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High-Voltage Stars Can't Save 'Mars Attacks!'

The combination sounded unbeatable: Tim Burton, the image-twisting director of "Batman Returns" and "Edward Scissorhands," reviving the alien-invasion genre of the 1950s that gave us titles like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "It Came From Outer Space" - with a dollop of "Dr. Strangelove" to lend a touch of the '60s, too.

Add a big-name cast that reads like a Who's Who of intergenerational stars - from Lukas Haas and Michael J. Fox to Jack Nicholson and Annette Bening to Rod Steiger and Sylvia Sydney - and the formula was complete. "Mars Attacks!" would make us watch! wonder! thrill! gasp! tremble! and shriek! just as the publicity promised.

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So much for the predictive power of Hollywood hype. "Mars Attacks!" is colorful in a comic-book sort of way, but apparently its makers were so impressed with their high-powered ingredients that they forgot to cook up an entertaining picture. The introductory scenes are clunky, the action scenes are silly, and the climax might have been amusing if the buildup weren't so slow. Did those little green villains blast their way into Warner Bros. and aim their ray guns at all the top talent?

This doesn't mean the picture will be a megaflop. Burton buffs and science-fiction fans will find enough goofy jokes and idiosyncratic ideas to justify the price of a ticket, and some may consider it a riotous parody of "Independence Day," one of the year's most rambunctious hits. Certainly the new movie picks up where the earlier one left off: "Independence Day" blew up the White House, so "Mars Attacks!" blows up Capitol Hill, a high-population target producing even more smithereens to bounce around the screen. Is the Supreme Court on Hollywood's hit list for 1997?

The story begins with "intelligent life" showing up in outer space. That's more than Earth can boast of, since the populace down here consists of idiotic characters like airheaded newscasters, slow-thinking entertainers, gun-crazy generals, and the first family of the United States, clearly modeled on the White House's current occupants. One of the film's wittiest moves is to have a thinly disguised version of Hillary Rodham Clinton played by Glenn Close in her first outing since the outlandish Cruella De Vil of "101 Dalmatians."

The movie plods along until the martians land a flying saucer on Earth, courteously greet our dignitaries, then whip out their weapons and disintegrate everyone in sight. This sets a pattern for the rest of the movie, which has less interest in social satire than special-effects sequences featuring blasted bones, disembodied heads, and other staples of Saturday-matinee science fiction. The aliens are like unruly kids who won't behave, and most of the movie is a "Gremlins"-type rampage aimed at the sour-faced adult world. The ending is slightly more grown-up, centering on a couple of teens who conclude the story on a subtly amusing note.

Of course, nobody expects a movie called "Mars Attacks!" to be fraught with deeper meanings. Still, it's disappointingly frivolous after the inventiveness of "Ed Wood," where Burton moved in exciting new directions. He hasn't set world-class standards of maturity in most of his films, but he has usually shown some interest in creative thought as well as high-tech spectacle. "Mars Attacks!" targets nothing more ambitious than a quick box-office killing. Where are Batman and Edward Scissorhands now that we need them?

'Mars Attacks!' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a little vulgar language and a lot of cartoonish violence, some of it very explicit.

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