A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Mars Attacks! was based on a notorious series of trading cards that were censored for gruesomeness, and director Tim Burton doesn't hold back: abundant cartoony violence includes people being turned into skeletons by a death ray, vivisection (and whimsical re-assembly) of living humans, Martians' brains swelling and bursting, and cruelty to (computer-generated) animals. In addition the filmmakers have added some prostitutes to the blend. There is a subtle anti-authoritarian tone that kids have the smarts to save the world after all the annoying adults are wiped out.
What's the story?
MARS ATTACKS! begins with a fleet of Martian flying saucers encircling Earth. While a blustery general (Rod Steiger) warns the self-aggrandizing US president (Jack Nicholson) not to trust the grotesque little aliens, a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) assures that creatures so intelligent could not possibly mean us any harm. The Earth's nations try to give the creatures a friendly welcome, to no avail. The Martians actually are sadistic varmints who enjoy faking out the humans with peace overtures, then opening fire with grisly death weapons. Eventually the Martians overrun Washington D.C. and declare victory, but their triumph is short-lived. Young Richie (Lukas Haas is trying to save his beloved grandmother from the Martians when he accidentally discovers that the old lady's favorite record -- Slim Whitman yodeling "Indian Love Call" -- makes the Martians' brains explode. If Richie can spread the news quickly enough, humankind may be saved.
Is it any good?
Director Tim Burton's dark sense of humor makes Mars Attacks! a must for the sort of young viewer who would rather read Famous Monsters of Filmland than Sports Illustrated. Remember "Sid," the twisted neighbor boy from Toy Story who liked to torture his playthings? This is his sort of alien-invasion film. Adults can enjoy it too, if they don't mind the subversive tone. But with an all-star cast and too many subplots, the movie threatens to turn into a collection of sketch-bits rather than a coherent whole.
Though the Martians are doubtlessly the villains here, you do get a sneaky anti-establishment message -- that the extraterrestrial holocaust will have a positive side effect of exterminating corrupt and worthless authority figures while sparing the cool kids and the few adults who listen to them.
Talk to your kids about ...
- In theaters: December 12, 1996
- On DVD or streaming: June 4, 2004
- Cast: Glenn Close, Jack Nicholson, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker
- Director: Tim Burton
- Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: fantasy violence, sexual themes
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