Video Review

Mars Attacks! (1997)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Details Movie Rated: PG-13; Genres: Comedy, Sci-fi and Fantasy; With: Annette Bening, Glenn Close and Jack Nicholson

Far be it from me to differ with Forrest Gump's mom, but ''Stupid is as stupid does'' is not a maxim that gets you very far in the aggressively ironic world of '90s culture. On the contrary, the only way to explain such diverse phenomena as Howard Stern, Ween, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that moronic characters can imply all manner of droll societal observations when used by creators who keep their distance. In other words, ''Smart is as stupid does'' looks to be more valid these days.

Well, not always; a movie like Dumb and Dumber — in fact, Jim Carrey's whole career — is a tribute to the enduring, unironic efficacy of the fart joke. But fans of MTV's Beavis and Butt-head are well aware that the show's an exceedingly sly dig at adolescent mind rot itself. Every suburban teenager knows arrested alt-rock spuds like B&B, and laughing at these guys provides proof that you're at least a little more clued in than they are.

That trashy/witty subtext was given mainstream acknowledgment in the surprised, largely positive reviews that greeted the big-screen Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Yes, opined the critics, there are pee-pee jokes here but also a genuine comic sensibility in creator Mike Judge's animated pop-cult wasteland. Perplexingly, the same critics brought out the cudgels for Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, despite the fact that it shares Beavis' lowbrow, love-hate relationship with American junk. It may be that six seasons of Beavis and Butt-head on MTV had given reviewers a frame of reference; now on home video, though, the films look like two sides of the same scuffed coin. Both crisscross America, finding crassness, benighted self-interest, and hideous theme architecture. Heck, both use Las Vegas in exactly the same fashion: as a glitzy, so-tacky-it's-grand stand-in for the country as a whole.

Seen as one part of a video double bill, Mars Attacks! is the stronger experience, if only because Burton is the better director — and because he had pots of money to spend. The film is based on a 1960s Topps bubblegum-card series that shocked parents and fascinated kids with its painstaking brutality; Burton sticks perversely close to the source, both in specific imagery and in general pulp subversion. But he has also fashioned Mars Attacks! as a precise, nose-thumbing rebuke to last year's megahit Independence Day.

There's a marqueeful of big-name stars, although Michael J. Fox gets incinerated early on, Sarah Jessica Parker has her head transplanted onto a Chihuahua's body, and Jack Nicholson does double crumb-bum duty as a preening U.S. President and a grotesque Vegas developer. There are genocidal aliens, except that they're cheerful little buggers who bark ''Ack-ack-ack!'' as they lay the country waste. They have an Achilles' heel, but it's Slim Whitman music, not a computer virus.

Mars Attacks! doesn't even pretend to flatter its audience with standard Hollywood sympathy ploys: That's its great, shallow, Pop-art strength and exactly the reason it flopped big time. Is it a great movie? Not even close. Is its biting silliness very much welcome in this era of safe, pretested movie ''events''? Ack-ack-ack. B-

Originally posted May 13, 2008 Published in issue #384 Jun 20, 1997 Order article reprints