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1 item from 1996

Film review:'Mars Attacks!'

2 December 1996 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

For those wondering if the market is going to be able to sustain another big-budget alien-attack movie this year, the wait is over. And the answer is a resounding yes, particularly when the director is the wildly inventive Tim Burton and the picture in question -- "Mars Attacks!" -- is a giddy, audacious blast.

Inspired by an obscure series of Topps trading cards, Burton's big-screen visualization is a special effects-packed, instant comic camp classic, not to mention a delectable parody of those '50s and '60s Cold War sci-fi extravaganzas and -- in too many instances to be a coincidence -- one particular 1996 megahit.

Crammed with a veritable cast of thousands that would have made Irwin Allen drool, "Mars Attacks!" won't be hitting those ethereal, record-breaking boxoffice heights reached by "Independence Day", but its results are nevertheless certain to have Warner Bros. looking to the heavens.

Setting the desired tone immediately with a startling opening that is at once garish and hysterically funny, the story kicks into overdrive as U.S. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) prepares to brace the American public for an impending Martian invasion with the help of his press secretary (Martin Short), a pipe-chomping professor (Pierce Brosnan) and a pair of dueling generals -- one trigger-happy (Rod Steiger) and the other a fawning pacifist (Paul Winfield).

Among those representing the American public are Sarah Jessica Parker as an MTV-esque journalist and boyfriend Michael J. Fox as her straight-laced newsgathering rival; a greasy Vegas real estate wheeler-dealer (Nicholson again) and his New Age-y wife (Annette Bening); a pro boxer-turned-casino greeter (Jim Brown) and his no-nonsense bus-driving wife (Pam Grier); a doughnut-obsessed Heartland slacker (Lukas Haas) and his distracted grandmother (Sylvia Sidney); and a rude gambler (Danny DeVito).

While most are prepared to greet their green brethren with open arms, it turns out the nonresident aliens with the brain-heavy noggins haven't really come in peace and embark on a ray gun-zapping terrorist attack that reduces their victims to green- or red-hued skeletons.

Seemingly impervious to peace accords and nuclear attacks, the bug-eyed assailants gleefully carry out their assault until their one Achilles' heel is inadvertently discovered. Not wanting to give it away, suffice it to say that the movie should do wonders for Slim Whitman album sales.

Scene after scene bears the stamp of Burton's certifiably off-kilter creative genius. Part sci-fi/disaster movie homage, part Mad magazine-style "ID4" parody (Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems must have smuggled a script onto the set given the amount of happy skewering that takes place), the picture stays on its refreshingly silly course.

Not all of Burton's assembled players manage to nail the correct tone -- getting it right are Nicholson, Glenn Close as his coiffed first lady, Natalie Portman as the first daughter, Parker, Steiger, Haas, Sidney, Brown and Tom Jones, who plays himself -- but all are gamely willing.

Technical contributions are appropriately out of this world thanks to some dazzling computer-generated character work from visual effects supervisors Jim Mitchell (Industrial Light & Magic) and Michael Fink (Warner Digital Studios), some hyper-retro production designs from Wynn Thomas ("To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything") and a gloriously over-the-top soundtrack by resident Burton scorer Danny Elfman that's heavy on the old theremin.


Warner Bros.

A film by Tim Burton

Director Tim Burton

Producers Tim Burton, Larry Franco

Screenwriter Jonathan Gems

Based on "Mars Attacks!" by Topps

Director of photography Peter Suschitzky

Production design Wynn Thomas

Editor Chris Lebenzon

Costume design Collen Atwood

Music Danny Elfman



President Dale/Art Land Jack Nicholson

First lady Marsha Dale Glenn Close

Barbara Land Annette Bening

Professor Donald Kessler Pierce Brosnan

Rude gambler Danny DeVito

Jerry Ross Martin Short

Nathalie Lake Sarah Jessica Parker

Jason Stone Michael J. Fox

General Decker Rod Steiger

Richie Norris Lukas Haas

Taffy Dale Natalie Portman

Byron Williams Jim Brown

Grandma Norris Sylvia Sidney

Running time -- 105 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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