Jenna Ortega Thinks Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! Deserves More Acclaim

Tim Burton's 1996 film "Mars Attacks!" is a paean to human stupidity. Released the same year as Roland Emmerich's rousing, mainstream, jingoistic sci-fi flick "Independence Day," "Mars Attacks!" provided a subversive antidote. In Emmerich's film, humanity united in fighter jets to take down a destructive alien invasion force and the president gave a speech about how we will not pass quietly into the night. In Burton's film, the human characters are all callow and cowardly and don't seem to immediately acknowledge that the invading Martians are keen on our destruction. The Martians, meanwhile, seemingly only want to attack Earth because it's fun to wreck s***. The keys to enjoying "Mars Attacks!" are to sympathize with the evil Martians instead of the humans, and share the mentality of a petty, violent 11-year-old. It is a work of twisted genius and an underrated film in Burton's canon.

"Independence Day" won the box office prizes. "Mars Attacks!," however, won our twisted little sicko hearts. 

Jenna Ortega, the star of the new Netflix series "Wednesday," agrees. "Wednesday" is about the teenage years of Wednesday Addams, the young daughter of "The Addams Family," as she has been forced to a boarding school for monsters and magical teenagers. There, she discovers death and creature-related conspiracies. Burton directed the first four episodes. 

When talking about Burton on the most recent episode of "Hot Ones," Ortega revealed that she was a fan of Burton's, and came to the defense of the oft-maligned "Mars Attacks!" as one of the director's best. She wanted to give the film its due credit. 

I wanted to be a Martian

When "Hot Ones" host Sean Evans asked about Burton's filmography, Ortega — easily blinking through the effects of the show's eponymous chicken wings — expressed her enthusiasm, especially for Burton's bizarre 1988 haunted house film "Beetlejuice," but also for "Mars Attacks!," which was released six years before she was born. Ortega said:  

"I feel like 'Beetlejuice' is a staple. I've always appreciated 'Beetlejuice.' But also, when I was younger, I wanted to be the aliens from 'Mars Attacks!' so bad. But not the Lisa Marie one. The one with the exposed brain. It's got Jack Nicholson! And Glenn Close in there! It's an incredible movie. I feel people don't give it the credit it deserves." 

Evans agrees that it is wildly underrated. In "Mars Attacks!," Lisa Marie played a Martian in disguise as a human woman, with its outsize brain hidden under an enormous beehive hairdo. She was a parody of humanity. Despite her human face, the Lisa Marie character still looked as strange and as Martian as any of the aliens. That Martin Short's character cannot sense anything wrong with her is a testament to his character's horny stupidity. 

"Mars Attacks!" was a disappointment when it was released, earning only $37 million domestically on a sizeable $70 million budget. Even to this day, it has a middling 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Likely because of its budget and extensive use of special effects, "Mars Attacks!" falls into a strange crack between "fascinating blockbuster failure" and "quirky outsider production." It feels like a cult filmmaker like, say, Lloyd Kaufman somehow attained a massive studio budget, but wanted only chaos.

Our lack of unity

/Film's own Danielle Ryan recently wrote a very intelligent essay about how "Mars Attacks!" cynically and correctly pointed out humanity's lack of compassion in a crisis. While one might like to think humans will unite like in "Independence Day," it's more likely that we'll be just as greedy and oblivious as we always were, even when a ray gun is pointed at our heads. Global crises, we have now learned thanks to COVID-19, won't galvanize us. Indeed, if Burton was feeling particularly cynical/insightful, he would have included a cadre of right-wing, pro-Martian protestors in "Mars Attacks!"

Many critics responded negatively to the inherent cynicism in "Mars Attacks!," and Roger Ebert pointed out in his review that the film's fun isn't coming from the mayhem itself but from its own snarky attitude. It's worth remembering, though, that snark was evolving into its own species in the mid-1990s, and self-aware, deconstructionist pop art was de rigueur. Burton was making a satire of 1950s invasion conventions, culling up a lascivious and ultra-violence trading card series that debuted in 1962. Burton seemed to be pointing out that exploitation movies were not thematically about a unified America, weren't cleverly exploring American fears toward outsiders, or indeed doing anything remotely sophisticated. They were crass, base movies that appealed to everyone's inner need to witness the world burning to the ground. 

We are not the humans in "Mars Attacks!" It is we who are wielding the ray guns. It is we who are knocking the Washington Memorial into a group of Boy Scouts. It is we who are re-carving Mt. Rushmore, exploding the Taj Mahal, shrinking the military to bug sizes, and then stomping on them with our boots. 

That someone as young as Jenna Ortega can recognize this — Ortega was only 20 at the time of her "Hot Ones" episode — can fill one's heart with hope that the populace still has access to cynicism.