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Creatures from outer space coming to invade our little blue planet have long been fodder for studios, especially in producing cheesy low-budget fare that sometimes exploited fears of the era or took advantage of trends in popular culture. By the mid-1990s, many mainstream alien-themed films had progressed to become some of the best ever made, highly influential works that still shape the genre to this day, such as Aliens and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
To that end, the idea to make a black comedy about the genre began back in 1985 when the concept was pitched, it based on a re-issued 55-card pack of trading cards from 1962 about a gory, hostile alien invasion. The controversial cards, featuring graphic violence and sexually suggestive images, were halted almost as soon as they were distributed back in the 60s, but repacked and expanded to 100 twenty years later, which was then developed into a popular comic book series. It continued from there, well into the 2000s.
By 1993, producer/director Tim Burton was pitched the idea, who happened to be wrapping his film Ed Wood, about the life of infamous B-movie filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., and felt a cheesy space movie would be a nice follow-up and kind of homage for the late director. He and Warner Bros. teamed, bought the film right for the cards, and set a release date of December 13, 1996.
The film itself is a big budget movie disguised as low-budget schlock and as such, purposefully keeps the special and visual effects low-key, though never not interesting. In fact, it is these faithful recreations from the cards that truly lends the film its greatest charms, with the aliens themselves the most memorable. Just look at the details and how closely they match the Norman Saunders artwork on the cards. The plan had originally been to do the creatures in stop-motion to best capitalize on the film-styles of the era it was trying to pay respects to, with the work of Ray Harryhausen the look and feel targeted. Burton hoped his friend and the director of his previous film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick, would handle the animation, but schedules and budgets prevented that from ever happening.
Instead, it fell into the still burgeoning art of computer animation, which, after the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park proved was the true wave of the future for visual effects, which, unrelated, swept many into over-reliance. Burton wanted to maintain the cheap look of B-movie effects and kept the designs from the stop-motion creations as models for the CGI and the film went ahead as planned.
The screenplay was written by Jonathan Gems and the plot centers on an armada of Martian spaceships coming to Earth. After what many believe will be a peaceful encounter, initial contact ends in a slaughter as the aliens mistake a white dove as a declaration of war and go wholesale murder on humanity, taking out the American government and plunging the Untied States into chaos. When a nuclear strike has no effect, the Martians go global and begin a reign of terror (and graffiti) on the world and its landmarks. It’s not until later, when all seem hopeless that an unexpected, and hilarious, weakness is discovered and the tide begins to turn. Thank goodness grandma kept her record collection.
Starring a huge cast of big Hollywood names, including Jack Nicholson as the US President, and Glenn Close as the First Lady, there’s also Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, and Danny DeVito to name just a few. Look too for an early appearance from future Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, just 15-year-old on release, playing the First Daughter. The entire cast takes to the cheesy fun with some inspired performances and are clearly having a good time.
But truthfully, no one watches Mars Attacks! for the acting. It’s all about the Martians, with the most galvanizing being the Martian Girl, played by the sultry Lisa Marie Smith, here showing up in extreme hourglass form who beneath her beauty, conceals a dangerous surprise, a sharp commentary on our own public fascination with pretty things. She’s since become the film’s signature feature.
Released in the same year as the global box office mega-hit Independence Day, Mars Attacks! was considered a bomb, though it managed to break just above even. Critics called it too dark and cynical with undeveloped comedy, though all agreed the look was spot on.
Watching a few decades later hasn’t altered that criticism. While the film is still fun, and starts with one of the most compelling sequences in the genre, the laughs are few and far between, mostly since the characters, by design, are wafer thin. Still, it’s hard to be too critical. This is about being epically cheesy, and for that, it succeeds. Stock up on Slim Whitman records now and prepare for Mars Attacks!