Courtesy Photo
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, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Lucas Haas, Natalie Portman, Lisa Marie and Sylvia Sidney.

"Mars Attacks!"

Opened: Friday, December 13, 1996 | Rated: PG-13

Director Tim Burton's stupid-by-design science fiction spoof "Mars Attacks!" does an impressive high-wire act on that fine line between bad-but-funny and just plain bad.

An alien invasion epic with an all-star cast, it is cheesy, over-acted and so divinely dumb your most likely reaction when the credits roll will be "Man, that was awful. I loved it!"

"Mars Attacks!" is full of nods to campy sci-fi flicks and pays homage to Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" over and over -- beginning with Jack Nicholson starring in a dual role.

As the shallow and indecisive president of the United States, with nervous first lady Glenn Close in tow, Nicholson's pools his top aides upon news of a fleet of flying saucers headed for Earth.

Pierce Brosnan plays a snobbish boor of a scientist who advises that the president to greet the aliens with open arms. "An advanced civilization, by definition, is non-violent," he says.

In a later Pentagon war room scene, hawkish general Rod Steiger's advice is to "Annihilate! Kill! Kill!"

The Martians -- short, skinny, computer-animated creatures with huge, exposed brains -- first land in the Nevada desert. Speaking in noises that sound like poodles being strangled, they announce they come in peace (as translated by an unreliable gadget provided by Brosnan), before vaporizing the crowd that had gathered to greet them.

"It may be a cultural misunderstanding," Brosnan insists until they vaporize Congress a few scenes later.

Like any bad disaster flick, "Mars Attacks!" follows several story lines at once. We visit New York, where bickering TV personalities Michael J. Fox and Sarah Jessica Parker wrestle each other for the right to cover the invasion. We stop in Kansas where Lucas Haas ("Boys") and his gun-nut father (Joe Don Baker) discover grandma's Slim Whitman records make the Martian's brains explode.

And Nicholson shows up again in Las Vegas as a balding, rhinestoned hotel magnate with a ditzy New Age wife (Annette Bening) who thinks the Martians have come to save mankind.

After 20-minutes of attack scenes in which all cast members gets to twist their faces up in the requisite reaction shots, the silliness begins to snowball. During an sequence clearly added to the script to spoof "Independence Day," Burton lets go of the leash and "Mars Attacks!" runs wild, each scene becoming more goofy than the last.

Beginning with an "ID4"-style montage of global landmarks being lasered (the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower), Burton moves on to a saucer knocking over statues on Easter Island with a giant bowling ball, then cuts to a shot of the Martians giving each other high fives.

After that it's anything goes. Singing in Las Vegas, Tom Jones is caught in Martian crossfire while belting out "It's Not Unusual." Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker are abducted as scientific guinea pigs and wind up severed heads falling in love on the Martian mother ship. Meanwhile, Blaxploitation movie icon Jim Brown goes a few rounds of fisticuffs with the aliens.

As sci-fi spoofs go, "Mars Attacks!" may never be topped. Everything that could have turned this movie into a messy parade of bad jokes is balanced just so in Burton's deft directoral hand. Even the fallacies of computer animation, like the somewhat unnatural way computer-generated bodies move, only served to make the Martians other-worldly and daffy-looking. This is a terrible movie made hilarious by Burton's tweaked sense of humor and no one else could have done it as well.

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