The absolute worst is expected when a celebrated Hollywood director is given
the reins to a multi-million dollar project after having helmed a small-scale
cult film like "Ed Wood." I hate discussing what the budget of the film is but
"Mars Attacks!" cost $80 million to make, and was expected to gross over $120
million (which it didn't) - in other words, it should have been a financial
blockbuster. Truth is that when you hand the reins to a dark, twisted genius
like Tim Burton, anything goes. "Mars Attacks" did not fare well at the
box-office and it is just as well - it is a hilarious, witty, nihilistic satire
of those old Martian invasion movies from the 40's and 50's. This is not
"Independence Day." Its tongue is firmly placed in its cheek.
"Mars Attacks!" begins when a flaming herd of cattle makes its way into a
typical all-American small-town - a flying saucer has just had an accidental
run-in, but are they here for peace? When the Martians land in the middle of
the Nevada desert to be greeted by The President of the U.S. (Jack Nicholson)
and other gleeful citizens, the aliens begin blasting everything in sight. When
the President decides to greet them at the White House sensing that this was
all a misunderstanding, the Martian ambassador proclaims, "We come in peace."
Unsurprisingly, the ambassador and his cohorts zap everyone with laser guns and
burn all Congress officials into toast.
"Mars Attacks!" doesn't just end there. Burton brings on his magic bag of
tricks by mocking all those alien-invasion disaster movies and adding his own
bizarre sense of humor. Based on the gory Topps "Mars Attacks!" cards that were
banned in the 1950's, the movie is an assemblage of in-jokes, cheeky dialogue,
offbeat gags, dozens of special-effects, and sheer comic mayhem and
destruction. Nearly the whole cast is demolished but it filled me with
cartoonish delight to see how they are demolished. Watch Michael J. Fox melt
while trying to reach Sarah Jessica Parker's hand! See the incredible sight of
a dog's head being grafted on Parker's body! The movie reads like an
outrageously zany comic-book with amazing sights, indeed.
The cast is first-rate for this material. We have wicked Jack Nicholson as not
only the straight arrow leader of the U.S. but also as a sleazy, leering Vegas
businessman; Glenn Close as the nervous First Lady; Annette Bening as a New Age
freak obsessed with meeting the Martians; Danny DeVito as an unctuous lawyer
who tries to reason with them; Jim Brown as a former boxer who takes them on;
Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox as unctuous media reporters; Lisa Marie
as the memorably slinky alien in disguise who woos Martin Short; and the
hilarious (alien-like) Sylvia Sydney as the elderly grandmother of the trailer
park family. There are dozens of other cameos, but the aforementioned actors
are the most facetious.
What's most outrageous in Burton's fantasy are the Martians themselves - they
are green, skeletal aliens with large brains and bulging eyeballs protected by
a shield so they can breathe on Earth. They zap everyone and everything in
sight, laughing like gremlins at the expense of human lives. All they have to
say is "Ack, ack, ack, ack, ack."
"Mars Attacks!" doesn't start off well. For one, the Martians grow tiresome
after awhile - all that "Ack, Ack" business is not very imaginative or funny.
But then, the movie incredibly gains a fast-paced, inventive comic spirit and
gets funnier by the minute. There are also some great lines, such as Lukas
Haas's response to the Martian's interpretation of earth: "Hey. He made the
international sign of the donut." I also like the President's heartwarming
"Can't we all get along" speech to the Martians. And seeing Tom Jones playing
himself in Vegas and confronting the aliens causes one to smile despite the
"Mars Attacks!" is not Tim Burton's best film but it is more savagely funny
and subversive than "Beetlejuice" or "Batman." Burton has fun with the sci-fi
genre and cleverly attacks it at the same time. This is definitely no ordinary
studio blockbuster film.
Copyright © 1996 Jerry Saravia