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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

"Mars Attacks!" is the kind of movie your parents desperately tried to keep you from seeing when you were little. In fact, this deliriously trashy film from director Tim Burton may be the ultimate "this-junk-will- rot-your-brain" movie ever made. Go see it as quickly as possible.

Burton, who presented such quirky gems as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure", "Beetlejuice", and "Edward Scissorhands," as well as the first two "Batman" films, based "Mars Attacks!" on a series of trading cards issued by the Topps Company in 1962. The cards, which showed bug-eyed Martians invading Earth, were quickly pulled off the market due to outrage over the lurid images of violence, particularly a card depicting a Martian using a ray gun to disintegrate a dog. Burton acquired the rights to the card series and began work on turning the images into a movie. He boasted that "We developed the script painstakingly by taking the cards and throwing them on the ground, and picking the ones we liked."

His haphazard vision is brilliantly realized on screen, through rich cinematography, art direction built around primary colors, stunning computer animation, and a delightfully overwrought score by longtime collaborator Danny Elfman. This is great eye and ear candy.

After a gorgeous opening sequence showing the Martian armada approaching Earth, Burton spends considerable time introducing the massive all-star cast, which includes Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Paul Winfield, Lukas Haas, Jim Brown and Tom Jones. In classic disaster movie fashion, the characters are spread over several locations, primarily Washington DC, Las Vegas, and a small town in Kansas. The cast play their characters broadly, as human caricatures. Burton recognized that, had they played it straight, it would have been difficult for the audience to relax and enjoy the cartoonish murder and mayhem.

The real stars of the film are the Martians, and the fun kicks in when they finally arrive. President Nicholson informs the country that extraterrestrials are on their way in a hilariously vague and inept speech. The Martian's initial landing in Pahrump, Nevada turns violent over an apparent "cultural misunderstanding." Following hasty negotiations by the hapless President, the aliens land in Washington to address Congress. In short order, their deadly intentions become crystal clear and full scale planetary war begins.

Burton tries the patience of the audience with the lengthy set-up, but delivers a whopping pay-off. The Martian assault is thrilling, technically dazzling, and extremely funny. In scene after scene, Burton's wonderfully bizarre vision virtually leaps from the screen. The computer- generated aliens are mesmerizing as they cackle with maniacal glee at humanity's attempts to make peace, then skitter around the planet, incinerating people with the coolest death rays I've ever seen. Highlights among the film's many striking images include the destruction of Las Vegas (incorporating the real implosion of the Landmark Hotel and Casino), Lisa Marie's unearthly gliding movements as an undercover Martian temptress, a flying saucer playing games with the Washington Monument, and a love scene between two victims of the Martians' twisted experiments. The latter will certainly go down as one of the strangest, and funniest, images in the history of film.

Burton succeeds in maintaining a consistently good-natured humorous tone. The film is an comedic homage to sci-fi and disaster films, not a satire. Even in the wonderfully cheesy closing scene, Burton resists the urge to smirk. His skilled hand also makes the many scenes of death and destruction easy to take. There is no malice in his vision, this is simply the work of a naughty little boy.

Despite the very slow start, "Mars Attacks!" delivers the goods. Over the years, Tim Burton has presented many wonderfully peculiar moments in uneven films. "Mars Attacks!", in all of its gory, goofy splendor, is his best work yet. And trust me, your parents would be appalled.

Copyright 1996 Edward Johnson-Ott

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