Pure id

Tim Burton turns his ray gun on everything in sight when Mars Attacks!

It's easy to be affronted by what Burton is doing in his movies because there is an element of cruelty in his relationship with the audience; there's a joy buzzer in his handshake. He wants to give us the willies because he's already got them--and he doesn't want to be alone with them. Better we should all be spooked.

The Martians in Mars Attacks! are a full grade scarier than we might expect from a sci-fi spoof. As designed by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, they're computer-generated gargoyles with big brains like curlicued blooms of tufa; their lidless bulging eyeballs and skull smiles are not remotely cute. When the Martians create a Playmate to heat up the president's libidinous press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short) and gain access to the White House, their creation (Lisa Marie) resembles the dream-walking undead in a film by Cocteau or Franju (specifically Eyes Without a Face). Her herky-jerky gyroscopic glide through the hallways of power is one scary-funny wiggle. Jerry is so smitten with her that he starts to move like her. When he pulls on her flesh, her cheek falls away (so does Jerry). This Martian girl is a pinup nightmare--the wrath of plastic.

The Topps Mars Attacks! cards, painted by veteran pulp magazine artist Norm Saunders, were dandy little decals of luridness: The cards' titles--such as "Destroying a Dog," "Burning Flesh," and "Beast and the Beauty"--were emblazoned on lascivious scenes of destruction backgrounded by blood-red skies. There's nothing spoofy about these cards. They may be gross-outs, but they sure are fervid.

Burton connects to the kid-stuff horror in the cards--they probably function for him like pieces of the Grail. He also feels affection for their frights. He wants us to know that the bluenoses were right--the cards were dangerous. In Mars Attacks! Burton, who started out as an animator, uses the cards' luridness as inspiration, but then he gooses us. Mars Attacks! is scary-funny in ways we haven't seen before--except perhaps in other Burton movies or in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, which also goosed us with overkill.

The one character in the film who comes across as genuinely heroic--as opposed to mock-heroic--is Lukas Haas's Richie, the Kansas slacker who, helped inadvertently by his dotty grandmother (Sylvia Sidney), figures out a way to burst the Martians' brains. (Their craniums appear to be engorged with Prell.) It's perhaps no accident that Richie, with his shambling alertness and scraggly locks, resembles Burton. Richie brings out Burton's Boy Scout side. When, on a Kansas back road at night, a giant Martian robot clomps after the boy attempting to escape in his truck, we fear for him in a way we don't for anybody else in the movie.

How could we fear for anybody else? Burton's satiric point is that the humans are just as soulless and far-out as the Martians. They're too stunted to even react properly to the invasion; while the world is being incinerated, Vegas still packs 'em in and the White House is still giving tours. A TV reporter (Michael J. Fox) tries to wangle a Martian interview; he might be trying to score a celebrity. Tom Jones, who seems ageless enough to be an alien himself, continues to croon "It's Not Unusual" even when his backup singers turn out to be barking aliens.

The '50s sci-fi movie stalwarts, such as John Agar or Richard Carlson, were so deeply bland that they might as well have been androids. But their blandness wasn't intended satirically. In Mars Attacks! the more straight-arrow you are, like Pierce Brosnan's pipe puffer, the weirder--and more laughable--you seem. Burton casts Jim Brown as an ex-heavyweight boxing champ who, dressed as an Egyptian, works as a Vegas casino greeter; it's such a funny image, and Brown is so imperially blank that you almost don't mind the fact that Burton hasn't really figured out what to do with him. (He ends up boxing the Martians--big wow.) Burton's clunkiness at least is in the service of a higher clunkiness.

It would be too bad if smart adults turned away from Mars Attacks! and left it to the smart kids. A lot of drippy movies are out there appealing to the Child Within; Burton's new film appeals to the Brat Within. Despite a few forced efforts at topicality and political jokesterism--like the scene in the White House in which the Reagan chandelier crushes Glenn Close, as the president's shrewish wife, or the way Paul Winfield recalls Gen. Colin Powell--Mars Attacks! stays resolutely within its nut-house campgrounds.

Fifties sci-fi movies may have been a skewed response to Cold War fears, but Mars Attacks! is a post-Cold War romp. The Russians don't even figure in it. And with no Commies around to target, Burton goes blooey and targets everything. We've come a long way. Dr. Strangelove, our greatest Cold War comedy, was, of course, subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In Mars Attacks! Burton has his Martians inhale a nuclear missile and get high on the radiation. You can't love the Bomb any more than that.

Mars Attacks! Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Lukas Haas, Annette Bening, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Paul Winfield, Joe Don Baker, Sylvia Sidney, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Rod Steiger. Written by Jonathan Gems. Directed by Tim Burton. Opens Friday.

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