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Mars Attacks! Provides Campy Sci-Fi Fun
by Gary Johnson

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The official Web site for Mars Attacks!

Could the timing be any better? With NASA scientists recently suggesting they have discovered a meteorite that contains fossils of Martian life forms, could the producers of Mars Attacks! have hoped for a better time to open the movie?

Movie poster for Mars Attacks!

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

Well, yeah. Ideally it wouldn't be coming on the heels of one of the biggest boxoffice hits on record, Independence Day, which covers much of the same territory as Mars Attacks!

But while the plots may contain some similarities, the stories play out very differently. While Independence Day goes for big thrills and pulse-quickening suspense, Mars Attacks! goes for goofy, campy humor. Based on a classic set of Topps trading cards first released in 1962 (and now a big-time collectors item), Mars Attacks! plays out as a '50s comic book come to life, sort of like a Mad parody of War of the Worlds or Invaders from Mars, with a big, heaping dose of Weird Science mixed in. Parts of Mars Attacks! look remarkably like a Wally Wood sci-fi tale--from one of his lighter moments. (Wood was one of the greatest comic book artists at EC Comics, the premiere company for sci-fi and horror in the '50s and the creators of Tales from the Crypt.)

Martin Short and Lisa Marie in Mars Attacks!

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

Instead of vicious tentacled monsters, we get big-headed, bug-eyed Martians with ray guns that look exactly like souped-up water pistols. And instead of sleek and ominous space ships, we get bulky, clumsy flying saucers that look exactly like what you'll find in The Day the Earth Stood Still or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It's obvious that director Tim Burton loves this kind of kitschy stuff. The movie takes place in a strange sort of time warp where many technological advances seem to have been forgotten. For example, the Martian language translator created by a leading U.S. scientist looks like it was cobbled together from spare parts for reel-to-reel tape players.

Jack Nicholson as the President in Mars Attacks!

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

The actors, too, play along with the joke. Pierce Brosnan, for example, pulls an amazing imitation of a '50s scientist. He even gets to give one of those wonderfully dopey lectures so popular in '50s sci-fi movies. Other actors on hand include Jack Nicholson as the President (and as a slick real-estate salesman in Las Vegas), Glenn Close as the First Lady, Natalie Portman as the First daughter, Jim Brown as an ex-boxing champion now working at a Las Vegas casino, Rod Steiger as a four-star general just itching to riddle the Martians with bullet holes, Martin Short as the President's Press Secretary, Lisa Marie as a pneumatically-shaped Martian Girl with a bee-hive hairdo, Sylvia Sydney as Grandma ("They blew up Congress! Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha!"), Annette Bening as a new age devotee who thinks the Martians have come to help us, and, yes, Tom Jones! ("It's not unusual to be loved by anyone. Duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh-duh!"). And many others.

Tom Jones (yes, Tom Jones!) and Annette Bening.

(©1996 Warner Brothers)

Mars Attacks! hits you with one big goofy scene after the other, but it never really hits any big peaks. It's sort of a shaggy dog of a movie that contains plenty of funny scenes. It's easy to like Mars Attacks!, but overall, it's something of a disappointment. It almost feels as if all the big scenes are missing. Battle scenes are over all too quickly, without any sense of suspense. When we're supposed to be seeing the Martians overtaking the Earth, we just get a bunch of bulbous-headed little green men jumping around like grasshoppers, zapping everything with their toy guns. Somehow I expected more surprises from the actual attack itself. Maybe I'm just channeling Independence Day (although I'm definitely no big fan of that movie). And maybe my ambivalence at seeing a herd of cattle on fire has something to do with seeing cows fly in Twister. But part of the charm of the original trading cards series came from just how awful the Martians were. They destroyed practically everything we valued. They destroyed Washington, Times Square, and Parliament. They blasted jets, Navy ships, bridges, and skyscrapers. They invaded China and Paris. They killed our pets and unleashed huge bugs to hunt us down. But this Mars Attacks! doesn't try to scare us. It plays the entire story as just one big goof, without anything even remotely resembling terror or horror.

Mars Attacks! is definitely fun to watch, whether it's Pierce Brosnan as Professor Kessler flirting with fashion correspondent Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker); or Martin Short trying to put the make on a Martian Girl; or Jack Nicholson, as the President, stringing cliches together in hopes of convincing the Martians to give up their attack; or Jim Brown punching out Martians. And the movie is marvelously designed in retro '50s sci-fi fashion. But by stripping the story of its horrific elements and just going for comedy Mars Attacks! becomes little more than a great-looking piffle of a movie.

A Warner Brothers Presentation


President James Dale
& Art Land
Jack Nicholson
First Lady Marsha DaleGlenn Close
Barbara LandAnnette Bening
Rude GamblerDanny DeVito
Tom JonesTom Jones
Professor Donald KesslerPierce Brosnan
First Daugher TaffyNatalie Portman
Nathalie LakeSarah Jessica Parker
Jason StoneMichel J. Fox
Martian GirlLisa Marie
Press Secretary Jerry RossMartin Short
General DeckerRod Steiger
General CaseyPaul Winfield
Richie NorrisLukas Haas
Byron WilliamsJim Brown
GrandmaSylvia Sidney
Louise WilliamsPam Grier
Directed byTim Burton
Produced byTim Burton
Larry Franco
Story and Screenplay byJonathan Gems, based on "Mars Attacks!" by Topps
Director of PhotographyPeter Suschitzky
Production DesignerWynn Thomas
Costume DesignerColleen Atwood
Film EditorChris Lebenzon
Music ComposerDanny Elfman
Visual Effects SupervisorJim Mitchell (Industrial Light & Magic)
Michael Fink (Warner Digital)
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