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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Mars Attacks!

eclectic reviews and opinions

Mars Attacks

1996, D: Tim Burton; S: Jonathan Gems

If this review were going to be just three words long, the three words would be "trying too hard."

In Ed Wood, somehow, Tim Burton pulled it off. The tribute to the legendary bad-film director had a near-perfect blend of comedy and compassion for its subject, helped in no small part by Martin Landau's stunning performance as Bela Lugosi.

Mars Attacks! is, I think, every bit as loving a tribute to the legendary bubble gum card series, pulled from the market in 1952 because its images were judged too lurid and violent. But, as larger-than-life as it is, it still falls flat a little too often. It just tries too hard. I don't think that "camp" is something you can strive for -- it's what you get when you strive for something else, and when you try to be camp, it usually comes off as dumb. The production team for Mars Attacks was in the weird position of spending their share of a $70M dollar budget to make effects that are supposed to look cheesy, not convincing. The roster of high-profile actors (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Dany Devito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, etc.) were put in the strange position of delivering lines that are supposed to be corny -- and that are supposed to make them easily reducible to bubblegum cards with captions like "The President" or "The Professor."

While watching it, I thought the movie took too long to get started -- seemed like it went at least a half hour before there were any death rays or explosions -- a lot of time spent setting up the different characters. But then, once the martians attacked (sorry, was that a spoiler?) there was hardly anything but death rays and explosions. Since the characters are all so one-dimensional that we don't care about them, it's fine and funny when some of them meet grisly and untimely ends, but then, we don't care about the ones that eventually survive, either. (Whoops, was that a spoiler too? Shame on me.)

I also have some quibbles with the casting. Jack Nicholson is just too vigorous an individual to be convincing as the terminally wishy-washy president -- I mean, if Nicholson said he wasn't a "wimp" in a TV press conference, you'd probably believe him, wouldn't you? You remember The Shining and Batman. And what a shame to have Pam (Coffy) Grier in your movie and not give her more chances to kick some butt.

I don't mean that the film was entirely charmless. In fact, I'd give it a (somewhat qualified, obviously) thumbs-up for anyone who likes the "classic" saucer pictures like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds. It certainly had some funny moments. And the Martians and their hardware and their raybeams were spot-on -- beautifully designed. The hippie son of the survivalist family has several nicely off-centered lines, and the way the Martians are finally defeated was a good twist on some of the source material. There was also a recurring gag that made me chuckle almost every time: Advancing hordes of Martians, blasting everything in sight, carrying a translator box that keeps barking: "Do not run! We are your friends!" If you think that might make you chuckle too, it's certainly worth a late-night rental. But not much more than that.

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