Last call

You need to watch the weirdest sci-fi movie on HBO Max ASAP

Tim Burton's underrated classic has never been more relevant.

There's nothing like a great dumb sci-fi movie to help shut your brain off for an afternoon. But in 2021, even the greatest and dumbest of films might not offer the escapism you seek. That doesn't mean you shouldn't watch them; it just means you need to be prepared for a bit of realism in even the most absurd science fiction.

At least, that's what happened last weekend when I switched on Mars Attacks!, a ridiculous Tim Burton film I remembered enjoying roughly two decades earlier for its over-the-top explosive action and a climactic kiss between two severed heads. Twenty years later, a very different scene sticks out — the one where the Martians enter the U.S. Capitol Building and vaporizes Congress.

The image of smoke pouring out of that iconic dome alone was enough to briefly snap me back to reality just a few weeks after a group of terrorists stormed the same building but thankfully failed to vaporize any politicians.

Mars Attacks! isn't a complicated movie. Martians show up en masse and encircle the earth in CGI'd flying saucers. They initially pretend to want peace but quickly reveal their true violent intentions, which seem to be killing as many humans as possible while conducting experiments on a few prisoners. For most of the movie, humanity gets steamrolled by what appears to be a pretty disorganized Martian army with overpowered rifles. But eventually (spoilers!) they're defeated when someone figures out that hearing a certain yodeling record causes their oversized alien brains to explode.

Like I said, it's a dumb, great movie, and one that suffered when placed side-by-side with Independence Day, which came out earlier that same year in July 1996.

Still, it's tough to deny the staying power of Mars Attacks! Just consider the cast:

  • Jack Nicholson as President James Dale/Art Land
  • Glenn Close as the first lady
  • Pierce Brosnan as a lead scientific adviser to the president
  • Danny DeVito as a "Rude Gambler"
  • Martin Short as a scuzzy press secretary
  • Sarah Jessica Parker as a TV journalist
  • Michael J. Fox as another journalist
Sarah Jessica Parker in Mars Attacks!Tim Burton Productions
  • Tom Jones as himself
  • A very young Natalie Portman as the president's daughter
  • Former NFL star Jim Brown
  • Pam Grier as a DC bus driver and Jim Brown's ex-wife
  • A young Jack Black as a disposable U.S. soldier
  • Ray J as one of Pam Grier and Jim Brown's teenage children
  • Christina Applegate in a very brief cameo

With all that star power, plus Tim Burton directing and Danny Elfman providing the score, Mars Attacks! should be a classic. Instead, it rarely registers among Burton's greatest hits. The reason why is simple: Mars Attacks! was never supposed to be a good movie.

Jack Nicholson plays a smooth-talking president in Mars Attacks!Tim Burton Productions

Based on a series of trading cards also called Mars Attacks (without the exclamation point), the script was written by Jonathan Gems, who had already penned several unused screenplays for Burton. At the time, the director was working on Ed Wood, and he saw Mars Attacks! as a tribute to the notorious director behind classic sci-fi B movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Burton and Gems' original ambitions for Mars Attacks! were also hampered significantly by Warner Bros., which demanded a lower budget than the duo had originally envisioned. The number of major locations dropped to just three, with alien attacks on China, the Philippines, Japan, Europe, Africa, India, and Russia lost to cinematic history. The cast also dropped from 60 leads characters to 23 (probably for the best).

Blaxploitation legend Pam Grier in Mars Attacks!HBO

The one thing really holding Mars Attacks! back is the CGI, which looked cheap 20 years ago and feels especially egregious today. Again, the budget is to blame. Burton originally wanted to use stop motion after the success of Nightmare Before Christmas but agreed to (cheaper) computer animation after seeing a test reel from George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. However, some of the big explosions are still practical effects (including the destruction of Big Ben).

Despite all these flaws, Mars Attacks! is still a great movie with a massive cast and some explosive practical effects. It's a shame Tim Burton wasn't able to make the epic film he clearly envisioned. But maybe what we got is perfect: a dumb great sci-fi film that somehow just keeps getting better with age even as the CGI keeps getting worse.

Mars Attacks! is streaming on HBO Max until January 31.