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The Burton Binge: “Mars Attacks!”

by on August 5, 2012
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Each Sunday with “The Burton Binge,” Sam Watermeier will look back at one of Tim Burton’s films, ultimately tracing the return to the auteur’s roots with the October 5 release of “Frankenweenie,” an animated adaptation of Burton’s first live-action short film.

“Mars Attacks!” is an oddly fitting follow-up to “Ed Wood,” as it seems precisely like the kind of movie Ed Wood would make. Unfortunately, Tim Burton fails precisely where Wood did by creating a kooky kitsch-fest that is fun but ultimately hollow.

Based on a ’60s-era trading card series, the film follows a Martian invasion of Earth, which is met with both cautious optimism and hostility across the globe. Characters in the ensemble include: The President of the United States (Jack Nicholson); a war-hungry general (Rod Steiger); a suave, handsome scientist (Pierce Brosnan); a ditzy TV personality (Sarah Jessica Parker); lounge singer Tom Jones!; and a sleazy Las Vegas real estate developer (also Nicholson), among others.

The humans are almost as quirky as the Martians, running around like chickens with their heads cut off as the scrawny aliens bark at them like little lap dogs. Here, Burton takes his outsider theme to the nth degree in depicting foreigners from space so confounded by our world that they can only think to destroy it (much like humans instinctually step on bugs).

At the time of its release, the film appeared to have a target in Roland Emmerich — a wealthier, more resourceful Ed Wood, whose film “Independence Day” isn’t much different than “Mars Attacks!” aside from the fact that it doesn’t know it’s bad.

Although it is easy to regard “Mars Attacks!” as a send-up of Emmerich’s blockbuster spectacle and other films like it, the intentions behind those movies seem more pure by the film’s end. “Mars Attacks!” is ultimately a bit cynical and mean-spirited. Take, for instance, the fact that its only sympathetic character is a dumb donut delivery boy (Lukas Haas).

That kind of irreverent humor was all the rage when the film was released. It practically enveloped the pop culture landscape — a notion made literal when I first saw the film in the theater. I snuck in after walking out of “Beavis and Butt-head Do America.” I felt like a Burton character, leaving one strange world for another one even stranger.

Although it feels a bit cold at times, “Mars Attacks!” certainly has its moments and is altogether fun, memorable and visually arresting. Fortunately, though, Burton followed it with a much richer and more sincere homage to B-movies, “Sleepy Hollow,” which I will discuss next Sunday with a special guest.

Enjoy this enthusiasm for Burton while you can because he’s about to descend with a trip to the “Planet of the Apes.” Who knows, though; I might end up liking the film upon reflection. Stay tuned.