Mars Attacks! absolutely terrified me when it was first released.
Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that it traumatized me, haunted me—scared the shit out of me, to the point that I had to be escorted from the theater in tears.
Which is only natural; I was, after all, six- or seven-years-old at the time. Still, as a young Tim Burton fan (even at that tender age, I recognized him as the director of Batman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice), I found my own inability to endure the movie’s “scarier” scenes to be... frustrating, to say the least.
Revisiting the film now that my cinematic tastes have developed and matured, it’s almost inconceivable that it ever frightened me. Despite its gruesome and macabre content, Mars Attacks! is a campy, kitschy delight—the very best alien invasion flick that Ed Wood never made. Tonally, it resembles a live-action Saturday morning cartoon: with few exceptions, every character is a broad, thinly-sketched, unflattering caricature. Pierce Brosnan’s professor, for example, is an arrogant, pompous know-it-all whose terrible advice results in millions of deaths; Jack Nicholson’s POTUS, meanwhile, is more concerned with protecting his public image than confronting the imminent extraterrestrial threat.
This moral simplicity is, of course, totally intentional. Because he ruthlessly, mercilessly, and gleefully slaughters pretty much the entire cast, Burton wisely avoids making anybody too sympathetic (granted, it remains difficult to forgive the quick and offhanded manner in which Michael J. Fox meets his demise, no matter how much the script insists he’s supposed to be an unrepentantly egotistical asshole), thus allowing the audience to revel in the bloodshed. Like Natalie Portman, the viewer is permitted to laugh, cheer, and celebrate in response to the wanton violence, mayhem, and destruction—because ultimately, the virtuous prevail (see: Jim Brown’s Byron Williams, who wades through Hell to reunite with his family), while the wicked are reduced to charred, neon-colored skeletons.