Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

Go to the "Mars Attacks!" Page

Plan 9 1/2 From Hollywood

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 13, 1996

In his last movie, Tim Burton celebrated the world's worst filmmaker, Ed Wood. In his newest, "Mars Attacks!," he seems to have become Ed Wood.

Truth be told, the legendary schlockmeister's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is a better bad B-movie than this sour and pointless parody. "Mars Attacks!," with its costly effects and pricey all-star cast, bespeaks sci-fi tongue-in-chic. But it's stingy at heart. Burton, who collaborated with British screenwriter Jonathan Gems, brings nothing of "Edward Scissorhands's" magic or "Beetlejuice's" wacky fun to this sadly empty exercise.

Aimlessly plotted and blandly written, "Mars Attack!" lacks a moral, a meaning and, worst of all, a clear-cut protagonist. Of course, that leaves the little green Martians with the great big brains without a worthy adversary, and audiences without a rooting interest. Though scads of human characters are introduced, most are quickly zapped by the Martians.

If E.T. was a cross between the Baby Jesus and a baby Einstein, these bulbous-headed, bug-eyed Martians are all terrible teens. The picture may be sending up the '50s, but these critters bear less resemblance to hot-rod racing hepcats than to today's armed, often deadly urban gangs. While Burton's Martians have their maniacal charms, they seem to have come to Earth on a killing spree. At least the sentient space squid of "Independence Day" saw Earth as a rest stop on the way to total intergalactic devastation.

As in the July 4 blockbuster, the alien ships arrive as the story begins, but they don't beam down until the characters in various locales are introduced. Jack Nicholson as the becalmed president makes Al Gore look effervescent, though he's even worse in a second role as a loudmouthed Las Vegas impresario. Glenn Close and Annette Bening are equally insipid as first lady and Vegas bimbo, respectively.

Pierce Brosnan, as a pipe-clenching scientist, states authoritatively that so technologically advanced a species as the Martians would, by definition, be peaceful. He ends up dismembered -- but still conscious -- aboard one of the saucers, where he plays a love scene opposite Sarah Jessica Parker's head, which has been grafted to her Chihuahua's body.

The Washington contingent includes Rod Steiger's nuke-'em-now general, Paul Winfield's more sensitive militarist, Martin Short's White House press secretary and Michael J. Fox's moussed anchorman. Fending off the fiends in Nevada are Jim Brown's hotel greeter and Danny DeVito's gambling lawyer -- primarily ray-gun fodder.

It's okay, as we all know, to kill lawyers and press secretaries, not to mention congressmen or journalists at a press conference -- in other words, the whole Washington establishment. Oh, and gung-ho Marines, rednecks and other trailer park people -- unless they're old and feeble like Granny (Sylvia Sidney) and her slow-witted grandson (Lukas Haas).

As with the trailer park stuff, much of "Mars Attacks!" spoofs "Independence Day," which only emphasizes its own inferiority. Besides, that film was a parody itself -- or rip-off, to my way of thinking -- of classic sci-fi like "War of the Worlds."

"Mars Attacks!" also takes its helmet off to that green-cheese and red-paranoia classic, as well as to lesser chestnuts, which, as cable TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000" so hilariously proved, have long since become parodies of themselves. Driven by metaphysical and sociopolitical agendas, this vintage sci-fi makes Burton's work look all the more shallow and joyless. Even Godzilla had a heart.

Mars Attacks! is rated PG-13 for profanity and cartoon violence, including the dismemberment of humans and animals.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help