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'Mars Attacks!': We Lose

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 13, 1996

"Mars Attacks!" should be ceremoniously stripped of its exclamation point. It doesn't have the madcap cheesiness that the grammatical mark implies. What Tim Burton's latest movie does have is wonderful special effects, most notably its Martians. When those alarmingly bellicose, bigheaded, bug-eyed creatures glide across the screen, you're reminded…pleasantly…that this is a Burton film. The director of "Beetlejuice," "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands" seems to have an open hot line to otherworldly weirdness.

But most of the time, we're in the company of such famous Earthlings as Jack Nicholson, who seem to have been replaced with unfunny, look-a-like pods, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-style.

When a squadron of flying saucers is detected heading toward Earth, the American president (Nicholson) consults with his top military brass (including Rod Steiger and Paul Winfield), press secretary (Martin Short) and a scientist (Pierce Brosnan). Concluding that the aliens' impending arrival is a positive thing for mankind, he announces the news in a fireside TV broadcast. The world awaits these Martians with eager anticipation.

It takes a good hour for us to meet all of the Americans involved in this cosmic faceoff. Image-conscious Prez Nicholson is married to Glenn Close, a wan, half-baked spin on Nancy Reagan. Nicholson also plays a dual role as a tacky, Las Vegas hotel builder who isn't much funnier than his presidential persona. As the hotelier's zoned-out, crystal-worshipping, 12-step-recovering wife, Annette Bening should have just stayed home with Warren.

Brosnan is only moderately amusing as a pipe-smoking scientist full of stuffy platitudes about the aliens. Sarah Jessica Parker, a goofy talk show host, and Michael J. Fox as her news reporter husband, are no comic marriage. Jim Brown squeezes out some respect for himself as a boxer obliged to dress up as an Egyptian pharaoh in a casino. But for the most part, we're just enduring an unending line of sagging stereotypes who, frankly, deserve to be zapped by aliens.

Things pick up considerably when the Martians come. Pretending at first to come in peace, the hostile visitors fire on a large crowd of well-wishers then, on a second visit, attack the U.S. Congress. The world realizes it's time to kick some alien butt. But first, the invincible Martians' weaknesses need to be identified.

Written by Jonathan Gems, "Mars Attacks!" evokes plenty of sci-fi classics, from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "Dr. Strangelove," but it doesn't do much beyond that superficial exercise. With the exception of Burton's jolting sight gags (I may never recover from the vision of Parker's head grafted on to the body of a chihuahua), the comedy is half-developed, pedestrian material. And the climactic battle between Earthlings and Martians is dull and overextended.

In the best scene by far, a Martian disguised as a prostitute (Lisa Marie) wheedles her way into the White House, courtesy of horny press secretary Short. Not perfectly acquainted with the Zen of seduction, this Martian hooker struts with a robotically undulating walk, her eyes never blinking and her ample bust thrust propulsively forward. Unfortunately, Marie's sensational comic performance only shows you what this movie might have been.

MARS ATTACKS! (PG-13) -- Contains sexual situations, profanity and ray-gun violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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