No genre is as renowned for strewing the debris of trash culture across the cinematic landscape as the Disaster Movie. Virtually bereft of critically-acclaimed masterpieces and instead characterized by visceral (albeit empty) spectacles of annihilation, the genre provides audiences with an embarrassment of riches in the "So bad, it's good" department.
Though often associated with the 1970s, the Disaster Movie reached unprecedented popularity 20 years later during a fertile cycle of big-budget releases. 1996 inaugurated a Disaster Movie Renaissance with such genre defining blockbusters as Twister and Independence Day (the two highest grossing films that year), and many less-well-remembered films with apocalyptic scenarios followed, culminating with the epoch-making Titanic—one of few to receive critical acclaim.
Amidst this revitalization, Tim Burton released one of his most polarizing works: the knowing parody Mars Attacks!, which is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary in early December. Released six months after Independence Day, Burton's film saw comparatively limited success, grossing just over $100 million; it was roundly savaged by critics, and compared unfavorably to its more successful rival.
The film's vilification obscured how effectively its over-the-top satire ridicules the seriousness of the Disaster Movie's artistic pretensions, trafficking in the genre's clichés while it bludgeons their self-seriousness and hollows out their meanings. Few movies nail the pleasures and perils of their own genre as deftly as Mars Attacks!, roasting fans, critics, and artists alike while also marshaling trash culture in service of a critique of apocalypticism, American Exceptionalism, and high-concept filmmaking. In other words, it revels in the victory of trash over taste.
The plots of Independence Day and Mars Attacks! are strikingly similar: Malevolent aliens invade our planet, destroy landmarks, level cities, and slaughter citizens only to succumb—at the very last minute and against all odds—to our ingenuity, can-do spirit, and basic human decency. Featuring impressive CGI space creatures and overflowing with an eclectic all-star cast, Mars Attacks! draws upon the same cultural repository of sci-fi as Independence Day. Both films are entirely constituted by intertextuality, references to 1950s B-movie science fiction, and 1970s disaster films, overtly name-checking such genre classics as The War of the Worlds, Earth v. the Flying Saucers, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and, tellingly, Dr. Strangelove.
But where Independence Day draws from its pop culture sources in a manner that commemorates movies as escapist, uplifting utopian visions, Mars Attacks! celebrates its references for their inherent trashiness, their outsider status and ephemeral nature, and as an alternative to the somber high-art pretensions of the big-budget blockbuster. While the embrace of trash culture might have accounted for the film's inability to garner a mass audience—its satire too knowing to appeal to all but the genre's most devoted fans—what most accounts for the film's reputation as a failure is its gleeful, blithe violations of the disaster film genre's social contract.
By being 'too much'—a hallmark of trash culture—the excess of sadism and brutality in Mars Attacks! reveals to us our own hypocrisy.
Movies described as "apocalyptic," a term so overused that it has seemingly lost its relevance and importance, typically provide a vision of societal rebirth. Part edifying discourse and part revenge fantasy, an apocalyptic story passes judgment upon civilization as irredeemably corrupt and unable to be reformed. An apocalyptic narrative yearns for total destruction so that a new world may be born, built upon the smoldering ruins of its predecessor.
As cataclysm purges society of any undesirable elements, it reveals inviolable truth, affirming society's deeply held values. Bad people perish in an over-determined, moralistic manner—a poetic death appropriate to how they sinned—while good people survive to establish a better, more perfect, divinely sanctioned society. That's the vision offered by Independence Day: the peoples of the world come together, buffeted by the essential inherent goodness of America's defining institutions of state, military, faith, and scientific know-how, to defeat the extraterrestrial hordes and usher in a new era of peace overseen by benign patriarchal, egalitarian leadership.
Mars Attacks! refuses to deliver on the grand promise of the apocalyptic narrative. It doesn't give us absolute truth or allow us to feel pride and satisfaction in American Exceptionalism. Instead, as the martians blithely lay waste to our planet, it reveals that at the heart of the apocalyptic story is inherent sadism—reveling in vindictive destruction for its own sake. What Mars Attacks! shows is that apocalypticism is a narrative device that movies have employed to great effect and thrills, but nothing more. The trope's oversaturation has reduced its value as an exploration of American morality, ideals, and faith to the point where it withholds catharsis and fails to signify anything at all. Rather, Burton calls our attention to how much we enjoy these mean-spirited spectacles of apparently bloodless mass murder.
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Burton delineates the pleasures of the genre and then overstates them to reveal their inner workings. Almost every role in the film is inhabited by a filmmaker, character actor, or recognizable celebrity—after all, a feature of the genre's 1970s iteration was the star-studded spectacle, offering audiences the rare thrill of watching famous actors "get it."
Mars Attacks! takes this convention and grossly overstates it: a bevy of stars are obliterated by martians in excessively cruel ways, calling our attention to the notion of poetic death itself. Glenn Close's shallow First Lady is crushed by the "Nancy Reagan chandelier"; Martin Short's Press Secretary lothario is dismembered by Lisa Marie's martian seductress; Danny DeVito's cringe-inducing lawyer is annihilated as he tries to cut a deal with an alien; Michael J. Fox's glad-handing reporter is vaporized except for, well, his hand. Most disturbingly, Jack Nicholson's President Dale, an empty suit concerned only with photo ops and polling, is eviscerated by a martian handshake just as he delivers a stirring plea for understanding and peace.
Burton and Gems liberally ladle on the poetic death and sadism, to the point where we become painfully aware of the genre's reliance on vicious displays and lack of empathy. By being 'too much'—a hallmark of trash culture—the excess of sadism and brutality in Mars Attacks! reveals to us our own hypocrisy: We want destruction and mass death—we just don't want to be held to account for it or be reminded of how unseemly it is to revel in the murders of millions razed by a natural disaster or extraterrestrial life.
Mars Attacks! is pop culture's marginalia exacting revenge upon American civilization and the pretensions of the Disaster Movie. The martians represent the campiness and superficiality that is always present underneath the solemnity of movies like Independence Day and The Towering Inferno, revealing what's underneath isn't truth and revelation but trash and crap. In Burton's doom narrative, society isn't saved by heroic figures like brave Captain Hiller or geniuses like David Levinson, but by society's rejects—familial outcasts, forgetful grandmothers, B-movie actors, Vegas lounge acts like Tom Jones, and teenage video game virtuosos. The final victory, the triumph of trash, is that the martians are finally defeated by pop culture detritus—a unique Bad Object in the form of an earworm novelty song by Slim Whitman, whose upper octave yodeling in "Indian Love Call" proves deadly to the martians' hearing. In the end, it is our refuse that refuses to let us die.
Dr. Julian Cornell is a professor whose research and teaching interests involve the politics of taste in American pop culture, with a focus on Hollywood genre movies. For 15 years, he has taught at NYU and Queens College. Prior to teaching, he was a programming executive at HBO from 1993 until 2001.