My Favorite Martian starts with a clever gag. A mechanical probe from Earth putters around on the surface of Mars collecting rock samples; back home, a team of scientists congratulate themselves on their findings. Suddenly the camera stationed on Mars lifts up: just beyond the rock is a vast, advanced, bustling civilisation so far undetected by our feeble technology.
From these first moments, the film relies on a kitschy, childlike charm. Although revisiting a popular '60s television series, director Donald Petrie and his writers are careful to span the gap between then and now with references to The X-Files (government conspiracies, sinister medical experiments), Star Trek (aliens discovering human emotions) and E.T. (the inevitable moment of drama when lovable aliens face mortal threat).
Uncle Martin (Christopher Lloyd) is the visitor from Mars who takes up residence with Tim (Jeff Daniels). Lloyd is adept at twisting his face in order to show the furious, computer-like workings of his character's immense brain, whenever Uncle is confronted with the inexplicable manners and fashions of earthlings.
Uncle comes complete with a talking, sentient suit (spiffily named Zoot) who, apart from being a wonder of animatronic special effects, provides a fast, camp, slightly risqué stream of banter peppered with the usual encyclopedia of pop culture references.
My Favorite Martian takes a long time to get burning, and its love interest – between Tim and Lizzie (Daryl Hannah) – is not so interesting. Elizabeth Hurley, as (yet again) a glamorous, superficial, ambitious media-junkie, falters badly when it comes to delivering punch lines.
But the film sparks to life once the plot kicks off its rondo of merry physical transformations – men in the body of women, women who transform into carnivorous aliens, stray arms and heads which can still move and talk. Potentially horrific, such spectacles are skilfully kept within the bounds of light, cartoonish comedy.
At these highpoints, My Favorite Martian recalls the superb fantasies of Joe Dante, such as Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987). Perhaps the '90s obsession with mining the '60s has its compensations after all.
© Adrian Martin June 1999