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Alien Notions

Lisa Marie & Martin Short
Bruce Talamon

Hair-Brained Scheme: A Martian girl (Lisa Marie) doesn't have to work hard to convince the president's press secretary (Martin Short) that there is life and lust on other planets in "Mars Attacks!"

Tim Burton is nostalgic for the eccentric side of '50s paranoia in 'Mars Attacks!'

By Richard von Busack

Most major American filmmakers today are nostalgics. Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? look backward. Martin Scorsese obviously adores the past; he spends so much time and treasure trying to recapture it. Even Spike Lee had his Crooklyn. Rat-pack retro like Mad Dog Time and Swingers holds down the art theaters. Old TV shows get the big-screen treatment almost weekly.

In such a milieu, director Tim Burton is, I think, the most consistently interesting and exhilarating American director under 40. Although his pictures suffer from profound problems of narrative, and he is drawn to superficial subjects, Burton follows his own obsessions. He does what's nearly impossible in the '90s--he works with huge budgets and still manages to express himself.

Like most of the nostalgics, Burton could easily be compared to Steven Spielberg, who grew up watching old movies on TV and longed to re-create them. Perhaps their different styles can be explained by different programming. Spielberg watched A Guy Named Joe; Burton watched Fiend Without a Face.

Burton pines not for tract houses and the perfect suburbs of E.T. His view of that world can be seen in the eerie, comic aerial shot of the cars leaving for work in Edward Scissorhands, each vehicle the shade of the house in front of it. Burton likes the suburbs, but he's not of the suburbs, hence that Gothic castle rising above those color-coded cars and houses.

What Burton enjoys mulling over are the cartoons, the toys--as in Pee-wee's Big Adventure--the horror movies and the moderne architecture of the 1950s and '60s. In Mars Attacks!, Burton rebuilds that dingbat temple, the Jetsons-oid Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas, which ends up as it should have in real life, as a magnet for flying saucers.

Unlike most nostalgics, however, Burton isn't griping about a more moral and innocent time; his sympathy lies with the little, dark characters who scurry around in the sidelines--the ones who spend most of their movies holed up in their rooms. (But if only more Goths had Burton's sense of humor!)

Consider the shot in Batman Returns of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) sitting in the dark of his chamber until the Bat Signal rouses him out of his thoughts. Lydia in Beetlejuice and Taffy (Natalie Portman), the president's daughter who hides out reading Herman Hesse in Mars Attacks!, are almost identical. Ed Wood was really a long reverie about rubbing around all of that 1950s ambiance while still being able to live as a genuine eccentric.

Burton loves the '50s looks and excesses, but through the isolation of such characters, he makes it clear that although the past is a place he'd like to visit, he wouldn't want to live there. Watching his films, one suspects that Burton knows quite well how they dealt with his kind back in Eisenhower's era.


Tim Burton Web Links

Mars Attacks!: The very cool, very weird official movie site.

Tim Burton: Auteur or Marketing Concept: A thoughtful, almost scholarly essay on Burton's contradictory pull between art and commercialism.

Tim Burton FAQ: Frequently asked questions.

Halloween Town: An incredible fan tribute to The Nightmare Before Christmas.


Space Collage

Burton's newest is better than a movie based on bubble-gum cards has a right to be. The film is a trash compactor, a collage of everything from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Teenagers From Outer Space and The Brain That Wouldn't Die to more eclectic cinematic jokes, like an alien hooker who is an exact ringer for the spooky gum-chewing girl playing Pong at the beginning of Russ Meyer's Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens and a lift from Yojimbo--this time it's a Chihuahua with the human hand in its teeth.

In its frequent borrowings from '50s science fiction, the film's natural point of comparison is the equally derivative, but colorless, odorless and much less entertaining, Independence Day, a.k.a. ID4. (T2, D3 and ID4--we can probably expect more movie titles that sound like apartment numbers.)

The same premise drives both movies. Aliens surround the Earth with saucers, and the foolish Earthlings, not divining the aliens' purpose, try to make friends. Like Independence Day, Mars Attacks! jumps all around the country, from Washington. DC, to Kansas to Las Vegas. Instead of a jet-powered ex-Air Force president, as in Independence Day, Jack Nicholson's president in Mars Attacks! is supine, accustomed to relying on spin control to fix everything.

Jack Nicholson

Brain Scam: Jack Nicholson gets his wrinkles worked on by a bug-eyed visitor.

When even media manipulation fails, the president can't really think of a way to defend his planet and collapses in a dejected heap. Nicholson's one joke is that he can't control his hands in times of stress; they keep giving away the show. Pleading for his life with the Martian ambassador, he mouths conciliatory words of peace, but his gestures reveal what he thinks the proper relationship of a Martian/Terran federation ought to be. Earth he pantomimes as the size of an orange; Mars, on the other hand, is no bigger than a walnut.

Nicholson plays another role as a Nevada gambler. Hanging his denture-laden jaw open in a yokel's gape is as close as he comes to building that character. Most of the other name stars also deliver one-joke turns. Michael J. Fox is self-centered, Jim Brown is tough, Annette Bening is ditzy, Martin Short is horny.

While Mars Attacks! is a personal movie in the sense that it reflects Burton's obsessions, the human characters exist simply as props cluttering the stage. In a disaster movie, character actors have the advantage over the stars; you can read their type in the blink of an eye. With stars, you wait for them to justify themselves, to do something pleasing. I don't know if even Robert Altman could have succeeded with a cast that includes everyone from Tom Jones to O-Lan Jones.

Sylvia Sidney
Bruce Talamon

Grannie Gets the Gun: Sylvia Sidney is on the Martians' hit list.

One of the best actors aboard is Sylvia Sidney, in a small but key role. Sidney appeared in Beetlejuice as a woman whose suicide cursed her to be a bureaucrat in the afterlife. We learned of the method she chose for her final exit in a shot of the cigarette she was smoking--a small detail, but a good example of the way Burton's movies repay more than a single viewing.

Little kids lured in by the Martians will just think Sidney is a generic old lady, but she has had a daunting career. She worked for Rouben Mamoulian, Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, the pioneer female director Dorothy Arzner and Alfred Hitchcock; she co-starred with Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper.

In Mars Attacks! she plays a daft grandmother, but Burton doesn't use her just for comic syrup. Oblivious, sitting in her easy chair at the old folk's home with her stereo headphones on, she's unaware that the Martians are sneaking up behind her, wheeling in a ray cannon the size of a compact car.

Sydney, however, turns out to be one of the only characters essential to the story; she possesses the solution to the alien problem, a weapon of sorts operated by her goodhearted dreamer of a grandson (Lukas Haas), a donut-shop counter person. Once again, the foolish things of the world confound the wise, as per the finale of The War of the Worlds and the epitaph for Ed Wood.

Haas' shop character is a neglected younger brother of a soldier hero (Jack Black), a relationship that is part of an ongoing lampooning of military ineptness. The motif is summed up by the character of the president's military adviser (Rod Steiger), whose performance needed more range to strike even one note.

The worst moments in the film (indeed, some of the worst moments in Burton's work) are the woundingly crude--though mercifully short, a few minutes at most--scenes of the donut counterman at home in a Kansas trailer park.

Joe Don Baker sets the tone for the scene, ignoring the donut boy and lavishing affection on his son in the Air Force, the darling of the family. This soldier is a boor and a pig, so bullying that we're not surprised to see him fried. Burton fails us here, because the joke would have worked better if the brother had been another Val Kilmer in Top Gun--a handsome, tough male ingenue, with muscles and teeth and a can-do attitude, who, to shock us, gets vaporized immediately.

Saucers' Tales

The same advance buzz that proclaimed Independence Day the most tremendous film of the year said that Mars Attacks! would be Spielberg's 1941 all over again. The buzz was misinformed, as usual. The script isn't as consistently oblivious as 1941 or Independence Day were. Screenwriter Jonathan Gems certainly knows how to send up whiskery old cinematic devices.

The president's golden retriever barks at the TV screen at the first sight of the treacherous Martians. The trusty dog is the only one smart enough to know their game--he's some sort of canine cousin of the Surviving Dog in Independence Day. Gems also provides the one about the wife (Pam Grier) who, a continent away, psychically knows that something terrible has just that moment happened to her man.

Annette Bening & Tom Jones
Bruce Talamon

It's Not Unusual: Annette Bening defends Tom Jones against little green music haters.

Amidst this cartooning, the Martians carry the show, and it is on them that Burton settles his love and admiration and makes Mars Attack! a delight despite its flaws. The Martians appear just as they did in the Topps bubble-gum cards of the early 1960s, and well do I remember their oversized cerebellums entwined with crimson veins, their cue-ball eyes and their skull-like faces; they were too ugly to look at, too ugly not to.

Burton adds some details; their elders wear chic lamé gowns with high collars, and their language is some undifferentiated yapping like the grousing of an unfed lapdog. These Martians are not exactly special-effects marvels; when they're on, everything looks a little ridiculous.

The Taj Mahal that the Martians blow up looks like a biscuit tin; adding insult to the injury, the little green bastards line up for a snapshot in front of the beloved tourist destination as it burns. The aliens were such invulnerable bores in Independence Day. The Martians in Mars Attacks! are sports--they enjoy their work.

They can fly, but they'd rather chase people down the road in 100-foot robots. One party of aliens nudges the Washington Monument around with its flying saucer, trying to swat a Cub Scout troop with the obelisk. Even dead, the Martians upstage the humans.

Mars Attacks! includes one scene I desperately wanted to see in ID4: Earthling laborers in jumpsuits dispiritedly hauling all of the messy alien cadavers away in wheelbarrows. In between assaults, the creatures lounge around their saucer in their shorts, performing unclean experiments on Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan that are so awful that one can't help but laugh at them.

But it's uneasy laughter; even in parody, Burton presents images so strange and melancholy that they stick with you, as in the shot of Geena Davis casting her eyes downward as she disintegrates in Beetlejuice or the sequence in Mars Attacks! in which a pair of living severed heads shyly court each other.

If Mars Attacks! doesn't succeed financially, it will be because younger audiences haven't seen the movies Burton is satirizing. Still, to take this much referential material and assemble it into an individual vision is no little feat. Burton's homage to the bug-eyed monsters of yesteryear demonstrates that images of those men in rubber suits still have emotional power to him.

This is the secret of his success and why Mars Attacks! works so well. All of these monsters--and ghosts and Batman and the Joker--are under Burton's skin. Burton is in touch with a strain in American culture that goes back much, much farther than just the Red Panic, for which the saucermen movies were such a lovely metaphor.

Though he's obviously not haunted by religion, the spirit that inspires Burton is the same one that inflamed Nathaniel Hawthorne. Burton is alive to "The Wonders of the Invisible World," as the early American preacher Cotton Mather put it; he's at one with the visionaries and lunatics who see a world just outside the periphery of the vision, where Satan, Communists and, of course, Martians look at our planet with covetous eyes, waiting to strike.

Mars Attacks! directed by Tim Burton, written by Jonathan Gems, photographed by Peter Suschitzky and starring Jack Nicholson, Sylvia Sidney and Rod Steiger.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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