Burton's Blooey Period

The love runs pretty deep, and the genuine scariness that sometimes arises from Mars Attacks! is keyed to just how deeply all this schlock has burrowed into Burton's brain. There are people who couldn't stomach Burton's Beetlejuice and Batman and, especially, Edward Scissorhands. The pop dementia on view seemed too unsettling; he set us up for a cartoon romp and then went all ghastly on us. Burton takes audiences farther out into the realms of pop-comic heebie-jeebies than any other director, but some audiences respond to him the way they more often respond to David Lynch. They want to know why this guy is dumping all his sicko stuff on us.

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 pin-up nightmare -- the wrath of plastic.

The Topps Mars Attacks! cards, painted by veteran pulp magazine artist Norm Saunders, were dandy little decals of luridness: their 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. He 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 back-up singers turn out to be barking aliens.

The Fifties sci-fi movie stalwarts, such as John Agar and 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.

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