Making waves with Martian monsters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 1997, 12:00am

MARS ATTACKS! Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close. Directed by Tim Burton. Category 2A. Now showing at Ocean, New York, Majestic, UA (Queensway, Sha Tin, Times Square, Whampoa, Bonds, Kowloon, Aberdeen), Jade, Park, Empress, Broadway (Kwai Fong, Yuen Long, Mongkok, Kowloon Bay), Yuen Long, Tuen Mun.

If nothing else, Mars Attacks! will be remembered as the best film ever to be inspired by a set of trading cards - based as it is on a set of Topps Martian invasion cards released in the US in the 1960s. The resulting movie is a way-out War Of The Worlds, rich in director Tim Burton's eccentric imagery and drawing equally on sci-fi classics like This Island Earth and movie disasters like Ed Wood's infamous Plan Nine From Outer Space.

The flat structure of Mars Attacks! may make it a little obscure for mainstream viewers, and it will probably only be appreciated by fans of monster cinema and followers of the peculiar films of Tim Burton. It is certainly an important Burton work and while it lacks the gothic drama of, say, Edward Scissorhands or the wicked humour of Beetlejuice!, Mars Attacks! could well stand as his signature piece.

Burton has always been fascinated by the kitsch of American society and here he elevates it to centre-stage. It is as if he decided to forget about packaging his ideas as a story in order to concentrate on what interests him most - monsters.

With Mars Attacks! Burton goes straight for the tacky and superficial and sticks with it.

There is little of the contemporary comment that accompanied much of the science-fiction movies of the 1950s, which took their cue from the Cold War.

And there is little in the way of a story, the film being simply a collection of vignettes that could come randomly from a set of 60s sci-fi trading cards. There is not much in the way of humour that makes you laugh out loud either.

What there is is a lot of wobbly-brained, computer-generated Martians firing ray guns and destroying the Earth.

And very good it is too, playing out like a spooky space symphony that simply allows the viewer to experience the marvels of another planet.

As with Batman Returns, the fact that the story does not go anywhere does not matter - it is the ride that is important.

Whereas Batman Returns took us into the swampy world of a decaying city, Mars Attacks! allows us to experience a gaudy planet where Las Vegas tack holds sway, huge Dunkin' Donuts signs stand tall in dusty mid-west towns, flying saucers appear and a man can swan around in an ancient Egyptian costume without anyone batting an eyelid.

At first glance Mars Attacks! seems like a parody of Independence Day. Along with the alien theme, it has the same structure whereby different characters experience the invasion from different locations on the planet. Although Mars! was actually in production before Independence, it might as well be a parody of it, as it deliciously subverts the latter's celebration of gung-ho American chauvinism.

In Burton's film, the world is saved by a granny and a slacker, not by the President, a scientist and an air whizz.

Burton has assembled a top cast for Mars!, but nobody is on screen for long, allowing the digital Martians to steal the show.

Modelled on the Topps cards and looking like they have strolled off the cover of a classic 50s magazine, these metre-tall monsters zip around chattering like mutant chimpanzees, breaking their promises and blasting their ray guns. They are marvellously retro, right down to their bright colours.

The retro element of Mars Attacks!, coupled with its detached feel, has led to criticism that instead of parodying B-grade 50s sci-fi films , Burton simply went ahead and made one.

But perhaps this line of criticism misses the point. Burton has always been attracted by the superficiality of modern life - observe his vision of brain-dead suburbia in Edward Scissorhands.

Here he goes one step further and makes a film so superficial, it makes a brilliant statement on the state of the society that allowed him to produce it. As Jack Nicholson says in the film: 'This is the perfect summation of the 20th century.' Burton, whose favourite film is King Kong, says of his motivation to make Mars Attacks! : 'I just like monsters.'