In Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, a silver flying saucer, just like the ones that menaced American moviegoers in the 1950s, shoots out its crablike legs and touches down in the Nevada desert. Out strolls a crew of Martian soldiers, each with a grinning skull face, giant exposed brain lobes, and glowering white eyes that dance around like overexcited cue balls. (Think Michael Jackson in about 25 years.) ”We come in peace!” announces their leader (that is, once his statement is translated from what sounds to human ears like ”Ack ack ack!”). The citizens gathered in the desert break into a collective grin of exhilaration. But the joke’s on them. Within moments the ”friendly” Martians have whipped out their incinerator guns and are gleefully irradiating everyone in sight. Take that, earthlings!

Mars Attacks! may be the first sci-fi disaster movie that’s also an impish black-comedy prank. In Burton’s giddily satiric epic, alien invaders want to destroy the planet, but it wouldn’t be right to say they’re aiming for world domination; they’re more like demonic jesters out for a cosmic giggle. And Burton, the maniacal pop fantasist, is on their side. His Martians have a rude, palm-buzzer spirit that makes them successors to such Burton clown-devils as the Joker in Batman or the grimy ghost in Beetlejuice.

Mars Attacks! is based on a series of Topps bubble-gum cards from the 1960s, and it’s a true bubble-gum movie — it has no agenda but to delight you with one eye-popping malicious jape after another. Burton affectionately skewers the schlock of two eras: the space-invader fantasies of the ’50s, with their solemnly paranoid anxiety, and the let’s-kick-alien-butt jingoism of Independence Day. The very form of Mars Attacks! is a swipe at ID4, with Burton setting up a cheeky cross section of ’90s America — glib reporter (Michael J. Fox), New Age 12-stepper (Annette Bening), trailer-home redneck (Joe Don Baker), unctuous chief executive (Jack Nicholson), Vegas sleazebag (Nicholson again). But the comic-strip collage lacks zing; if anything, it’s as flat as the one it’s parodying. Turning his sardonic gleam on ”normal” America, Burton, it’s clear, has no investment in these characters, and so we don’t either.

Still, if Mars Attacks! is more depersonalized than Burton’s other work (it takes a good 45 minutes to get going), that just means it generates a lighter form of laughing gas. Burton stages the destruction of the world as lyrically surreal spectacle. Even when the special effects are a parody of ’50s cheesiness, they have a funky, ramshackle beauty — the wonder of a puppet show that almost looks real. Cackling away in their spaceship, the Martians graft the head of a dim blond talk-show host (Sarah Jessica Parker) onto her pet Chihuahua. By the time they’ve begun using the Easter Island statues as bowling pins, the film has escalated into full Burtonian madness. We realize he’s making up the rules of destruction as he goes along, using his trip-wire wit to undercut the self-importance of the blockbuster form itself. In its nothing’s-quite-at-stake way, Mars Attacks! has Tim Burton’s flaked-out spirit — it makes you feel like a very knowing 8-year-old, seeing through the artifice yet believing in it at the same time. B+

Mars Attacks!
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