Starring: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Rod Steiger, Annette Benning, Martin Short, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Lucas Haas, Sylvia Sydney, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Christina Applegate, Jack Black
Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Fantasy Violence and Brief Sexuality
The cleverest moments in "Mars Attacks!" come in the montages. That is not a good thing. When it's a 106 minute movie and the best bits are straight out of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (with Martians), the movie is in trouble.
"Mars Attacks!" is one long rip into 1950's sci-fi movies. The kind that schlockmeisters like William Castle or Ed Wood would have made. That those movies went well beyond self-parody is of no matter to the filmmakers, apparently. But it's not just the cheesy b-movies that get skewered. The US Government, the Army, scientists, new age philosophies, sleazy club promoters and rednecks all get theirs. The problem is that it's not especially funny.
President James Dale (Nicholson) has just received intelligence that flying saucers from Mars are on their way to Earth. General Decker (Steiger) advocates nuclear action while Professor Donald Kessler (Brosnan) advises a more peaceful greeting. It turns out that Decker was right since the Martians are not friendly and intend on wrecking havoc worldwide.
This has all the earmarks of a wickedly funny black comedy. With a few exceptions, the characters are universally dislikable, the plot takes no prisoners and it has an all-star cast. So why is it such a dud? The screenplay is a good place to start. Although it has balls, it lacks real wit. And director Tim Burton spends far too much time on a plot that no one will care about. Nor are they intended to in a movie like this.
As good as this cast is, nearly everyone famous in this movie is either over-the-top or phoning it in. Jack Nicholson is slumming for a paycheck. He's ideally cast, but Jack isn't trying. Glenn Close is annoying as a superficial, shrewish Nancy Regan clone. Rod Steiger is consistently off his game. Martin Short gets far too many scenes and far too few jokes for such a superfluous character. Michael J. Fox is wasted. And Danny DeVito is awful. The only ones who stick out are Pierce Brosnan and Jim Brown. Brosnan is clearly having fun as the self-absorbed boob of a scientist. He even has a pipe and a lab coat. Ex-football star Jim Brown is surprisingly effective as the ex-boxer trying to make amends with his family.
I'm not surprised that Tim Burton, who has a soft spot for misunderstood outsiders, was attracted to this material. What does surprise me is that Burton, who is a talented filmmaker, could make something so feeble and lifeless. This has a lot of affection, but it's not effectively channeled. Plus on a technical level the film is lacking. Plot holes and jumpy editing abound, the latter of which costing the film some desperately needed laughs. When you spend a whole minute setting up a one-liner, you've got problems.