Mars Attacks! (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What do you get if you use Tim Burton, the inspired and irreverent director of Batman and Ed Wood, to combine an invasion force of bug-eyed, big-brained Martians, a star-studded cast featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood, and a huge special effects budget? Sadly, one of 1996's most disappointing motion pictures. Mars Attacks!, Burton's half-satire/half-homage to '50s B-movies, is a stillborn affair that could have been -- and should have been -- a whole lot hipper and funnier. If you've seen the two-minute theatrical trailer, you've seen nearly everything that's worthwhile in the feature.

Mars Attacks! depicts a Martian invasion of three parts of the United States: Washington D.C., Las Vegas, and the plains of Kansas. Along the way, we meet a gallery of underdeveloped (or, in many cases, completely undeveloped) would-be-characters. In Washington, there's President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), his wife, Martha (Glenn Close), and his daughter, Taffy (Natalie Portman). In the face of the attack, the Commander-in-Chief is not-so-ably assisted by a bumbling staff, which includes a sex-obsessed speech writer (Martin Short), a "nuke-em-now" general (Rod Steiger) and his peace-loving counterpart (Paul Winfield), and a clueless scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who knows nothing but says a lot. Meanwhile, in Vegas, the Martians encounter real estate mogul Art Land (Nicholson), his alcoholic-turned-spiritualist wife, Barbara (Annette Bening), a rude gambler (Danny DeVito) who could care less about the invasion, a former heavyweight champion (Jim Brown) trying to get back together with his wife (Pam Grier), and the irrepressible singer, Tom Jones (himself). In Kansas, we're introduced to a smaller group: teenager Richie Norris (Lucas Haas), his daffy grandmother (Sylvia Sidney), and his gun-loving father (Joe Don Baker). Finally, there are the two New York-based reporters who cover the Martian situation: hair-obsessed Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox) and his vacuous girlfriend, Natalie West (Sarah Jessica Parker).

With such a mammoth cast, it's not surprising that only a few actors get more than token attention. Even Glenn Close, who is billed second, has a total of ten minutes of screen time and only a handful of lines (memorizing dialogue must have been exceptionally undemanding). Jack Nicholson, who has by far the most number of scenes, splits his time between two personas, halving (rather than doubling) his effectiveness. There's absolutely nothing in any of these characters for an audience to latch on to.

There are a few nicely-executed comic performances. Natalie Portman gives us a bored First Daughter who has perhaps the best line (taken in context) in the entire movie ("I guess it wasn't the bird"). Rod Steiger effectively emulates George C. Scott's war-mongering General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker make for a fun-but-brainless (or maybe that should be "body-less") pair. And Jim Brown does a fine job playing off of his Blaxploitation image by punching out aliens left and right.

Mars Attacks! contains a number of genuinely funny moments that occur both through the dialogue and as a result of the visual approach (there's a Godzilla cameo, the "bowling over" of Stonehenge, and a sequence where the Martians toy with the Washington Monument before toppling it). Unfortunately, too many attempts at comedy don't succeed, creating long stretches between laughs. Another problem is that, on more than one occasion, when Burton finds a gag that works, he overuses it. And, instead of going for truly corrosive, Dr. Strangelove-type satire, the focus is on less-vicious, more obvious forms of mocking.

In addition to its other faults, Mars Attacks! is not well-edited. In fact, there are portions that border on incoherent. The movie lurches disjointedly from scene-to-scene as the tone careens from turgid to fast-paced. Plot doesn't really matter, which is a good thing. Burton has used a 1962 Topps trading card series as his inspiration, combining War of the Worlds-like Martians with images and scenarios familiar from bad 1950s alien invasion flicks. Many of the special effects (especially those involving flying saucers and mass destruction) have an intentionally cheesy edge, and Danny Elfman's score contains throwback elements. The overall problem is that the idea of Mars Attacks! works a lot better on paper than in practice.

A word has to be said about the relationship between Mars Attacks! and this summer's phenomenally successful Independence Day. Although the two films were developed separately and during the same time frame, the temptation exists to say that this film is satirizing the earlier blockbuster. While that's not the case, Mars Attacks! does lampoon the genre that spawned ID4. Of course, that won't prevent the Warner Brothers marketing department from connecting the two.

I was anticipating a lot from Mars Attacks!, but what I got was a shell of my expectations. There are too many characters, too little story, and too much unfunny and repetitious material. The first half is painfully slow, forcing us to suffer through the needlessly laborious exercise of meeting and learning something about each of the characters. Despite Burton's effort and ingenuity, there's never an effective comic or sci-fi payoff. From time-to-time, Mars Attacks! gives us tantalizing glimpses of brilliance, but those moments only illustrate how flawed and unsatisfactory the rest of the film is.

Mars Attacks! (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1