Some directors envy Alfred Hitchcock's feeling for suspense, John Ford's way with westerns or perhaps Ernst Lubitsch's sly romantic touch. Not Tim Burton. He wants to be Edward D. Wood Jr.
Best known as the director of the first two "Batman" pictures, Burton a few years back made "Ed Wood," a loving homage to the 1950s filmmaker considered a colossus of ineptitude for making his own peculiar movies his own peculiar way. Now, with "Mars Attacks!," Burton has in effect remade "Plan 9 From Outer Space," Wood's signature work, on a budget. A very big budget.
Probably the most expensive movie ever to be inspired by a set of bubble gum cards, "Mars Attacks!" is also Tim Burton at his Tim Burton-est, which means that it's a kind of hipster stunt, with bursts of mild humor outnumbered by a retro taste for the bizarre and the weird. Why it was thought sane to invest a reported $100 million in such an odd and particular sensibility is a question even Martians might ponder.
Given that they're both involved with invasions of nasty aliens, "Mars Attacks!" makes an interesting mirror image to "Independence Day." While that unintentionally silly film replicated an earnest 1950s sensibility, "Mars" is all '90s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that "Independence Day" takes seriously. And while "ID4" wanted you to notice its hot new special effects, most of "Mars' " computer-generated work intends to capture the visual spirit of the '50s.
Given this mocking quality, it's to be expected that a running theme of "Mars Attacks!" is the ongoing stupidity of most Americans, starting with President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who views the ominous approach of silvery Martian saucers as a splendid photo opportunity.
Despite grunts of protests from warmongering Gen. Decker (a consistently amusing Rod Steiger), the president is encouraged in this benevolent line of thought by scientist David Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) who smugly insists, between puffs of an extra-long pipe, that "an advanced civilization is by definition not barbaric."
Out in the rest of America, people aren't thinking much straighter. Las Vegas casino promoter Jack Land (Nicholson again, to less effect) is intent on raping the environment while his New Age wife, Barbara (Annette Bening), is worried about her chakras. And Topeka, Kan., doughnut clerk Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) thinks it's all kind of neat, even as his mother growls: "I'll tell you one thing, they're not getting the TV."
They, of course, are the Martians, and in the imagination of Burton and British screenwriter Jonathan Gems they are a duplicitous and particularly unsavory bunch who speak in sharp, unintelligible barks and bleed green ooze when things are not going well. Despite wonders of computer animation, these doll-like creatures never look particularly real, which is probably what Burton intended in the first place.
Lots of recognizable names make little more than cameo appearances in "Mars Attacks!," including Glenn Close and Natalie Portman as the president's family, Martin Short as his press secretary, Danny DeVito as an irate Vegas gambler, and Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox as a pair of rival television journalists who help break the invasion story.
And, just like Ed Wood, Burton likes to gather together unexpected actors he for one reason or another has developed a fondness for. So singer Tom Jones and his hit "It's Not Unusual" get prominently featured, as do blaxploitation veterans Jim Brown and Pam Grier. Even fellow directors Barbet Schroeder and Jerzy Skolimowski are featured in brief bits.
This all sounds clever enough but in truth, "Mars Attacks!" is not as much fun as it should be. Few of its numerous actors make a lasting impression and Burton's heart and soul is not in the humor but (remember the "Batman Returns" backlash) in deadpan postmodern horrors, of which this film has a few. A believer in twisted, disaffected camp, Burton loves to lure viewers in and then whipsaw them into a lurch of revulsion. Kind of like those pesky Martians.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi fantasy violence and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: considerable intergalactic gore.
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Jack Nicholson: President James Dale/Art Land
Glenn Close: First Lady Marsha Dale
Annette Bening: Barbara Land
Pierce Brosnan: Professor David Kessler
Danny DeVito: Rude Gambler
Released by Warner Bros. Director Tim Burton. Producers Burton, Larry Franco. Screen story and screenplay Jonathan Gems, based upon "Mars Attacks!" by Topps. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Wynn Thomas. Art director Hugo Santiago. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.