Oh dear, there goes the President (Jack Nicholson)
Oh dear, there goes the President (Jack Nicholson)

There are few filmgoing experiences more dispiriting—especially during the run-up to Christmas—than going to a long-awaited, big-talent, high-concept movie and feeling your eager grin harden into a rictus as the movie self-destructs. Mars Attacks!, rescheduled from summer to year’s end after Independence Day cast its fifteen-mile-wide shadow over every multiplex in America, shapes up less as the hip rebuttal to ID4’s cheerful crassness and gung-ho Pavlovian games than as the 1941 of 1996. It’s garish, it’s zany, it’s one-note.  For the most part, the huge cast achieves their greatest impact as a set of tantalizing names slanting up across the screen during the main-title sequence while an endless armada of Ed Wood hubcaps advances toward Earth. Under the direction of Tim Burton—probably the most narratively challenged of our interesting filmmakers—most of them will have little to do, and they’ll do it in isolation from one another, like separate cels in an epic cartoon fit chiefly for chopping up and selling off to collectors.
It’s not that Mars Attacks! is a dumb movie, exactly. Whereas ID4 both fed on and kidded our appetite for cliché, Burton’s film reaches for—and sporadically achieves—something subtler. It flaunts its cartoonishness and Fifties-cheesy special effects, and the Martians—seemingly the result of gene-splicing between Duck Dodgers’s Martian tar-baby and This Island Earth’s big-headed mutant—come on like a race of merry pranksters whose favorite Earthling would doubtlessly be Dr. Mengele. Oh, they’re wacky. But they do shocking things. We expect that, of course. Yet some of the atrocities really do shock, in the way Hitchcock astonished audiences for Psycho by permitting the seemingly main character to be murdered in the third reel. Deeply seated assumptions about the cozy safety of movie conventions and narrative rhythms are violated ... and what else do we have to believe in these days? Wait a minute, Burton, this is [fill in a star’s name], you seemed to be setting up a relationship here between him and [another star], there was a mini-story just getting underway—and zap! it’s over, crisped in a Martian death ray.
Which is kinda interesting. But not after the third or fourth time. Soon what was creative shock tactics simply becomes a new order of monotony. There’s one deliriously Burton-esque sequence featuring Lisa Marie as a Martian-engineered sex bomb. But the various stellar caricatures—Jack Nicholson’s irrelevant dual role as the President and a Vegas version of Ted Turner, Glenn Close’s Nancy-Reagan-meets-Hillary-Clinton, Rod Steiger’s “Nuke ’em!” general, Annette Bening’s ditsy New Age twelve-stepper, et tedious al.—bottom out early. Natalie Portman is wasted as the First Daughter (a faint echo of the Winona Ryder part in Beetlejuice). Only Jim Brown (Jim Brown?!) and Pam Grier, as a divorced but still-loving couple separated by a continent, are allotted some dignity. And only Pierce Brosnan, in a droll sendup of pipe-sucking Fifties scientist roles, and Sarah Jessica Parker, as a Tabitha Soren type with a whippet’s body and a Chihuahua for a soulmate, sustain any comedic invention. Mars 3, Hollywood 0.

Mr. Showbiz, December 15, 1996

Copyright © 1996 by Richard T. Jameson