Archive for December 13, 1996

Mars Attacks!

December 13, 1996

The first third of Mars Attacks! moves like molasses uphill in January. Major stars show up, mostly playing broad caricatures, and the audience chuckles politely, like the studio audience during a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. My heart sank as I thought “Oh, no — this is really sucking.” But stick with it. Mars Attacks! has a very slow fuse, but once it goes off, director Tim Burton hits his stride. The Martians land, and you can hear Burton cackling “Welcome to Earth — now go kill everybody!”

Mars Attacks! has been called both a spoof of 1996’s bloated sack Independence Day and an affectionate homage to the cheerful sci-fi of the ’50s; it’s worth noting that Burton’s previous film was Ed Wood, about the notoriously inept director of Plan 9 from Outer Space (whose hubcap UFOs are spoofed here). More than anything, though, it’s a comedy of destruction — Tim Burton’s version of Steven Spielberg’s 1941.

There really is no plot. The ramshackle script (by Jonathan Gems) sets up a dozen characters, ranging from the President (Jack Nicholson) to a clerk at a donut shop (Lukas Haas), who are all defined in terms of their response to the Martian visitors. Burton assembles an all-star cast and then blithely kills off half of them. Up yours, Hollywood! At times, the movie plays like a successful director’s revenge on the studio moguls who want him to deliver another Batman.

The Martians, designed to duplicate the invaders in Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards of the ’60s, are like E.T. redrawn by Bart Simpson. Their heads are grinning skulls topped by big, squishy brains; to be blunt, their heads look like testicles. It’s fitting that we almost get wiped out by the only species more warlike and testosterone-brained than we are, and Burton is at his funniest when the Martians are zapping away like brats playing a video game.

He’s at his worst with the human actors. Burton has never known what to do with everyday people (see Kim Basinger in Batman); here, he encourages everyone to ham it up. Nicholson is relatively restrained as the President, but he also plays another role, an oily Vegas land developer, and goes way over the top in a fake nose that makes him look like Sonny Bono. Actors like Danny DeVito, Rod Steiger, and Glenn Close (as the First Lady) seem too aware that they’re doing this as a goof.

Pierce Brosnan comes through. Playing some bleeding-heart egghead who believes we can learn from the Martians (think Robert Cornthwaite in 1951’s The Thing), he acts with perfect pipe-puffing seriousness and gets his laughs effortlessly. Brosnan also has Burton’s best funny-surreal moments when he’s a disembodied head making goo-goo eyes at Sarah Jessica Parker, whose own head has been grafted onto …. Never mind.

Such moments make you forgive whatever’s wrong with the movie. Mars Attacks! isn’t the psychotic cartoon many of us hoped for; the first third is dead. But the last two-thirds are very much alive, and very much Tim Burton. It’s as if he’d started making Independence Day and then burned it to the ground.