Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

Tim Burton's career is the most fascinating in Hollywood. Time and again, he's tackled quirky premises that would seem to have extremely limited appeal -- a guy with scissors for hands; a Pee-Wee Herman movie -- and hit the critical and commercial jackpot; now, he's taken a surefire idea (a picture called Independence Day cleaned up with it earlier this year, you may recall) and made a movie that's alienating everyone, including many of his most ardent supporters. I can't argue with those who complain of the copious misfired gags, wasted opportunities, and pointless interludes that plague Mars Attacks! -- in fact, every criticism of the movie that I've yet encountered is right on the money. I can only report that I've now seen the film twice, and that I laughed my fool head off both times from beginning to end. What appeals most to me, I think, is the movie's sheer anarchic glee, as personified by the invading Martians; unlike the Alien-inspired aliens in Independence Day, these bug-eyed, cerebrum-domed monsters seem to have no particular agenda in mind -- they're like a gaggle of 12-year-old boys turned loose in the forest with pellet guns, magnifying glasses, and heavy boots. The film's enormous all-star cast (mostly underutilized, though Jack Nicholson, Lukas Haas, Pierce Brosnan, and Sarah Jessica Parker have some fun) exists only to be viciously annihilated; the real stars of Mars Attacks! are the Martians, who apparently have unlimited chutzpah: they carve their faces on Mt. Rushmore; they sing backup for Tom Jones; they broadcast a reassuring "Don't run -- we are your friends!" even as they open fire on Earth's screaming inhabitants. In one of my favorite subtle bits of business -- you may have seen it in the ads -- the Martian ambassador taps a microphone a few times to ensure that it's on and functioning before he petulantly swats it away and decimates most of America's legislative branch. Put enough moments like that in a movie, and I don't really care how ineffective the rest of it is, quite frankly. The script for Mars Attacks!, written by British playwright Jonathan Gems, and based loosely upon a notorious banned series of Topps trading cards, is frequently puerile and repetitive, but the film is intermittently hilarious and inspired enough that I'll courteously forget about all of the stuff that didn't work. You're welcome, fellas.