'Mars Attacks!' crashes to earth

December 13, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Jack Nicholson as the president of the United States. Jack Nicholson as a Las Vegas hustler. Little green men who say "ack-ack," leer at Playboy centerfolds and turn the entire U.S. Congress to toast. Tom Jones as Tom Jones. Disembodied heads falling in love with each other. Songs by Slim Whitman.

"Mars Attacks!" has it all, and more. How could this movie not be a riot?

Ask Tim Burton, who somehow has managed the impossible. Never has a movie so brimming with potential failed so utterly to deliver. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is not a movie for seeing, this is a movie for lying down and avoiding.

The rap on Burton has been that, as a director, he makes a great scenarist: His films may look great, but they don't tell much of a story. That's not always true ("Ed Wood" did both), but none of his work supports that assessment better than "Mars Attacks!" The film looks great, but there's nothing inside.

Based on a notorious set of bubble gum cards issued by Topps in the early '60s (the cards were so graphic they were eventually withdrawn from circulation), "Mars Attacks!" is the story of a hapless planet all ready to greet its Martian visitors with open arms and holstered weapons.

Unfortunately, the little buggers are somewhat less benign. Their idea of a good time is obvious from the start, when they turn their ray guns on a welcoming dove and turn him into something you left in the oven too long. Then they do the same thing to a few hundred spectators, all the time cackling, "We come in peace."

Intended as an homage to the great, cheesy sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, "Mars Attacks!" is far too aware of its own absurdity to VTC take itself seriously (which the earlier movies did), yet it's simply not funny enough to work as farce. Screenwriter Jonathan Gems takes his bubble-gum-card source too much to heart: His screenplay is little more than a series of ideas, some funny, some not.

Not even massive amounts of star power can inject life into the result. Nicholson doesn't work in either of his two roles; he's too stiff as the president, too blustery as the con man and not funny as either. Glenn Close, as the first lady, has fun skewering Nancy Reagan, but has only a few minutes of screen time. Danny Devito, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Annette Bening, Pam Grier and Pierce Brosnan all tiptoe through the film, leaving little impression. Too bad all this talent came together for naught.

The best thing about "Mars Attacks!" is that you'll come away believing you could have done the movie better.

'Mars Attacks!'

Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening

Directed by Tim Burton

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13 (cartoon violence)

Sun score: * 1/2

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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