"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
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