Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Mars Attacks!" Review

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When Martians attack Earth, just for fun, the human race faces extinction. Calamity ensues as the president bumbles to save Earth. An alien invasion of epic proportions unfolds through several perspectives in Tim Burton’s classic classic, slap-stick alien invasion film, “Mars Attacks!”.

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Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Mars Attacks!" Review

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: December 13, 1996
Directed by: Tim Burton
Genre: Science Fiction/Comedy

Tim Burton directed "Mars Attacks," and as soon as viewers discover that fact, they'll know they're in for something special. This film has all of the classic elements of a 1950s science-fiction flick, and while watching it, viewers might feel a little like they're staring at a cult classic. Unfortunately, "Mars Attacks" isn't the best Tim Burton film, and this can be disappointing for viewers.

The film begins with a visually evocative and slightly confusing scene that stars a herd of burning cattle running about wildly. Immediately, viewers are flooded with questions about where the cattle came from, who set them on fire, and whether or not they'll survive. Suddenly, all is made a little clearer by the iconic image of a flying saucer against a blue sky. As it turns out, the cows are burning because the earth is being attacked by a vicious group of alien invaders.

Ready to defend the planet against any threat, the president jumps into action. Played by Jack Nicholson, the president is advised by a string of stars including Martin Short, Rod Steiger, Pierce Brosnan, and Paul Winfield. His wife is played by another star, Glenn Close, who's perfect for the role. Armed with a variety of opinions on how the president should handle the attacks, the advisors try to pull the president in all sorts of different directions. His main focus, however, is to calm the electorate, and to that end, he schedules a fireside chat. 

The fireside chat is wry, but it lacks punch. With a better-written chat, Nicholson could have truly dominated this scene and the scene would have been a lot funnier. However, the film does stay true to its 1950s roots in this scene, and that alone is funny.

Most of the film's action takes place not against the backdrop of Washington DC as one might expect, but in Las Vegas. There, another group of stars flits across the screen. Annette Bening plays the drunken wife of a casino owner. Jim Brown is a former boxing star who now works at a casino, and Pam Grier plays his wife. Danny DeVitos pops up in a cameo role as a gambler, and Tom Jones plays himself in another cameo role.
The film shifts scenery again to another plot of Americana, a trailer park on the Kansas prairie. The trailer park scenes are funny, and it's even funny when the citizens of the trailer park are fried by the Martians who are armed with ray guns. Before the ray-gun victims die, they look like X-ray versions of themselves. This is a bit funny the first time that it happens, but unfortunately, the joke is repeated so many times it loses its punch. 

In fact, many jokes seem to be overdone in "Mars Attacks," and many scenes seem to drag out for too long. For instance, the animated Martians are funny, but too many scenes with them is just directorial overkill. In one scene especially reminiscent of a 1950s sci-fi flick, a Martian pops his own head off, and green slime fills the screen. Unfortunately, Burton uses this joke repeatedly until it loses its appeal as well.  

This film was created to look as if it had been made in the 1950s, but in some ways, it feels just like it was made in the mid-1990s. The alien laughter is the perfect example of how well this film represents its own era. The aliens sound a lot like Beavis and Butthead, the title characters of a mid-1990s cartoon comedy. In fact, they sound so much like Beavis and Butthead that one might wonder how these seemingly dumb aliens ever achieved space travel in the first place.

"Mars Attacks" isn't a remake of an old sci-fi movie as some people might think. It was actually based on a storyline inspired by some bubblegum cards. The art direction results in a number of scenes that would like old sci-fi magazine covers if they were made into stills. Unfortunately, when the actors walk into these stills, they still feel still. Something about this film doesn't feel real. Viewers can sit back and laugh at the surreal nature of this movie or they can just sit back and wonder what Burton was thinking as he made it. Is this film just not that funny or is it so funny no one but Burton is in on the joke?

Rating 3 out of 5