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25 years later: Mars Attacks! was Tim Burton’s Goofy 1950s Homage

Earth is invaded by Martians with unbeatable weapons and a cruel sense of humor.

Mars Attacks!— Nice planet. We’ll take it!

In Tim Burton’s filmography, Mars Attacks! is far from the best movie, but it’s also far from the worst. It’s not the funniest, saddest, or most poignant, it is a great deal of fun. 

The film, which arrived in theaters in December of 1996- 25 years ago this week – had something of an odd pedigree for a Hollywood movie. It was based on a series of Topps trading cards from the early 1960s, but at the same time, it’s a parody of and homage to low-budget B-movies about aliens from the 1950s. There’s also a touch of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, especially in the inclusion of a general character who wants to blow the aliens straight to hell. 

In doing so, Burton assembled probably the biggest all-star cast of his career, reeling in Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Michael J. Fox, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan, Paul Winfield, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, a very young Natalie Portman, and (of course) Tom Jones. 

Also in the cast was Burton’s then-girlfriend Lisa Marie, as this was before the time that he took up with Helena Bonham Carter and starting putting her in every movie. Nicholson even played two parts, as both the president of the United States and a Vegas lounge lizard. 

Mars Attacks!!!

A quarter-century before Don’t Look Up, Mars Attacks! looked at how the government, the media, and other major institutions would handle a threat from outer space, and just as in Adam McKay’s movie, the answer is, “not very well.” 

The Martians show up, looking like giant brains in little glass helmets while communicating in bizarre grunts. Despite hopes of greeting them as peaceful diplomatic visitors, it’s soon clear that the Martians just want to kill everyone and take over Earth. 

Arriving just six months after Independence Day, which was also about an alien invasion but took it a bit more seriously, Mars Attacks!… took it a bit less seriously. In fact, the movie was much more about the atmosphere created by Burton, cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky, and composer Danny Elfman than anything having to do with the plot. 

Still, the movie stars collected in the film get disposed of in humorous ways. They even blow up Congress. 

Humanity finally gets the upper hand when the grandmother player plays Slim Whitman’s song, “Indian Love Call,” and discovers that it causes the Martians’ heads to explode. It’s been joked by many that The Quiet Place had nearly the exact same ending as Mars Attacks! 

Mars Attacks!!

Mars Attacks! drew a mixed response from both the box office and critics, and Roger Ebert wrote that “a movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse,” and compared it to “one of those ’50s movies that are *not* remembered as cult classics.”

In Tim Burton’s filmography, Mars Attacks! followed his most successful period, as he followed up 1989’s Batman with a big run in the early ’90s: Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood, the latter of which was no big hit but was very much acclaimed. After Mars, Burton made the middling Sleepy Hollow in 1999, followed by his execrable Planet of the Apes remake in 2001, although he followed that with the best film of his career, 2003’s Big Fish. 

It was soon after that that Burton’s career devolved into a series of second-and third-hand remakes, nearly always starring Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp; the only one that was truly great was 2007’s Sweeney Todd

Mars Attacks! doesn’t go at the top of his filmography, but it’s much enjoyable than anything Burton has made recently. 

Watch Mars Attacks!

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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