Film Reviews

It's Topps!

Forget Independence Day. If you really want to see Earth get it, you can't do any better than Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!. It's a destructo orgy without any phony-baloney sanctimony about the fellowship of man--or spaceman.

Burton isn't interested in intergalactic amity; he's not even interested in preserving the Earth. He's like a precocious, nut-brained kid pumped with '50s sci-fi pulp. But he doesn't take his pulp straight. Burton turns inside out the tacky stalwart grandeur of such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Part homage and part demolition job, Mars Attacks! is perhaps the funniest piece of giddy schlock heartlessness ever committed to film.

Pure id runs riot: Movie stars get incinerated right along with the extras; Sarah Jessica Parker's head gets transplanted onto a Chihuahua's body; Martians morph into robotic Playboy babes with beehive 'dos and torpedo tits. Everything about Mars Attacks! is flagrantly lewd, yet presexual--a preadolescent's fever dream. The real sex in this movie is in the wacko mayhem and the gorgeousness of the grotesquerie. It's a nonstop kitsch spritz.

With screenwriter Jonathan Gems, Burton draws not only on '50s sci-fi, but on images from Cocteau, Dr. Strangelove, The Bride of Frankenstein and pulp comic books and trading cards--including, of course, the 1962 Topps Mars Attacks! series, which was withdrawn from the market for being too lurid. He riffs on the '70s cycle of disaster epics such as The Towering Inferno and Earthquake.

The implicit joke behind those straight-faced disaster films was that destruction was a turn-on; in Earthquake, audiences grooved to L.A.'s collapse--it was Biblical-style retribution for Sin City. In Mars Attacks!, Burton brings the joke out into the open; he doesn't disguise his glee in blowing things up, and his main targets--Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas--are eminently blow-up-able. They're America's yin and yang: The White House and the MGM Grand are the twin tepees of our national imagination.

Everybody gets it in Mars Attacks!. (Everybody deserves to get it.) We first see a herd of cattle on fire stampeding through the Kansas heartland; it's a tip-off the Martians have arrived. A credit sequence follows in which their saucers wheel through space like giant hubcaps, while, on the soundtrack, the woozy sound of the theremin gives us cold creeps. Then we switch from the heartland to the Pentagon--commonly a reassuring trajectory in '50s sci-fi.

But the Washington honchos here are far from reassuring: President James Dale is played by eyebrow-flexing Jack Nicholson, who also plays the sequined Vegas real estate hustler Art Land--hustlers high and low. General Decker (Rod Steiger) is a bald-pated horror whose game plan for the impending Martian touchdown is simple: "Kill! Kill! Kill!" His opposite number, Paul Winfield's General Casey, sees the Martian arrival in the Arizona desert as a peace offering; he greets them with the intergalactic sign of the doughnut. The interminably pipe-puffing government scientist Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) is so preternaturally calm he's practically an alien, too. He's all intellect--all head--so when the Martians actually reduce him to a floating cranium, he's essentially the same guy. If he seems vaguely denuded, it's not because he's bodiless, but because he's pipeless.

Sci-fi movies usually thump either for Pentagon power or we-the-people gumption. But Tim Burton is an equal-opportunity scourge. It's as if he read all those high-toned tracts on the "meaning" of '50s sci-fi flicks--how they were a metaphor for the Cold War and nuclear holocaust--and decided to diddle those theories every which way. You can't call Mars Attacks! reactionary sci-fi. True, the heartland masses, led by trailer-park patriarch Joe Don Baker, are mostly stunted yokels--but then, so are Washington's top brass. The Pentagon is just a goofball phallic symbol. The Martians snip it and tip it. Mars Attacks! is prepolitical in the same way it's presexual; it uses its demonic emblems of force kiddy-cartoon-style.

When Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern lampooned the military in Dr. Strangelove, they did it with an overlay of jokey sophistication--it was supposed to be black comedy for "knowing" adults. Burton's visual fantasias--the way, for example, he turns Vegas into a fan dance of irradiated reds and blues and greens--are certainly sophisticated. But his sensibility isn't--at least not in the usual ways. He's making fun of '50s schlock sci-fi in Mars Attacks!, but he's also deeply drawn to it; this is why he could make a movie such as Ed Wood, which enshrines schlock. Success in the movie business hasn't made Burton "knowing." He's goofing on '50s schlock, but he's not "commenting" on it: To do that would be to disown the love he feels for it.

The love runs pretty deep, and the genuine scariness that sometimes arises from Mars Attacks! is keyed to just how deeply all this schlock has burrowed into Burton's brain. There are people who couldn't stomach Burton's Beetlejuice and Batman and, especially, Edward Scissorhands. The pop dementia on view seemed too unsettling; he set us up for a cartoon romp and then went all ghastly on us. Burton takes audiences farther out into the realms of pop-comic heebie-jeebies than any other director, but some audiences respond to him the way they more often respond to David Lynch. They want to know why this guy is dumping all his sicko stuff on us.

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Peter Rainer