MARS ATTACKS and FORBIDDEN PLANET Blu-ray Reviews

     October 2, 2010

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Tim Burton is a lightning rod director. He’s one of the rare film-makers who has a brand name to people who don’t necessarily love movies. He’s a selling point, and it’s not just his relationship with Johnny Depp. Tim Burton now also has a questionable artistic reputation, and it’s become nigh impossible to take him seriously after years of doing terrible for-hire projects. Mars Attacks can either be seen Burton in hack mode delivering his best of that sort, or it’s an actual personal effort that just doesn’t connect – watching it, it’s hard to call as either.

But though there are other films with a more direct reference point (Ray Harryhausen’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers for one), Forbidden Planet and its ideas of proper space travel are definitely within that sphere. Both films have hit Blu-ray. My reviews of Mars Attacks and Forbidden Planet are after the jump.

Bad news first, for Mars Attacks, it’s simply a movie only release, with the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD surround. Forbidden Planet replicates in entirety all the extras from the previous release, but exactly that. Warner Brothers attitude seems to be that we should be happy to have them on Blu-ray, which is not a great deal for the collector. The transfers on both are streets ahead of their SD releases, with Mars one of the earliest DVD’s, and so the improvements are palpable.

Mars Attacks the film seems half based on the sci-fi classics of the 1950’s, and half drawn from the disaster films of the 1970’s (though the actual point of inspiration was a series of Topps trading cards). There’s three main groups: In Washington D.C. there’s the president (Jack Nicholson), his wife (Glenn Close), their daughter (Natalie Portman), his press secretary (Martin Short), science advisor (Pierce Brosnan) and military personnel (Rod Stieger, Paul Winfield), while there’s also the journalists, from the ego-centric (Michael J. Fox), to the barely conscious (Sarah Jessica Parker). Also in town is the ex-wife (Pam Grier) and children of a former boxing champion (Jim Brown) who lives in Vegas, where Art Land (Nicholson, again) and his wife (Annette Bening) are trying to be movers and shakers. In Vegas there are also gamblers (Danny Devito), and Tom Jones (Tom Jones). And somewhere in the sticks are Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) and his family (Joe Don Baker, Jack Black, and Christina Applegate) none of whom care about their grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) like Richie does.

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That’s most of the main characters, and if that sounds cluttered – it is. The film spends the first third setting up the characters and the first encounter with the Martians, and then there’s an attack (which is fairly well staged), but afterwards the aliens disappear for another twenty minutes of talking time. Then the aliens invade for real, and the film comes back to life again, but by then the energy feels off, the rampant deaths become repetitive and the cartoonish thrill of watching one dimensional character die horribly wears off and by the time the film limps to its ending that it’s either paying homage or ripping off Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (though it’s also a sideways homage to War of the Worlds) the cleverness of it all becomes numbing.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend with Mars Attacks, even if the film ultimately fails. With this many stars you’re going to get some greatness and surprise top notch comic turns – in particular, Pierce Brosnan’s pipe smoking scientist who errs too heavily on ideas of peace is perfect. He gets the joke, but knows not to play it too broad. It’s also fun to watch both Michael J. Fox and Martin Short play jerks -Short’s character’s love of prostitutes, and his “swagger” when in seduction mode shows what a professional scene stealer can do with a small part. But then there’s the stuff that doesn’t work, and Nicholson is not very good in either half he’s in, while there’s probably a good joke in Bening’s character (the peacenik AA member who falls off the wagon), but the film is too busy to get it across. Danny Devito shows up to deliver one line, but he nails it, while the stuff with Lucas Haas only comes into focus at the end (the white trash family stuff is pretty obvious stuff).  Unfortunately, the film’s “heart” is supposed to be the relationship between Jim Brown and his estranged family, but Burton seems like he could care less about this plot point, and the film isn’t engaged enough to make that a joke on the leaden leads of Sci-fi films of the past.

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I will say this: Burton seems engaged, which is more than you can say for some of his weaker films – though the Burton Machinery is such that perhaps he can fake it better now. There’s enough here that had Burton not spent the last decade descending into hackery this might have been considered a rough gem in his filmography. Now it – like Sleepy Hollow – is a film that has a lot of good things going for it, but no real soul.

Whereas (stacked deck) Forbidden Planet is one the finest Science Fiction film of the 1950’s, and what I love most about it is that it’s one of the most hopeful and awe inspiring. It’s the antithesis of Attacks. Leslie Nielsen stars as Commander John J. Adams. He and his colleagues land on a planet inhabited by two people – all that’s left of a ransacked colony. The survivors are scientist Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Oh, and their robot, Robby (playing himself).  It turns out that there’s something that’s attacking them, a force that can’t be seen. And that’s the set up for a redress of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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Shot in cinemascope, this is a film in love with the possibilities of the future, and though there’s a “bad guy” in the film, it’s a movie filled with the spirit of adventure and exploration. This idea of what outer space would look like, with its art-deco furniture, and still analog technology, and the retro-dated look of the piece has aged into something more charming than silly. Of course now there’s some dissonance with the casting of leading man Leslie Nielsen (who does a fine job, but is playing it straight), but this is a smart, somewhat serious but still kid-friendly adventure film with then-state of the art special effects. The 1080 transfer may make some of the sets look more set-like, but the outer space sequences still pop, and the electric monster looks great. Thoroughly entertaining, Forbidden Planet deserves the label of sci-fi classic.

Warner Brothers Blu-ray has all the content from the previous two-disc set, but here in DTS-HD 5.1 Surround, and an improved (by 1080p) transfer. The extras are the same: there’s lost sequences (9 min.), deleted scenes (13 min.), the documentaries “Amazing: Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet” (26 min.), “Watch the Skies: Science-Fiction, the 1950s and Us” (60 min.), “Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon” (13 min.), clips from “MGM Parade – Excerpts from Episodes 27 and 28,” the lame Robby the Robot feature The Invisible Boy, an episode from the Thin Man TV series featuring Robby, and a trailers for both Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. Yep, they included the entire film of Boy.

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