A goofy cultural artifact, Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” is a cult sci-fi comedy miscast as an elaborate, all-star studio extravaganza. Continually inventive, parodistic sendup of alien invasion movies that owes its style to genre classics of the ’50s, the technically brilliant picture possesses a quirky, somewhat facetious insider tone that will appeal to specialized student-age audiences and older sci-fi fans but will fly over, under and around the general public for B.O. that can’t possibly approach the production’s obviously lavish cost.
Although the intent and feel of the film, which is based on some rare Topps trading cards of the early ’60s, are very different from “Independence Day,” this pic’s belligerent aliens and massive worldwide destruction they unleash, including the demolition of Washington, D.C. landmarks, unavoidably remind of the blockbuster. Burton’s picture could even be construed as something of a satire of the summer’s monster hit, although it was clearly made with no reference to it.
After a surreal curtain-raiser involving some stampeding barbecued cows, pic gets down to business quickly, as hundreds of hubcap-like, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”-style flying saucers approach Earth, and Americans, led by president Jack Nicholson, optimistically prepare to welcome them in friendly fashion.
During the initial half-hour, as the world awaits the Martians’ landing, an assortment of characters in three distinct locations present themselves. In Kansas, there is a trailer-home family in which gun-nut son Jack Black heads off for Army duty while his misfit brother, Lukas Haas, mans the donut stand and looks after Grandma (Sylvia Sidney).
In Las Vegas, a sleazy hotel entrepreneur, also played by Nicholson, is hatching a scheme for the biggest hotel yet on the Strip while wife Annette Bening swears off booze in favor of New Age enthusiasms. At the same time, former heavyweight champ Jim Brown, reduced to working as a Pharaonic greeter at an Egyptian-themed hotel, is plotting a return to his family, consisting of no-nonsense Pam Grier and two teenage sons, in D.C.
But the main action is in the White House, where gung-ho general Rod Steiger, looking like Mussolini, and first lady Glenn Close urge the prez to nuke the visitors posthaste, while pipe-smoking scientific adviser Pierce Brosnan assures everyone of the Martians’ undoubted civility and goodwill.
When the big day of the space invaders’ landing arrives, the Martian spokesthing, with its skeletal head, bulging, rolling eyes and enormous brain emerging atop a dazzling red robe, assures the crowd of military, led by Colin Powell-like general Paul Winfield, media, leftover hippies and New Agers that they come in peace — and then abruptly leads its cohorts in frying the assembled humans with ray guns.
Despite this shock, the president invites the Martian ambassador to address a joint session of Congress, whereupon the politicos are promptly incinerated as well. Thus begins a full-scale war, with the Martians invading in force, laughing uproariously as they wipe out everyone and everything in their path and killing off a good many of the principals in the process. Ultimately, the least likely character in the piece is the one to find the aliens’ unexpected Achilles’ heel.
Script by British playwright Jonathan Gems, who worked closely with Burton in developing the storyline, serves up any number of sweetly subversive scenes, such as presidential adviser Martin Short’s use of the White House’s Kennedy Room as the place for his fateful assignation with the voluptuous Martian Girl (Lisa Marie), and a love scene played between the disembodied heads of Brosnan and TV personality Sarah Jessica Parker, both of whom have been kidnapped and dismembered by the Martians.
But the picture is lacking in the uproarious humor that might well have ensued from the material, which instead inspires occasional laughs but, much more often, bemused fascination and wonderment at the bizarre imaginations and impressive skill of the filmmakers. Pic is loaded with wit, nifty little ideas and an extraordinary sense of design, but its allure is of quite a particular nature, much closer to that of “Ed Wood” than of Burton’s earlier, and far more commercially successful, works.
For connoisseurs, then, there are many pleasures to be had; others may find the film amusing but hardly compelling. The affection Burton and his cohorts possess for the sci-fi of the Cold War era is unmistakable, and is conveyed here through a loving reinterpretation of the aesthetic of the period. Hats off to the exceptional production team, from production designer Wynn Thomas, costume designer Colleen Atwood and lenser Peter Suschitzky to the many special- and visual-effects hands, who have done a superlative job making deliberately cheesy and artificial effects look seamless and utterly convincing. Music also plays a key part in the proceedings, from Danny Elfman’s patented fun-house sounds to some mordantly used pop tunes.
The succession of name performers, from Nicholson on down, provides for almost continuous eye-popping when the thesps turn up; that said, pic probably would have had roughly the same effect with little-known comic performers. Nicholson underscores the president’s fatuousness in his main role, and is less effective as the slimy Vegas operator. Everyone has been encouraged to make broad caricatures of their parts, which works better in some instances than in others.
The insidious little Martians are great fun to watch, especially as they cast withering glances at the naive Earthlings and take great sport in doing them in. Creatures were computer-generated, and interact with utter precision and believability with the human actors and real backgrounds.