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MARS ATTACKS! (1996)

With Mars Attacks! Tim Burton would make the first major film based on a bubble gum card series (second, if you count The Garbage Pail Kids Movie).

The cards, which depicted a full-scale invasion of Earth by green men from the red planet, appeared for a brief period in the early 1960's, before being pulled for being too grisly (Burton claims to remember them vaguely from his childhood). Initially, Burton was interested in making a film version of “Dinosaurs Attack”, based on another Topps trading cards property. However, he decided to go for Mars Attacks! instead to avoid any comparisons with Jurassic Park (1993). Little did Burton know that the finished film would have to compete with another alien invasion epic released in the same year.

The British writer Jonathan Gems (who also wrote an unproduced script for House of Usher for Burton) and Burton dreamed up the story by picking out their favourite images from the card series (apparently neither of them noticed there was actually a story on the back of the cards until later). Ed Wood’s films, other 1950’s sci-fi B-movies and star-studded 1970’s disaster movies would also influence the script.

Before cuts were made to the script and computer animation substituted for stop-motion, the film was looking to cost over $200 million. Despite a reduced but still substantial budget from Warner Bros. (who had brought Burton back into the fold after his brief dalliance with Disney) the film had trouble attracting any big name stars. This was understandable as it was a bizarre concept and most of the major characters ended up dead before the end.

It was Jack Nicholson who came to the rescue. After Burton sent him the script and asked the actor which part he wanted to play, Nicholson reportedly replied, "How 'bout all of them?" In the end Nicholson would take on two roles, and his involvement would attract a galaxy of other famous stars.


The film begins as a saucer hovers round the Warner Bros. logo - the perfect teaser

The pre-credit sequence sets the tone of the film with a herd of flaming cattle stampeding through farmland (an image taken directly from the cards).

A lone flying saucer leaving Earth takes us into what may well be the most impressive opening title sequence of Burton's career.

The flying saucer returns to Mars, and a whole armada of other saucers rises out of the canals and head towards Earth.

As Danny Elfman's Theremin-fueled theme blasts out and the actor's names fly across the screen we see more and more saucers, moving in an almost ballet-like motion that dazzles the eye.

Finally the saucers surround Earth and the title "Mars Attacks!" appears on the screen in its distinctive green font.

If the rest of the film lived up to the dazzling inventiveness of the title sequence it quite possibly could have been the greatest movie ever made.

However, the next half hour or so of the film is almost entirely devoted to setting up the plot and characters. While this might have worked in a more serious film, where we're actually supposed to care about the characters, in a comedy it kills much of the momentum. The scenes have some funny moments, but the slow pace made many viewers wish the Martians would just hurry up and invade. Title cards with the location and date attempt to give the film a faux-authenticity (a method that was also used in Independence Day), though they appear less frequently as the film progresses.

The script has some nice satire as the President and his White House staff react to the news of the flying saucers.

They initially see it as little more than a photo-op and, aside from the warmongering General Decker, refuse to believe the aliens could be violent even as the evidence later mounts up in fried bodies.


We meet ex-boxer Byron at the Luxor casino and learn he is separated from his wife,
who lives with their kids in D.C.


Reporter Jason Stone and his girlfriend, fashion host Nathalie, argue over the fact
that the President's speech will be cutting into her show instead of his.


We meet Richie at the Donut World. He is one of many characters who watch the
President on TV.

 

 


The headlines are full of stories about the flying saucers surrounding Earth.

Richie returns home with old donuts that don't impress his trailer park family
 
TV broadcasts are interrupted by the first message from the Martians. The Martian utters a series of indecipherable words that sound like "Ack-ack!" and then closes with a circular hand motion that Richie, watching on TV, interprets as the "international sign of the donut". One of the most bizarre moments is when the Martians' first message is translated as "All green of skin. 800 centuries ago. Their bodily fluids includes the birth of half-breeds . . .".


A press conference ends with the memorable question from an androgynous reporter:
"Do the Martians have two sexes, like we do?"

 


The Martians send coordinates for their landing in Pahrump, Nevada

When the aliens finally land, the film picks up the pace. The shot where the first saucer lands and the ramp unfolds like a tongue to perfectly match the red carpet is delightful.

We get our first look at the Martians in the flesh, and the Martian Ambassador (he's the one in the red cape) makes a speech to the crowd.

The reactions on the Martian’s faces when they hear the translating device for the first time are especially worth watching for. The one on the farthest right leans his head back and opens his mouth in amazement, which is cropped off in the "foolscreen" version.

The translation machines announces that the Martians have come in peace, and an ecstatic hippie release a dove.

The dove is then promptly incinerated. The Martians soon start disintegrating nearly everyone present with their red and green lasers. The scene is both funny and disturbing. Casey is the first to go and Billy Glenn surrenders with the U.S. flag after he incorrectly loads his weapon. He is then disintegrated on air as his parents watch, a surprisingly dark moment.

 


The dog running off with Jason's severed hand is a real David Lynch style twisted joke
When the President sends a message of peace to them, we get a look inside a Martian saucer. Amusingly, many of them are relaxing by just wearing shorts. We see them perform bizarre and totally unnecessary experiments, even reanimating Jason's hand. The Martian leader (he's the one in the purple cape) seems to enjoy Playboy magazine.

After Kessler performs an autopsy on a Martian (shades of the infamous alien autopsy footage) we see Nathalie’s severed head in a jar screaming as she sees Poppy's yapping head attached to her former body. It's a great sight gag.

Back on Earth, Billy Glenn's funeral has a satirical moment when the family understandably flinches at the 3-volley salute.


"They blew up congress!"
 
 
"Annihilate! Kill! Kill! Kill!"
Back on the saucer, Kessler has been decapitated and his head kept alive for no apparent reason. He encounters Nathalie, whose head has now been transplanted onto Poppy. She barely seems concerned by her situation, and starts flirting with Kessler. The effects are seamless for this hilariously bizarre turn of events.

The most celebrated sequence in the film features a Martian disguised as a sexy girl who infiltrates the White House after being picked up by Jerry. He invites her into the secret "Kennedy Room" (an old joke, but a good one).

This sequence was inspired not by the cards but a later Mars Attacks! comic book which featured a busty girl pulling off her face to reveal a Martian head underneath.


The unmasking!
 

Angry at this failure, the Martians finally start a full-scale invasion and the troops are stamped into their uniforms.

There's a rather sweet moment where a Martian climbs into a giant robot war machine and is given what appears to be a packed lunch by another Martian (perhaps his wife or mother), who enthusiastically waves goodbye.

The saucer toppling the Washington Monument onto a group of boy scouts is a pretty accurate homage to Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), given a Burtonesque edge. 

For the rest of the film we are treated to hilariously inventive scenes of worldwide destruction, along with cruelty to people and animals.

The main pleasure in this part of the movie is seeing the Martians come up with increasingly inventive ways to kill people and cause general havoc. The Martian translator is a source of much amusement. It's never clear whether the Martians messages ("We come in peace," "Don't run, we are your friends") are mistranslated or the Martians are simply screwing around. But it's most likely the latter.

The White House is evacuated and the Nancy Reagan chandelier kills the First Lady. However Byron’s sons, who happened to be on a tour, save the President.

Far from damaging their psyches, the violent video games we've seen them play earlier have given them the quick reflexes to shoot some Martians and allow the President to escape.


The Martians run amuck in Vegas, but luckily TOM JONES! is there to save the day.

 

There's a nice scene where the President of France (played by director Barbet Schroeder) calls Dale claiming to have made peace with the Martians, only to be blasted along with the Eiffel Tower. Following this, the President finally signs the order for nuclear warheads to be released. Hilariously, the Martians just inhale the nuclear blast and laugh it off.
Mount Rushmore is remodeled with Martian faces, but other parts of the world do not escape. In a delirious sequence we see Big Ben blown up, the Taj mahal exploded and the Easter Island statues used as bowling pins. Burton even brazenly cuts in stock footage of destruction, before revealing the Martians watching a Godzilla movie on TV (they soon get bored and switch to The Dukes of Hazard).
Richie arrives at the old folks home to rescue his Grandma (encountering such disturbing imagery as a flaming wheelchair) and there's a great sight gag when the Martians bring in a huge gun to kill one little old lady. However, when Grandma pulls her headphones out they inadvertently discover what kills them - the music of Slim Whitman makes their heads explode.
This twist is extremely silly, though not as illogical as the Mac-compatible alien computers in Independence Day. Back in the war room the Martians bust in and kill everyone until only the President is left. The President makes an impassioned speech to the Martian leader that quotes Rodney King ("Can't we all just get along?"). It's the most earnest scene in the film, even bringing a tear to the Martian's eye.
 
Even a great speech cannot save the President from the Martian flag that spears him.
So that's what the donut symbol meant!
To allow Barbara, Tom Jones and a showgirl to escape on the plane, Byron sacrifices himself fighting the Martians, or does he? All across the country, the tide turns against the Martians as more and more people learn the destructive power of Slim Whitman. The saucer with Kessler and Nathalie aboard crashes, and there's a surprisingly touching moment as their severed heads finally get to kiss.
In the remains of the Capital, Taffy gives medals to Richie and his grandmother (she somehow seems to have inherited the Presidency from her father), while a Mariachi band plays the national anthem. Richie makes a n amusing speech saying it might be better to live in teepees instead of rebuilding, and Taffy asks if he's got a girlfriend (love connection!).

The scene of Byron returning alive to his family after the Martians in Vegas apparently killed him seems to have been just thrown as a reaction to audience test screenings.

The film ends with Tom Jones petting deer and singing, "It's not unusual" (a bird even dances along), showing that all is right with the world once more.

As the title suggests, Mars Attacks! would be the first Burton film to focus on an event rather than a main character. It could be argued that the big stars are mostly wasted in their cardboard parts, though it is fun seeing them killed in a variety of ways. Sensibly, in a Burton film, the eventual heroes who save the world are the outsiders and misfits (and TOM JONES!). The actors had so much fun on set that Burton said he wished he could have released a version without the Martians, just so people could see the big stars reacting to thin air.

Jack Nicholson is good as the President with a fondness for making impassioned speeches. The crew would play "Hail to the Chief" when he came on the set each day, to help him get into character.

His second role, as a Las Vegas real-estate dealer, is notable only for what seems to be an impression of Betelgeuse.

Pierce Brosnan is great fun, spoofing his own image as pompous scientist Kessler. The fact that he is so certain the Martians are peaceful and enlightened despite all the evidence is a source of much amusement.

Sarah Jessica Parker is perfectly cast as the dumb reporter who ends up in a 'heady' romance with Kessler.

Annette Bening plays against type as a hippie chick. She is one of the few big stars who survives. Perhaps this is because her character actually develops, turning into a less dippy and more no-nonsense woman after the Martian attack.

Lukas Haas is likeable as the longhaired misfit Richie who discovers what kills the Martians.

Sylvia Sidney returns to work with Burton in her last big screen performance as Richie's grandmother, a charming old lady who can never remember the names of her grandsons.

Natalie Portman plays the Winona Ryder role as the President's daughter, who sleeps under a black shroud can't even go where she wants in her own house because of the constant tours.

Rod Steiger enjoys going over the top as the warmongering General Decker, while Paul Winfield does an amusing impression of Colin Powell as the more moderate General Casey. Though he is the first and most likeable of all the stars to die, he does show some secret ambition when he reveals to his wife that his plan was to lay low and wait for good things to happen to him.
The only human actor to play a Martian, Lisa Marie, learned a special movement style almost like floating for her memorable (and unblinking) performance as the alluring Martian Girl. The fact that Marie is silent in this film may be an in-joke, since Vampira only agreed to appear in Plan 9 From Outer Space if she didn't speak.

Another actor returning to work with Burton is Danny DeVito as the Rude Gambler. As the character's name suggest, he has little purpose in the film other to be annoying and die by Martian laser.

Jack Black makes one of his earliest appearances as Richie's bullying older brother who goes to war, gets killed stupidly and is treated as a hero.

Christina Applegate is wasted as Billy Glenn's girlfriend who spares no time finding someone else to screw after he dies. Other fine comedic actors, such as Martin Short as the lecherous press secretary Jerry Ross and Michael J. Fox as reporter Jason Stone are given little to do in their roles, though they have a few good moments.
It's fun to see Blaxsploitation stars Pam Grier and Jim Brown in heroic roles, though neither of them seems to have been told they were appearing in a comedy.

The Martians are the best thing in the movie and the brilliantly computer animated 'toons are surprisingly likeable in their callous mayhem. All we ever hear them say is 'Ack-ack!' and the reasons for their invasion is never given.

As Burton said in a Starlog magazine interview at the time of the film's release: "We know not of their ways". The Martians are basically "taking the piss out of society" in the words of screenwriter Jonathan Gems.

It's actually a shame the invaders don't win, but the conventions of sci-fi B movies must be honored.


The Martian Ambassador was reportedly styled after the character Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

The Martian costumes are remarkably faithful to the original bubble gum cards, though the Martians are shorter in the film. The sound of the Martians themselves is probably the most memorable (and the cheapest) sound effect in the film. A simple recording of someone saying "Ack-ack!" with additional vocalisation by ubiquitous voice actor Frank Welker is enough to give the Martians a distinctive personality.

The script has some good ideas, even if the dialogue isn't up to much. The dialogue was clearly influenced by Dr. Strangelove, but lacks the wit of Stanley Kubrick's classic. Even an uncredited rewrite by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski seems to have done little to improve the dialogue or characterisation.

It's difficult to compare the directing to Burton's other films, since Mars Attacks! was clearly meant to be cheesy and slightly amateurish in parts. Burton has gotten good performances from ensemble casts before, but here most of the actors have clearly been instructed to overact. Burton did allow more improvisation and input from his actors than normal, with mixed results.

Some good ideas came out of the collaboration. For example, Rod Steiger asked before filming if his voice got high pitched when he was shrunk, and Burton reportedly replied, "It does now." Visually, it's as good as anything he's done and the sick humour hits just the right tone, without becoming mean-spirited.

The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) makes good use of widescreen.Burton was a fan of the cinematographer from his work on David Cronenberg's movies. This is probably the Burton film that suffers the most in panned and scanned versions. There's also a wonderful color scheme. The skeletons are green or red depending on the color of the laser that zapped them.

The wonderfully cheesy production design by Wynn Thomas (who has worked on many Spike Lee movies) is like an amalgamation of every great B movie ever made. The gadgets, both human and Martian, have a wonderful over-sized quality, such as the huge walkie-talkie General Casey talks on.

The film makes good use of real life locations, such as the Luxor casino and a neon sign graveyard in Las Vegas. The film even includes real footage of a casino, the Landmark, being demolished when Martians destroy Art Land’s casino in the film.

The action scenes are surprisingly well staged for a comedy.Despite their juvenile nature, when the Martians attack there's a genuine menace and awe.

As mentioned, the editing is problematic in the first forty minutes of the film. While there are a lot of characters to introduce, the film cuts between locations with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Of all Burton's films, Mars Attacks! feels like the one that could have been improved the most by having had more time devoted to editing the film before release.

Perhaps because of the relative failure of the film, the groundbreaking effects by ILM didn't get the recognition they deserved. The Martians are wonderfully animated and despite their somewhat cartoonish movements, they feel very much a part of the live action footage.

Originally the Martians were going to be stop-motion animated, and a team of British animators started work on creating the models and doing some shots. However, when this was deemed too expensive, the stop-motion unit was shut down and the animators dismissed without severance or credit.

Despite this disappointment, the computer animators that took over were able to impart a stop-motion feel into the Martians, resulting in them having more charm than most CG characters. In fact, ILM even considered removing the motion blur to make the Martians more like old-fashioned stop motion characters, but Burton decided on a more realistic look. The flying saucers and other Martian technology were also superbly rendered by other effects companies, and there are some impressive digital crowd scenes, both human and Martian.

The suitably creepy music marks a welcome return from Danny Elfman. Using a Theremin and choir the score is like a supercharged version of classic sci-fi B movie themes. Speaking of music, the song "Mars Attacks!" by The Misfits was reportedly written for the film but didn't make it in time to be included on the soundtrack.

There's not much of a message to Mars Attacks! other than Earthlings are so pathetic they deserve to be exterminated. The Martians themselves could be seen as a comment on the negative aspects of America, from their love of junk culture to their random violence and disrespect for historical landmarks (it's no accident a large part of the film takes place in Vegas, where history is demolished on a regular basis).

The film continued Burton's love affair with Ed Wood's filmmaking style. It was his first attempt at wild and crazy comedy since Beetlejuice and while it's not quite as good as that film it's certainly not a failure. While the film does make some direct references to B movies (such as the acting in the scene where the scientist proclaims, "Nitrogen. So that's how it could breathe in our atmosphere") it's generally more successful when coming up with totally original visual gags, such as the Martians toppling the Easter Island statues like bowling pins.

Like Ed Wood, it's clear that Burton doesn't have a clue how to make a normal Hollywood movie (although he does have the benefit of working with better actors and technical people than Wood ever could). Plot and structure are totally unimportant; he's into visual storytelling, which is what movies are about, after all. And how can anyone really hate a movie that includes such visual delights as destroying a dog, Martians inhaling a nuclear blast, and the Houses of Parliament being blown to smithereens?

Mars Attacks! was released five months after the hugely successful Independence Day, and almost invariably was compared to the former film in many reviews. Indeed, some thought Mars Attacks! was a spoof of Independence Day, even though Burton's film actually went into production first. Burton himself said, "it almost seemed like we had done kind of a Mad magazine version of Independence Day".

As when two nuclear war films were released in 1964 (Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe) there was only room for one to be a hit. Back then it had been the comedic take that had been the more successful film, but unfortunately for Burton it seemed this time audiences preferred their alien invasion films played straight. It probably didn't help that the macabre film was released at Christmas (despite Burton's claim green death rays from a red planet were Christmas colors).

The film was a disappointment at the U.S. box office, earning only $38 million, and was scorned by many critics. More amusingly, some fans of the original card series (which had also been turned into a comic and toy line later on) claimed the film didn't stay true to the artistic integrity of the bubblegum cards!

The marketing campaign was overhauled for the European release (focusing more on the Martians and the twisted humour in the film rather than the starry cast) and this resulted in the film playing much better there, especially in England.

While at the time it was seen as a departure for Burton, being his first film that wasn't based around a single main character, it was a far more important film in his oeuvre than many realise. Indeed it could be argued that it was the last personal vision from the director, since he was closely involved in the story and it has his sensibilities stamped all over it. The disappointing reception for the film would lead Burton to choose more obviously commercial projects in the future that were based on existing properties the public was actually aware of.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: ED WOOD

NEXT CHAPTER: A GIANT PEACH; SUPERMAN FAILS TO TAKE FLIGHT

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