American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
First he made “Ed Wood,” a tribute to the man fondly recalled as the worst movie director of all time. Now Tim Burton seems to have made a tribute to Wood's work. “Mars Attacks!” has the look and feel of a schlocky 1950s science-fiction movie, and if it's not as bad as a Wood film, that's not a plus: A movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse. “Mars Attacks!” plays like one of those '50s movies that are *not* remembered as cult classics.
The movie opens with an image worthy of Luis Bunuel: A herd of flaming cattle, running down a country lane. What set them afire? We see the first of the movie's many flying saucers, designed in perfect imitation of those fuzzy photos in old UFO books--the ones that looked like either alien spacecraft or anodized aluminum ceiling light fixtures, take your pick.
Earth is soon under attack from a vast fleet of martian invaders, and the President (Jack Nicholson) takes advice from a few of the many big stars in the film: Martin Short as his staff spin doctor, Rod Steiger as his nuke-'em military adviser, Pierce Brosnan as a scientific adviser, Glenn Close as the first lady and Paul Winfield as a Colin Powell look-alike who runs the Joint Chiefs.
Watching Nicholson deliver his televised fireside chat with the nation about the impending saucer attack, I wondered, why is this supposed to be funny? Burton has made a common mistake: He assumes it is funny simply to *be doing* a parody, when in fact the material has to be funny in its own right. It isn't funny *that* Jack Nicholson is the president--it's only funny if the writing makes the role comic. Peter Sellers was funny in “Dr. Strangelove” (one of this movie's many inspirations) because the story was funny. “Mars Attacks!” is not so much a comedy as a replica of tacky old saucer movies--not so much a parody as the real thing.