Part Independence Day, part cheesy B-movie, Mars Attacks! slaps its absurd credentials on the table right from the opening sequence. First, a herd of flaming cattle thunder wildly through small-town America, then the scene cuts to a gargantuan fleet of Martian flying saucers hurtling silently towards the Earth. It's an awesome sight, leaving you in no doubt as to what to expect. This is going to be a silly film, a "crazee" film, a film harking back to The War Of The Worlds and It Came From Outer Space, in which eager young actors wore plastic romper suits, and big-breasted women fainted at the sight of prosthetic tentacles. If the eye-jabbing start is anything to go by, you think, this is going to be great.
And it is. It's just not quite as great as you wanted it to be. The chief problem is that, after the bombastic intro, it slows right down, then takes a long, long time to get going again - something forced upon the film, to some extent, by the need to introduce such a vast cast of main characters. You get Jack Nicholson, doubling as the President of the USA and Las Vegas hotel magnate Art Land; Michael J Fox in a glorified cameo as a hotshot news reporter; Danny DeVito as an obnoxious Vegas gambler; Pierce Brosnan hamming it up in the role of a handsome boffin who specialises in every single branch of the sciences; and so it goes on. The huge cast is hugely impressive (big Jack is particularly fine), and meaty enough that you can never be sure who's going to get fried by a Death Ray and who's going to survive to rebuild the world. For once, star billing isn't a guarantee that an actor will make it to the end of the film.
Like Independence Day, Mars Attacks! tells its tale of alien invasion by focusing closely on different groups of people. There's Jack Nicholson and his cronies in the White House; Danny DeVito, Nicholson (again) and Annette Bening in Las Vegas; Lukas Haas and his hilarious gun-obsessed family in Kansas; plus Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan, who are captured and taken aboard a Martian spacecraft. The film bounces from location to location, revealing tidbits of personal info until, after about 40 minutes of who's-who rambling, the malevolent ETs land, the orchestra strikes up a howling "waaha-waaha" sort of tune and hell, as is its wont, finally breaks loose.
Where Independence Day tried to be 90 per cent serious and 10 per cent funny, Mars Attacks! is the exact mathematical opposite. Gags fly thick and fast as the Martians thoroughly enjoy wiping out a defenceless human race. Flying Saucers destroy the Washington Monument, squishing a scout troop in the process (hurrah!); over in Vegas, the Tom Jones, embarked on his signature tune, spots that his three backing singers have been replaced by hip-wiggling aliens; the Martians scream with laughter, toppling the statues on Easter Island like a line of dominoes; and elsewhere, they loot electrical shops, steal motorbikes and - - using Pierce Brosnan's newly invented language translator - - wander the streets shouting, ""We are your friends!"", then merrily melting anyone foolish enough to believe them.
What plot there is practically vanishes as the unstoppable aliens (realised by the ubiquitous Industrial Light&Magic) wreak havoc planet-wide. The third quarter of the film is pure, unrelenting anarchy - - a perfect antidote to the ponderous beginning - - as the characters we've come to know (if not love) are offedone by one, before the inevitable and wholly unbelievable War Of The Worlds/Independence Day conclusion. By now your opinion of it all will have shot off in one of two directions - - either Mars Attacks! is a brave, surrealist's tour de force, or it's a steaming pile of trumped-up, rubbery poo. You'll either love the lunacy and the bloodthirsty jokes, or scowl through them unimpressed. It really is a film that'll divide audience affections down the middle. (But then, when hasn't that been the case with a Tim Burton movie?)
Assuming you're the type who gets the joke, are you likely to think Mars Attacks! the best thing ever? Well, probably not. Sure, this is perverse, outlandish, relentlessly enthusiastic entertainment, but still essentially a pantomime with a $60 million budget. You can't feel for any of the characters, because you don't believe in them or their predicament (nor are you meant to). Instead you watch from a safe distance, impressed by the invention and enjoying the spectacle, but never quite caught up in it all.
The best way to enjoy it is to go in with absolutely no expectations. Will President Jack save the world? Will Lukas Haas stop those pesky Martians blowing granny's head off? Only one way to find out...