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Mars Attacks!

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Mars Attacks!

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close
Director: Tim Burton
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: December 1996
Genres: Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Review by MrBrown
3½ stars out of 4

After his excellent 1994 biopic of the worst filmmaker of all time, Ed Wood, it was only a matter of time before Tim Burton made an Ed Wood movie of his own. Two years later we have Mars Attacks!, a darkly humorous sendup of and affectionate homage to B-grade sci-fi epics of the 1950s.

Like all alien invasion epics, Mars Attacks! follows a pastiche of characters and how they cope with a hostile Martian invasion. The players include the President of the United States (Jack Nicholson); the First Lady (Glenn Close) and First Daughter (Natalie Portman); a stuffy White House scientist (Pierce Brosnan); the skirtchasing Presidential press secretary (Martin Short); a ditzy fashion reporter (Sarah Jessica Parker); her vain reporter boyfriend (Michael J. Fox); a Kansas teen (Lukas Haas) and his grandmother (Sylvia Sidney); an alcoholic Vegas casino owner (Nicholson again); his New Agey wife (Annette Bening); an ex-boxer-turned-costumed-Vegas-casino-attraction (Jim Brown); his estranged wife (Pam Grier); a rude gambler (Danny DeVito); and, yes, Tom Jones himself.

With so many characters on the canvas, the Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems understandably take a while to establish them and get the picture going. But after all the setup, it is quite disappointing that a number of the characters do not have the most satisfying of payoffs (Nicholson's casino owner in particular). But unlike a certain alien invasion picture that came out in the summer, all of these original, wacky characters do make their distinct impression; none blend into a forgettable blob. And unlike that nameless blockbuster, even the aliens are allowed to show some personality--the sight of them vaporizing buildings and people with maniacal gusto while saying "Don't run! We are your friends!" says it all. It's that quirky Burton mix of camp and macabre humor that makes Mars Attacks! so much fun; ironically, that's also what will probably end up hurting the film at the box office, like it did Ed Wood. The imagination and wit behind oddly clever way the humans end up getting the better of the Martians will likely be lost on most mainstream moviegoers; in fact, most people would probably call it a letdown.

What will not be lost on mainstream viewers, however, is the impressive visual effects of the piece. The diminutive green Martians with enlarged brains are certainly a sight to behold, and the massive destruction they cause is all done very convincingly. The most brilliant touch is how the effects, as elaborate and expensive as they are, do not betray the look and feel of, say, a Plan 9 from Outer Space. The flying saucers don't have any visible strings holding them up, but they do resemble, as Parker's character puts it, "flying hubcaps." When people are vaporized, we see their flesh and other entrails dissolve into the air, but their whole skeletons are left behind--in either green or red, no less. Martian brains explode but not without spurting green sludge. Some crucial effects involving Parker and Brosnan could not have been accomplished in the 1950s, but the idea behind them is something you would see in a movie from that time, albeit done with a straight face. Burton also doesn't resist the use of that staple of Ed Wood movies, stock footage. This attention to detail makes Mars Attacks!, its satiric qualities notwithstanding, a knowing and loving tribute to those cheesy B-movies.

After the phenomenal success of Independence Day, I am not so sure that Mars Attacks! will be able to find an audience even half the size of that film's. It's not that the films are too similar, far from it; it's just that the majority of moviegoers, looking for something straightforward like an ID4, won't quite "get" the unconventional Mars. But anyone who is willing and able to buy into the film's eccentricities is sure to enjoy Mars Attacks!.

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