Mars Attacks!

on December 13, 1996 by Christine James
   If the two films weren't made at almost exactly the same time, one might believe "Mars Attacks!" was a direct parody of "Independence Day." In each, a diverse variety of individuals are introduced and their stories weave together as an alien invasion compels their fates to intertwine. The core protagonist in both is a man trying to reunite with his love interest and young son(s). America's President gives inflated speeches, though in "ID4" they're meant seriously, and in "Mars" they're patently satirical. In both, the First Lady gets knocked off early, driving their husbands to more serious action. Both depict New Age idiots welcoming the aliens, only to have their greetings returned by laser-beam fire; one movie features strippers, the other Vegas showgirls; and both sets of extraterrestrials enjoy blowing up beloved Washington, D.C. monuments and have a tendency to spew goo when their craniums are crushed.
   But, while "ID4" was an overblown, special effects-driven, factory-generated formula blockbuster playing on patriotism and America's kick-ass mentality, "Mars Attacks!" is a Tim Burton-brand dark satire freakshow, overall much more interesting and entertaining, but likely with much more limited appeal as well. It's also a somewhat unsettling film, with extreme violence comically depicted and the "Ak! Ak!" barking of the cartoonish Martians quickly getting under one's skin. The aliens' experimentations are hilarious but also unapologetically jaw-droppingly sick and twisted. Major characters are wantonly decimated, bringing the tension up much higher and for much longer than "ID4" was able to. But sympathy and a rooting spirit are only vaguely evoked for a handful of characters; most of the people we're introduced to are purposely silly caricatures in whose fate the audience isn't supposed to have anything invested, because, after all, it is a comedy, and it's hard to yock it up if you feel sorry for the guy who's just been fried to death with a trillion-megavolt ray gun.
   Visually compelling with superior computer animation, great use of color and a fantastic opening credit sequence depicting a formidable armada of '50s-style flying saucers advancing on earth in perfect formation, "Mars Attacks!" is a bizarre combination of eye candy, warped humor, social satire and comedic ultraviolence. Add to that odd mix an all-star ensemble cast all with outlandishly over-the-top roles, and you know there has to always be something interesting going on onscreen. But the lack of any message or moral (even a sardonic one), the diffuse storyline and the done-before solution combine to leave a certain emptiness. And more Martian hijinks aboard their ships would have been welcome, along with some explanation of their ultimate plan, and why they wear only red silk bikini briefs on their respites from annihilating the earth. Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Michael J. Fox, Lukas Haas and Natalie Portman. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Jonathan Gems. Produced by Tim Burton and Larry Franco. A Warner release. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi fantasy violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 104 min. Opens 12/13 wide
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