Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Things Only Adults Notice In Mars Attacks!

If you haven't seen Mars Attacks! since you were a kid ... well, first of all, congratulations on having such cool parents. Because even though the mayhem is cartoony and bloodless, Tim Burton's alien invasion thriller is one of the most incredibly violent, hilariously sadistic movies to ever come out of Hollywood. But it's also much more than that, and as awesomely unsubtle as it is, Mars Attacks! still finds time for plenty of ingenious touches and adult innuendos that would sail right over a kid's head.

Mars Attacks!' kid-unfriendliness is a major part of its appeal, both for children and adults. The secret of Tim Burton's success is his ability to make you feel like you're getting away with something watching his movies, even as a grown-up. And that's even more thrilling in films like Mars Attacks!, where big studios, never known for taking risks, inexplicably hand him the keys to all their resources.

Mars Attacks! is a movie for the kid in all of us, especially the audience who would've reached adulthood when it premiered in 1996 after growing up on a steady diet of drive-in sci-fi movies and daytime TV kitsch. If you missed out on that, you may have missed out on some of the cleverest gags in Mars Attacks! Fortunately, we're here to guide you through them all.

Mars Attacks! is based on a bestseller ... in bubblegum cards

If there's one thing Hollywood loves, it's scouring every medium known to man for ideas, whether they're from books, TV shows, and comics to games, toys, and other movies. So which of these inspired Mars Attacks!? Well, if you're looking for answers, the film's credits aren't much help — all they offer is "based upon Mars Attacks! A property of the Topps Company." While that may cause some fans to scratch their heads, for many adults in the audience when Mars Attacks! premiered, that name was burned into their brains.

Mars Attacks! is one of the very few movies to be adapted from trading cards. But these aren't just any trading cards. In 1962, Topps released a series of cards with art by veteran pulp fiction artist Norman Saunders, which were based on drawings by Golden Age comic artists Bob Powell and Wally Wood. Saunders was hired after Topps got the idea from Wood's cover for an issue of Weird Science. Wood himself was no stranger to controversy after working on Tales from the Crypt, which was so horrifying that it landed his bosses in front of a Senate subcommittee. History repeated itself when the cards' incredible violence delighted children and horrified parents, who demanded Topps pull them from the shelves.

But the memory still lingered with a generation of kids, and the movie adaptation recreates several images directly from its inspiration, including the herd of flaming cows that opens the film and the "robot terror" that chases down poor Richie (Lukas Haas).

It's full of classic movie references

Tim Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems have made no secret that they rotted their brains out watching hundreds of sci-fi movies in their youth, and as a result, attentive audiences might recognize several scenes from the drive-ins of the '50s and '60s in Mars Attacks!

When Nathalie (Sarah Jessica Parker) tries to describe the Martians' flying saucer, the best she can come up with is a "giant hubcap." And some say that legendarily terrible director Ed Wood really did use hubcaps as flying saucers in Plan 9 from Outer Space — a reference that would be on Burton's mind after telling the story behind that film in Ed Wood.

And after the Martians abduct Professor Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), they experiment on him by lopping off his head and keeping it alive with a headband attached to a series of metal rods and discs. Trash fans may recognize the apparatus from The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a favorite featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Stanley Kubrick's more prestigious 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, satirized the Cold War by portraying America's leaders as a bunch of bloodthirsty crackpots like General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott). And in Mars Attacks!, Rod Steiger pays even more over-the-top tribute to Scott as General Decker, with the twist that this world is so crazy and violent that the crazy, violent general turns out to be the most reasonable character! Strangelove's classic War Room set (pictured) gets an homage here, too, but like General Decker, Burton makes it even cartoonier.

It's a parody of a defunct subgenre

The connections between Mars Attacks! and sci-fi B-movies should be obvious, but Burton also had some other, bigger-budget movies in mind when he made the film. In the '70s, producer Irwin Allen hit it big with back-to-back blockbusters, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, which combined ensemble casts of major stars with spectacular disaster effects — or, as Burton called them, "'Celebrities Getting Killed' movies." Soon, imitators were everywhere, from Earthquake to Avalanche to the Airport series that inspired Airplane!

Mars Attacks! spoofs the Allen formula, focusing not on a singular hero but a whole cast of celebrities whose characters each react to the disaster in their own way. That cast includes some of the biggest stars of the time, like Back to the Future's Michael J. Fox, Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker, Fatal Attraction's Glenn Close, and the then-current James Bond, Pierce Brosnan. There are also plenty of stars from the '70s — the disaster genre's heyday — like Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall), Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and lounge singer Tom Jones as himself. The cast seems even more star-studded now — Jack Black, Natalie Portman, and future rapper/reality TV star Ray J were mostly unknown when they were cast, but now, they're some of the biggest names in the movie.

Mars Attacks! pairs two Blaxploitation icons

Two of the stars of Mars Attacks! pay tribute to yet another long-lost movie genre. In the '70s, Hollywood woke up to the potential of the African-American audience, thanks to the success of underground hits like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The resulting flood of low-budget, action-packed movies earned the nickname "Blaxploitation." And two of the genre's biggest stars were Pam Grier and Jim Brown, both of whom appear in Mars Attacks! as the ex-married couple, Louise and Byron.

Grier got her start as a switchboard operator at the low-budget studio AIP before director Jack Hill got her in front of the cameras, resulting in big box office returns for cult classics like CoffyFoxy Brown, and Friday Foster. These movies turned her into both a sex symbol and an ass-kicking feminist icon.

Jim Brown earned spots in both the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame for his career as a running back for the Cleveland Browns and the Syracuse Orangemen. He parlayed his sports success into an acting career in both Blaxploitation films (including some for Grier's bosses at AIP) and prestigious studio films, including the war classic The Dirty Dozen.

As much as Pam Grier and Jim Brown ran in the same circles, Mars Attacks! was their first movie together. But it wouldn't be their last. The same year, they teamed up with several other Blaxploitation icons for Original Gangstas.

Jack Nicholson pulls double duty

Kids may not recognize all the big-name stars in Mars Attacks! In fact, they may not even recognize that one of them is in there twice. If so, it's hard to blame them. As casino owner Art Land, Jack Nicholson hides behind a blond wig, sunglasses, a mustache, a prosthetic nose, and a series of increasingly outlandish cowboy hats so well that even adults might not realize he also plays President James Dale. Once you do catch on, it adds an extra layer to the movie, especially when Nicholson responds to seeing himself on television by saying, "Can you believe this guy?"

There's a reason Mars Attacks! delivers so much Nicholson. He and Burton were eager to work together again after Nicholson's turn as the Joker in Batman, but Burton was under orders not to kill Nicholson off. Not only did he ignore them, he cast Nicholson twice so he could kill him twice as much! And if Nicholson had his way, Burton wouldn't have stopped there. As the director recalled (via Burton on Burton), "I'd asked him to do the Las Vegas guy, but I didn't think he was going to do it, so I said, 'Well, Jack, what about this part? Or this one?' And he said, 'How about 'em all?'"

Mars Attacks! is full of parallels with another 1996 alien invasion flick

Mars Attacks! is a weird movie that was always going to have an uphill battle to blockbuster success. So it didn't help its chances any when Independence Day beat it to theaters, giving audiences an alien invasion story that was much better calculated for mass appeal.

The similarities don't end there. Independence Day also showcases spectacular scenes of destruction and divides its run time between multiple plots starring A-list actors, including Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. In both movies, one of the plots follow a family of desert-living trailer park dwellers whose old and apparently mentally unfit relative ends up saving the day. Both also feature an alien autopsy, a major role for the president's daughter, and a crowd of hippies who camp out to greet the aliens ... and who are horribly slaughtered.

But there are some important differences, too. In Independence Day, the heroes are reasonable, level-headed authority figures — presidents, scientists, and military officers. In Mars Attacks!, all of those people are full of crap, and they're only there for us to laugh at them and enjoy their bloody deaths. As far as that goes, Mars Attacks! is the more realistic of the two. Instead, the day is saved by the most ordinary and overlooked characters — a washed-up boxer, two Black kids, a "trailer trash" teen whose own parents don't care about him, and his senile grandmother who they care about even less.

It's loaded with Burton trademarks

A major reason that Mars Attacks! is so much fun is thanks to Burton's deeply idiosyncratic style. And coming back to Mars Attacks! with an adult knowledge of his career, you can see his fingerprints everywhere. It certainly looks like he drew the designs on the arcade game that Byron and Louise's kids play. Natalie Portman as the president's bored, morbid daughter could be the twin sister of Lydia from Beetlejuice. And Burton puts his trademark curlicues over everything, from the Martian spy's dress and the Martian commander's huge collar to the gangplank on the saucer, which unfolds like the curly hill in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

And Burton made sure to take his friends along for the ride. Sarah Jessica Parker had just worked with him on Ed Wood, and Sylvia Sidney, who plays Grandma Florence, had played the "caseworker" in Beetlejuice. Danny DeVito cameos as a sleazy gambler after portraying the Penguin in Burton's Batman Returns, and the two would work together again in Big Fish and Dumbo. The Martian spy is even played by Burton's then-girlfriend, Lisa Marie. There's also plenty of familiar names behind the camera, like Colleen Atwood, who designed costumes for nearly all of Burton's movies, and Danny Elfman, who reteamed with Burton after a falling-out made Ed Wood the only Burton film Elfman didn't score.

Mars Attacks! is unstuck in time

Tim Burton is especially interested in creating timeless on-screen worlds that exist somewhere out of sync with reality and the passage of history. In Batman, he changed the shape of the superhero genre for decades with that approach, and it's no less obvious to the discerning adult eye in Mars Attacks! 

As you'd expect from a tribute to '50s sci-fi and '70s disaster movies, Mars Attacks! is temporally all over the place. The military is all decked out in Vietnam-era uniforms and gear, and at one point, a general talks on a walkie-talkie the size of a blimp, even though cell phones had been on the market for years when the movie came out. The hippies who greet the Martian landing are '60s flower children, but the Martian assassin hides her enormous cranium under a '50s-style beehive hairdo. As for Richie, he looks like he could've walked out of a then-contemporary Smashing Pumpkins concert. 

Plus, Nathalie's hair and fashion sense couldn't possibly be any more '60s. Neither could her TV studio, with its groovy polka-dotted papasan chair and can of the discontinued soft drink Tab on the table. The dialogue's no help if you want to get your bearings. Barbara Land (Annette Bening) says it's "end of the millennium," and Art Land describes "'73" as the past, which jibes with the release date but not at all with the flood of anachronisms on the screen.

Michael J. Fox chooses a tie to appeal to the Martians

Mars Attacks! is the farthest thing from a subtle movie, but it's still full of subtle details that you'll need an adult-sized attention span to catch. For instance, when Michael J. Fox, as TV reporter Jason Stone, goes out to cover the Martian landing along with his partner, Nathalie Lake, he's sporting a very silly-looking tie covered in doughnuts. It's not just for looks, though. When the Martian commander delivers his first message to the people of Earth on TV, he moves his hand in a circle. One character recognizes it as "the international sign of the doughnut." So it's not a stretch to think that Jason's trying to make a good impression with the one thing he knows for sure the Martians like.

If so, it doesn't work. The Martians pretty quickly make it clear that they're not interested in meeting new friends when they open fire on the crowd. Nathalie grabs Jason's hand in the hopes of getting to safety, but then she finds out that's all she's grabbed because the Martians have vaporized the rest of him!

Martin Short has some very adult habits

Mars Attacks! is rated PG-13 for "sci-fi fantasy violence and brief sexuality," and while kids may delight in the over-the-top violence, a lot of the sex is likely to go right over their heads. For instance, Martin Short appears as the president's press secretary, Jerry Ross, who we see cruising around Washington in a limo just before the Martian landing. He then chats up some scantily clad ladies on a street corner who ask him if he's interested in a "date." Kids might imagine he's about to buy them dinner, but adults should have no trouble recognizing the ladies as streetwalking sex workers.

The Martians are obviously paying attention, too, since they send their assassin to pose as a sex worker so Jerry will let her into the White House. And it's hard to imagine even the wee ones missing the message when Jerry jumps on her, tongue waggling and knocking her onto the heart-shaped bed in his secret seduction room. And if you pay close attention to the dialogue, there's another inside joke for the adults in the audience, especially the boomers and history buffs. Jerry describes the hidden bedroom as "the Kennedy Room," named after President John F. Kennedy, who was infamous for his many alleged extramarital affairs, including one with superstar Marilyn Monroe.

It proves video games are educational

Pam Grier's character, Louise, has her hands full raising her two sons, Cedric and Neville (Ray J and Brandon Hammond), on her own while working full-time as a bus driver. One day on her route, she drives past the arcade and sees the two of them happily shooting at video game aliens when they're supposed to be at school. Louise yanks them out of the arcade and chews them out in front of a whole bus full of passengers for wasting their time playing video games when they're supposed to be learning.

Later, though, while they're on a school trip to the White House, Cedric and Neville get ambushed by real-life Martians. They steal some of the invaders' ray guns and start firing away just like they did in the game. The kids make a good showing against the Martians — they even save the president's life (until the Martians kill him later). Kids may not make the connection, but it's a fantasy a whole lot of them have had at one time or another. Cedric and Neville didn't rot out their brains at the arcade. Instead, they learned the skills that made them heroes in real life. Told you so, Mom!

The ending of Mars Attacks! puts a silly spin on H.G. Wells

The Martians seem unstoppable for most of Mars Attacks!, obliterating all the armies of the Earth and even (literally) laughing off a nuclear missile. But Richie finally finds an unexpected solution when he discovers his grandma's music makes the Martians' heads explode, and he starts broadcasting it around the world. For kids, it's just an appropriately silly way to take out a very silly threat. But the well-read adult may recognize the twist from the original alien invasion story.

In H.G. Wells' 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, the Earth's military is just as helpless against a Martian invasion. But then, one day, the narrator finds that the Martians have all dropped dead, "slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared." As it turns out, the Martians' immune systems are vulnerable to the diseases that humans have learned to take for granted.

Independence Day tried its own update of Wells' plot by replacing the literal virus with a computer virus. And the Martians in Mars Attacks! are equally vulnerable to Earth's infections, but in this case, they're infected with earworms. Slim Whitman's yodel on "Indian Love Call" ends up being the key to Earth's victory. In this wonderful tribute to mid-century kitsch, is there any better ending than kitsch saving the day?