Mars Attacks! (1996): Tim Burton’s Tribute to Sci-Fi B-Movies

In “Mars Attack!” Tim Burton pays a loving tribute to the sci-fi-alien B-movies of the past by giving it an A-level production and top-notch cast.

Scribe Jonathan Gems based his episodic, spoofy scenario on the Topps trading-card series, which in 1962 were considered by parents and educators so violent that they had to be withdrawn from the market.

The screenplay also got rewrites from Burton, Martin Amis, and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who had penned Burton’s “Ed Wood,” his paen to the “worst director in Hollywood’s history”).

In his effort to mix elements of black comedy, surreal humor, and political satire, Burton has made a highly self-conscious, fragmented spoof, in which the parts never cohere into a whole narrative—by design.

It’s hard to think of another 1990s movies that boasts such a glorious, multi-generational cast, including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Lukas Haas, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Danny DeVito, and Christina Applegate.

In the end, “Mars Attacks!, for which Burton got from Warner his biggest budget to date (around $80), turned out to be both a critical and commercial flop.  Though the movie grossed over $100 million, it was a disappointment, vis-a-vis its inflated budget, and it didn’t do particularly well overseas.

That said, “Mars Attacks! is not a film without artistic meritc.  To begin with, it’s great fun spotting the stars, some of whom spoof their own screen images and make fools of themselves.

The plot is rather simple. When the Martians surround Earth with their flying saucers, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) addresses the American public in a conference that’s watched all over the country: New York City, Luxor Las Vegas hotel, and trailer trash family in Perkinsville, Kansas.

In his meeting in Pahrump, Nevada,  the Martians announce they have “come in peace,” but after a hippie releases a dove as a symbol of peace, they shoot it down and begin to kill at random.

The Presdient assumes it’s a “cultural misunderstanding,” and continues negotiations via Professor Donald Kessler (Pierec Brosnan, fresh from his James Bond movies). But the Martians’ address of the Congress ends in its incineration. General Decker tries to convince the President to fight back with nuclear warfare, but the latter  refuses.

Meanwhile, a Martian assassin disguised as a sexy femme sneaks into the White House and tries to kill the President, resulting in a large invasion and massive destruction that includes the Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, Tokyo, the Washington Monument, the Great Pyramids; they even reshaped Mount Rushmore into Martian heads.

After the President gets killed by a robotic fake hand, Richie Norris (Lukas Haas), a Kansas teenager, discovers that the Martians’ weakness is Slim Whitman’s song, “Indian Love Call.”  Having rescued his grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) from her home, the two drive around blasting the music at the Martians, causing their brains to explode. They are awarded for their courage with the Medal of Honor by the President’s daughter, Taffie Dale.

Sharply uneven, “Mars Attacks! contains deliciously maclicious vignettes, naïve and silly subplots, eccentric characters, and colorful locations.

Most of the glorious cast give excellent performances, despite the limitations of the writing and the brevity of their parts (sometimes only a scene or two).

Nicholson excels in a dual role, as the Presdient, who wants peace and friendship with the Martiansm but finds his death, when he’s impaled by Martian flag, and as Art Land, Las Vegas real estate developer who seems unconcerned by the invasion.

In a perennial role in a Burton picture, that of the misfit, Lukas Haas is well cast as the gawky adolescent, ostracized by his family but loved by his grandmother.

In a change of pace from dramatic role, Annette Bening is good as Barbara Land, Art’s recovering alcoholic wife who propagates New Age philosophy.

Jim Brown plays Byron Williams, a former champion boxer who fights dozens of Martians as a distraction, allowing Tom Jones (who plays himself), Barbara and Cindy to escape Las Vegas. Byron is ultimately overwhelmed when the Martians gang up on him, but manages to survive.

Pierce Brosnan, then riding high as the new James Bond, has good moments as Donald Kessler, a smoothly charming British anatomy professor, who naively believes the Martians are friendly and can’t explain why they attack. Captured by the Martians, his head is removed but kept alive as part of the Martians’ experiments.

Sarah Jessica Parker is Natalie Lake, a shallow talk host for the glitzy “Today in Fashion.”  Though she is Jason’s girlfriend, Natalie is really in love with Donald Kessler. The Martians exchange her head with her chihuahua in their experiments.

It’s a pleasure to see vet Sylvia Sidney, who had begun her career in the 1920s, as Florence Norris, a seemingly demented senior, but helps grandson Richie save the world with her Slim Whitman music.

Glenn Close has an impressive cameo as Marsha Dale, the First Lady, who is killed by a falling chandelier when the Martians invade the White House.

Blaxploitation 1970s star Pam Grier (“Foxxy Brown”) makes an appearance as Louise Williams, Byron’s former wife and now D.C. bus driver, who is concerned over her sons’ rebellious behavior.

Comedian Martin Short is Jerry Ross, the Press Secretary who is killed after sneaking a disguised Martian, whom he believes to be a prostitute, into the White House.

Rod Steiger is expectedly hammy as General Decker, a warmonger General who, lacking trust of the Martians, wants to fight back with no less than a nuclear war.  Though proven right, he’s shrunk to a tiny size by the Martian leader and squashed while protecting President Dale.

As noted, Tom Jones plays himself, a famous Las Vegas singer who helps in the escape from the city after the Martians attack.

Michael J. Fox is Jason Stone, a network news anchor who’s insecure of his rating popularity and is thus jealous of the popularity of girlfriend Natalie’s show.

Burton has cast a number of famous foreign directors in ironic parts. Polish helmer Jerzy Skolimowski plays Dr. Zeigler, inventor of a Martian Translator device.

Gallic Barbet Schroeder (“Reversal of Fortune”) is Maurice, the French Presdient who attempts to negotiate with the Martians, and is killed just when he thinks he has reached an agreement.

Despite major flaws, one thing is abundantly clear, Burton’s deep and genuine affection for the low-budget sci-fi genre.  And he is good enough moviemaker to know when the epiosdes threaten to become too cute and cutsy, whereupon he switches to the malicious fun and gore that had made the Topps trading cards controversial in the first place.


Produced by Tim Burton and Larry Franco

Directed by Tim Burton

Camera: Peter Suschitzky

Editing: Christopher Lebenzon

Music: Danny Elfman

Production design: Wynn Thomas

Art direction: John Dexter

Costumes: Colleen Atwood

Running time: 105 Minutes

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