Rated PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny Devito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney.
It's official. Tim Burton's latest holiday release Mars Attacks! wins the award for Film with the Largest Cast. And since that's one way this film is being marketed (“As many stars as in the Heavens,” a take-off on MGM's studio-era slogan), I'm sure Burton wouldn't mind the honor. But Mars Attacks! succeeds in other ways. Jittery moviegoers have been pumping me about the film, dubiously asking if it's any good. “It looks kind of cheesy,” one of my friends remarked skeptically. “It's totally cheesy!” I gleefully responded. And that's the point. The first tip-off is in the title. Any film title that ends with an exclamation point has to have some fun with itself, and Burton makes sure this happens from the opening credit sequence in which suspiciously fake flying saucers orbit around cast names to the final frame that forecasts a strangely hip and teenage-influenced future for our planet. Burton based the film on a series of Topps trading cards -- issued during the early 1960s when Cold War hysteria was at its peak -- that featured a Martian attack on Earth. Some of the images were so unspeakable, however, that the series was never distributed nationally. Leave it to Burton, the brain behind such comedic brilliance as Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman, to bring these images to life on the big screen with all the gusto and schlock of those lively science-fiction B-films from 1950s Hollywood. Mars Attacks! begins in Lockjaw, Kentucky as a herd of flaming cows are spirited down a hill, running from some unspeakable terror that has crossed the countryside. The film's fast-moving script by Jonathan Gems quickly introduces us to the key players in this tale. Too numerous to name here, some of the more inspired characters include the president of the United States, James Dale (Nicholson); First Lady Marsha Dale (Close); Las Vegas developer Art Land (Nicholson again) and his spacey New Age wife Barbara (Bening); scientist Donald Kessler (Brosnan); fashion journalist Nathalie Lake (Parker) and her Global News Network journalist boyfriend Jason Stone (Fox); and Las Vegas entertainer Tom Jones as, well, Tom Jones. Other performers are equally entertaining in smaller roles, fleshing out the various subplots in this hour-by-hour account of a couple of days in the life of a Martian attack. But perhaps the most inspired bit of casting comes from Industrial Light & Magic (Twister, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park), the computer-animation company responsible for the brilliant green, three-foot-high Martians. When the Martian ambassador walks into the nation's capitol building resplendent in his Bob Mackie-esque cape, breath will catch in viewers' throats. Who knew that the Martians had such a highly evolved fashion sense? Mars Attacks! is the perfect antidote to too much holiday shopping and too many viewings of It's a Wonderful Life. A holiday film with no conscience whatsoever, Mars Attacks! will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it definitely will make you wonder about Earth's ability to defend itself in the face of higher life forms.
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