliens' outrageous sadism; at one point, a Martian astronaut pivots his saucer around the Washington Monument in an attempt to send it crashing atop some innocent Boy Scouts. The role of the heroic American patriarch is filled by the maniacally nuke-happy General Decker (Rod Steiger), whose fate suits that of a bug; indeed, the only characters to identify with are the monsters. Although this seems the least personally felt of all Burton's films, the director clearly relishes the opportunity to savage American institutions rather than, per the rules of the genre, to restore them.
One of these institutions is the blockbuster itself. If ID4 evoked Ed Wood unintentionally, Mars Attacks! does so affectionately, even subversively. The flying saucers are the spitting image of the chintzy hubcaps in Plan 9 From Outer Space; the film's "Martian Girl" (Lisa Marie) looks like a hipper Vampira (with a hint of Lady Miss Kier); and the alien chief's first TV address is lit to resemble the chintzy backdrop of Criswell, Wood's resident psychic. No wonder humankind's best defense against the invaders turns out to be a classically schlocky pop-art relic, while the spoils of war go to none other than Mr. Tom Jones. It's enough to make you want to pledge allegiance.