Revisiting Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!

A natural follow-on to Ed Wood, Carley revisits Tim Burton's B-movie homage comedy, Mars Attacks!

“Why can’t we work out our differences? Why can’t we work things out? Little people, why can’t we all just get along?” – President James Dale

The Recap

1996 was the year of the alien invasion. On one side you had Will Smith kicking butt over in Roland Emmerich’s explosive effects laden Independence Day and on the other you had a gaggle of stars taking on the just as viciou, if more comical, Martians in Tim Burton’s B-movie-inspired Mars Attacks!

Based on a popular series of trading cards, Mars Attacks! is part B-movie, part dark comedy. When Martians surround the population of Earth with flying saucers, they send a message that they have come in peace and arrange a meeting with the President of the United States James Dale (Jack Nicholson). His assistant Jerry Ross (Martin Short) arranges a welcoming committee to greet them on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Excited by the prospect of being the first of Earth’s leaders to meet with them, James’ enthusiasm is not shared by his family, First Lady Marsha (Glenn Close) and daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman).

Ad – content continues below

As news of the aliens spreads it creates different reactions among the population. In New York, newsman Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend fashion reporter Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker) are hoping to exploit this for their own gain as is real estate art dealer Art Land (Jack Nicholson taking on dual roles).

Meanwhile, Art’s new-age wife Barbara (Annette Bening) is excited by their arrival. Also excited by the aliens arrival are trailer trash Norris family from Kansas (Lukas Haas, Jack Black, Joe Don Baker and O-Lan Jones).

When a dove is released as a sign of peace between the two species the Martians take it as a sign of disrespect and begin to take out the humans that have come to meet them. Trying to take control of the situation and remain on friendly terms with the little green men from outer space, a meeting is arranged between an ambassador from the Martian side and the US Congress. But when problems again resurface the Martians take them all out.

The President’s scientific advisor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) cannot understand why the Martians are being so aggressive and his General (Rod Steiger) wants to nuke them. By this point, though, the Martians have begun their full scale destruction of Earth and are destroying major landmarks such as the Pyramids, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. 

Ad – content continues below

With panic taking over the world, Richie Norris goes to rescue his grandmother from her old people’s home, only to discover the Martians only weakness, the song Indian Love Call. With this information in hand, Richie and his grandmother take on the enemies, forcing them to leave Earth and both are rewarded with a medal of honour as the rest of the planet clean up from their Mars attack.

Thoughts & Reaction

Filmed as homage to the history, style and feel of the old 50s B-movies, Mars Attacks! is the perfect follow on film from Burton’s previous on screen bio Ed Wood, who was voted worst director of all time for screen titles such as Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Much like the budgets for B-movies, Mars Attacks! was first slated as a $260 million summer release but after much thought Warner Bros wanted the budget at $60 million, which caused a massive change to the tone of how the movie was to be filmed, and most specifically, the way the actual Martians looked. 

When first creating the aliens for this movie, Burton, again as an homage to the old style of filmmaking, wanted to use stop motion to bring them to the screen. But when the budget was capped he was forced to go down the CGI route and use the experts at Industrial Light and Magic.

Ad – content continues below

With an original script written by Jonathan Gems full of over the top destruction, when the budget was slashed he was replaced by Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski but later returned to the project but was unhappy with the lack of mayhem the new budget cuts caused. Eventually over twelve drafts of the script were written before it was ready to hit the big screen.

One area that didn’t get skimped on, however, was the cast, which was made of big name stars including Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Pam Grier, Martin Short, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Michael J. Fox, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Danny DeVito and Christina Applegate, each playing their roles in an over the top fashion, really relishing the fact that they do not need to be serious and that being almost ridiculous is required.

When this movie was released it got a critically mauling over in the US but was much more welcome in overseas territories and has since become a bit of a cult classic, much like the genre of movies it was based on.

To fully enjoy this movie you need to take it with a huge pinch of salt and not be expecting to see a giant epic akin to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or Independence Day. It is a B-movie for the new generation but, unfortunately, it was also made for the mass market, which leads it to be seen as a failure.

When it comes to this genre of movies you could do a lot worse than Mars Attacks! and it can be the perfect antidote on a boring rainy afternoon or after a long day at work. Although not my favourite of Burton’s work, I can appreciate it for what it is and think Burton deserves kudos for bringing it to the screen.

Ad – content continues below

Burton’s next project would see him once again working with Johnny Depp and taking a trip back in time to the supernatural Sleepy Hollow.

Mars Attacks! Key Info:Released: December 13th 1996 (US) / February 28th 1997 (UK)Distributed by: Warner Bros.Budget: $100,000,000Box Office Gross: $101,370,000Best DVD Edition: Mars Attacks! DVD