Tim Burton’s Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Deserves a Second Shot
Call Mars Attacks! what you will, you can never call it boring.
In 1996, Independence Day became the highest grossing movie of the year, cementing Will Smith as a leading man, turned director Roland Emmerich into one of Hollywood’s top names, and solidifying the alien invasion movie as the ideal summer blockbuster spectacle. But another alien invasion film came out in 1996, one with the misfortune of showing up around 6 months after Independence Day. Mars Attacks! would be Tim Burton’s stab at destroying the world onscreen, and is the product of a lifelong love of extravagant sci-fi. Its recent arrival on Amazon Prime allows new viewers the chance to watch his most underrated movie.
Burton’s adoration for the disaster and monster movies of his youth is no secret — he once stated that his dream job would be to wear the Godzilla suit. And in fact, he was passed over for the chance at directing the King of the Monsters in the early ‘90s. But his interest in these genres is all over his filmography, from the Ray Harryhausen-esque special effects that he liked to deploy in films like Beetlejuice (at one point, the Martians in Mars Attacks! were meant to be done in stop motion) to copious references in films like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Burton even made a cinematic love letter to Ed Wood, a man who dreamed of flying saucer epics and ended up with the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space.
When he got the chance to tackle Mars Attacks!, a film based on the wonderful Topps trading card series, Burton turned it into a star-studded disaster film. In the 1970s, the genre had been huge and featured massive, almost bafflingly famous casts. For example, 1974’s The Towering Inferno (whose whole plot was basically about a burning building) featured Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and OJ Simpson. Independence Day had certainly not been an A-List casting slouch (along with Smith, it nabbed Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Randy Quaid).
But Mars Attacks! certainly beats it out for the sheer number of “Oh my god, they’re in this movie, too?!?” moments. Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, and Sarah Jessica Parker, along with Jack Nicholson playing two separate roles, are just a drop in the bucket of what Mars Attacks! has to offer. Mars Attacks! is just as zany as it is dramatic, a true case of having your cake and then eating it as voraciously as possible. If Independence Day had tried to bring a straight face to an alien apocalypse, Mars Attacks! did it with a wide grin.
Audiences at the time found the film to be a victim of its own warring tones (the script went through quite a few revisions and the development had to be overhauled when, after months of work, all of the stop-motion production was scrapped in favor of CGI) but putting scenes of urban destruction and charred skeletons right next to slapstick gags feels like pure Burton. The scenes of explosions, mayhem, and Martin Short getting his finger bitten off cohabitate nicely with the Martians watching Godzilla movies and going bowling with the Easter Island heads.
And even if those in the theaters couldn’t quite embrace the ridiculous atmosphere, all of the actors understand the assignment. Nicholson, playing both a loud real estate developer and the president, goes as broad as possible, only to end up gruesomely stabbed through the torso by a Martian weapon. That latter scene is a pretty good encapsulation of the film itself.
If anything, Mars Attacks! was an extension of a range that Burton had been working on in the years leading up to it, most recently with the suburban satire and Frankenstein empathy of Edward Scissorhands and the ghoulish humor and fairy-tale macabre of Batman Returns. It’s not executed as fluidly as it was in those other two films, though — by the time the screeching Martians’ heads start exploding thanks to a Slim Whitman song, it’s apparent that Burton cares little about resolving whatever emotional character arcs are going on. The closest the film gets to tear-jerking territory is the retired boxer (played by Jim Brown) sacrificing himself to let his friends escape… while punching a few Martians to death.
The film would gross a mere $37 million against a $100 million budget in the U.S., with worldwide totals barely eking it over the line. And while that’s the most money ever earned for a film in which Sarah Jessica Parker gets abducted by aliens and has her head put onto the body of a chihuahua, it would be a disappointment critically and financially. Many reviews would inevitably compare it to Independence Day, with Burton’s film simultaneously seeming too goofy and too mean-spirited.
However, in the grand scheme of Burton’s career, Mars Attacks! is both a proper follow-up to the trajectory of his early films and a refreshing alternative to the blander special effects extravaganzas that he’d produce just a few later. Unlike Planet of the Apes, no one can claim that Mars Attacks! is lifeless or dull. Instead, from its opening stampede of burning cows, to singer Tom Jones carrying an eagle on his arm in the end, the film is pure decadence — a filmmaker creating something just as wildly entertaining for us as the sci-fi movies of his childhood had been for him.