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The Untold Truth Of Mars Attacks!

Tim Burton's movies are jam-packed with colorful details. It's what makes them such engaging features — with so much to notice, repeat viewings can feel like first-time watches. So it is with Burton's 1996 feature "Mars Attacks!" This film has so many sight gags, celebrity cameos, and Easter eggs that it's doubtful anyone could catch them all in one sitting. All of these idiosyncratic touches might not be to everyone's taste, but they do mean that nobody can claim the film fails to deliver enough bang for its buck. What other movie features aliens using famous world landmarks as bowling pins, or has a Slim Whitman tune act as the weapon that eventually wipes out evil forces from beyond the stars? Only a Burton movie crammed to the gills with imagination could deliver such creative flourishes.

Everything about the creation, release, and legacy of "Mars Attacks!" is similarly dense with backstory, trivia, and cultural meaning. The films that inspired Burton and the movie's relationship to fellow 1996 alien invasion feature "Independence Day" are just as interesting to examine as the movie itself. Blast away your boredom like Martians annihilating Congress and dive right into the untold truth of "Mars Attacks!"

The source material for Mars Attacks!

"Mars Attacks!" is not an original idea conjured up by Tim Burton out of thin air. Though not as popular as the source material for other Burton projects like "Batman" or "Alice in Wonderland," the trading cards that "Mars Attacks!" is based on have still left a significant pop culture legacy. As chronicled by Old Sports Cards, these cards were first unleashed upon the world in 1962. They quickly gained widespread notoriety for depicting aliens attacking humans in vivid, violent detail. Decades before the likes of Roland Emmerich made it commonplace to destroy sacrosanct locales in big blockbusters, "Mars Attacks!" trading cards were blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge and setting fire to the White House.

Parents were outraged, but kids were enamored. Though these cards weren't around for an extensive period of time, their distinctive visuals and grotesque humor left a lasting impact on that era's youngsters. In fact, it proved enduring enough to inspire a big-budget movie adaptation from Tim Burton, decades after "Mars Attacks!" cards first petrified the populace.

Why Tim Burton did Mars Attacks! instead of Dinosaurs Attack!

The original "Mars Attacks" trading cards were not alone in terrifying '60s children with disaster imagery: The "Dinosaurs Attack!" trading cards were just as scary. While the former cards depict various nasty cartoons of weird aliens wreaking havoc, the latter series features (what else?) renderings of dinosaurs attacking each other and unfortunate humans. These intense illustrations sparked the imaginations of kids everywhere, and still inspire plenty of nostalgia. Given that level of fondness, it's no surprise that a film adaptation of these cards was once in development.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first issue of an unfinished "Dinosaurs Attack!" comic series reported a film version of the property was in development, circa 1991. However, Burton ultimately put the project aside in favor of adapting the "Mars Attacks!" cards instead, once "Jurassic Park" became a huge hit. A pop culture juggernaut like that would have made a "Dinosaurs Attack!" movie seem like a cheap cash-grab instead of an adaptation of a beloved piece of prehistoric media. With this project still as dead as a Tyrannosaurus rex, those yearning to see Tim Burton's take on "Dinosaurs Attack!" will just have to keep on waiting.

Tim Burton's inspirations for Mars Attacks!

Many of Tim Burton's directorial efforts are explicitly linked to the movies that made him a filmmaker in the first place. 1994's "Ed Wood," for example, offered Burton the chance to pay homage to a great B-movie filmmaker. "Mars Attacks!" is no exception to this trend, and even serves as yet another chance for Burton to tip his hat to the works of Ed Wood.

"I wanted to do something fun with a bunch of Martians with big brains," Burton explained to Arts Beat L.A. "Basically, make a modern version of 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' or 'The War Of The Worlds.'" Of course, Burton was also inspired by the "Mars Attacks!" trading cards, particularly how often they fused gross-out science-fiction elements with titillating imagery. Such a striking mixture was, according to Burton, "very much in the spirit of the sixties kind of sci-fi movies that I was trying to re-create and I remember always liking those movies where there was some sort of weird alien girl." Paying tribute to seminal works of oddball entertainment has worked like gangbusters for Burton over the course of his career — "Mars Attacks!" is just one spectacular example of this tendency.

Why the cast of Mars Attacks! is packed with stars

Typically, quirky sci-fi movies that pay tribute to niche things like trading cards don't end up with star-studded rosters. Yet the "Mars Attacks!" cast is absolutely packed with A-list talent. Famous faces including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, and even a cameo appearance from Tom Jones fill the ranks of this film — and that's just for starters.

Getting so many big names for "Mars Attacks!" was more than just something done to appease the film's marketers: It was a conscious choice on Tim Burton's part, to further challenge himself as a filmmaker. "The only time I had ventured into bringing together several high-profile stars was for the 'Batman' movies," Burton explained to Arts Beat L.A., "and here I wanted to repeat this experience on an even bigger scale. There are more than 20 lead roles in 'Mars Attacks!' so it was quite a challenge for me to put together this cast." Luckily, this assortment of big-name performers threw themselves into the uniquely goofy world of "Mars Attacks!" with gusto, proving their ability to fit right into Burton's imaginative vision.

The aliens' stop-motion origins

When "Mars Attacks!" was first getting off the ground, it was aiming to bring its alien invaders to life through old-school means. Specifically, Tim Burton wanted to use stop-motion animation. Burton was no stranger to the artform, thanks to projects like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," and this concept actually got quite far along before getting scrapped.

As relayed by Animation World Network, Burton initially planned to have "Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick and his animation team handle the stop-motion wizardry. But when that group ended up being too busy to work on "Mars Attacks!," Burton turned to a gaggle of artists in Manchester, England to deliver the retro goodness he was looking for. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. stepped in at the end of 1995 to put a stop to this process, due to concerns regarding the massive technical challenge it presented. Burton's dream of continuing his love affair with stop-motion animation was brought to an end, and the movie ended up embracing cutting-edge digital animation instead.

Mars Attacks! blazed a trail in online marketing

Today, every movie from "Avengers: Endgame" to "Hello, My Name is Doris" gets an internet-based marketing campaign. But in 1996, when the "Mars Attacks!" team was tasked with building hype, internet marketing for feature films was still in its infancy. It was so much of an event when films got promotional websites back then, in fact, that Entertainment Weekly ran articles examining every instance within a calendar year.

In grading the "Mars Attacks!" site, writer Bob Strauss gave it a B. He offered praise for how many behind-the-scenes details it offered, including sketches from Tim Burton himself. However, he criticized it for an overall lack of distinction. Strauss' breakdown of the site, which featured bios of the casts and links to relevant sites, paints a bare-bones picture. It certainly seemed to have lacked the kind of audience engagement elements one sees in today's virtual movie marketing. But these were the earliest days of online promotion, of course. Movies like "Mars Attacks!" deserve our respect for paving the road for modern marketing, like, say, crafting viral TikTok dance moves (via Deadline).

Why computer animation was used for the Martians

It may sound like a fantasy, given the modern cinematic landscape, but there was a time when CG wasn't absolutely everywhere. As late as the mid-1990s, this technology was still limited to appearing in heavy doses in the biggest James Cameron and Steven Spielberg blockbusters. Slowly but surely, projects from that class of directors began popularizing the idea that digital wizardry could do just about anything anyone could imagine. That includes realizing weird-looking alien invaders who keep coming up with cartoony ways of dispatching humanity.

Tim Burton has tended to embrace old-school methods of storytelling and visual effects in many of his projects. Using stop-motion animation on "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is one prominent example of this approach. However, the unique aesthetic of "Mars Attacks!" necessitated the use of modern technology. "I knew we had to create the aliens with the help of CGI animation," Burton explained to Art Beats L.A. "Every type of animation has a different vibe and it's something you can really analyze. And there is something about the computer medium that seemed to work with these characters because they are all the same and they have a certain jumping quality to their movement." Computer-generated animation did indeed turn out to be a good fit for the otherworldly characters of "Mars Attacks!," and makes the film a shining example of the 1990s CG boom.

Independence Day's relationship to Mars Attacks!

Just as 1998 saw the debut of two separate computer-animated movies about ants with "Antz" and "A Bug's Life," 1996 was a year full of markedly similar alien invasion movies. The first of these was Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day," which hit theaters in July. A few months later, "Mars Attacks!" made its debut. The release of these two movies in such close proximity to one another wasn't a cosmic coincidence, as you might assume. In the years since these movies premiered, Emmerich has been very open about the fact that he was trying to beat "Mars Attacks!" to the punch.

"I told our agent we wanted to do [an alien invasion movie], and he said forget about it, Tim Burton is doing 'Mars Attacks!,'" Emmerich recalled to The Guardian in 2016. "I said to Dean, we can't do our film after a parody comes out. We had to beat him to it. If it came out on the [Fourth of July] weekend, we would beat 'Mars Attacks!,' which was coming out in August. So we wrote the concept around the release date." Given that "Independence Day" beat out "Mars Attacks!" by a massive margin at the box office, it's safe to say this strategy ended up working in Emmerich's favor.

Mars Attacks! almost went to the Oscars

"Mars Attacks!" received mixed marks from critics upon its initial release. The Academy Awards have a long-standing hesitancy towards recognizing science fiction material. Taken together, these facts meant that Tim Burton's eccentric movie had slim chances of scoring some Oscars love. But there was still some hope that this feature might manage to snag a sliver of glory through its fully-digital Martians, who might, many thought, be impressive enough to warrant a Best Visual Effects nomination.

This dream looked like it might become a reality when, in January 1997, Variety reported that "Mars Attacks!" was one of seven movies shortlisted for nomination in the Best Visual Effects category, alongside the likes of "Mission: Impossible" and "The Nutty Professor." At the time, shortlisted titles were whittled down to three final nominees, who would then compete for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. Given that Burton's "Batman Returns" had been nominated for this award in 1992, these hopes weren't unprecedented within Burton's idiosyncratic body of work. A golden trophy for "Mars Attacks!" really did seem possible, within this brief window of optimism.

Sadly, "Mars Attacks!" made it no further in the Oscar race. When the official nominees for Best Visual Effects at the 69th Academy Awards were announced, "Independence Day," "Twister," and "Dragonheart" made it in, but not "Mars Attacks!" Thus, this feature's brief flirtation with the Oscars came to an unceremonious end.

Danny Elfman came up with some of the music for Mars Attacks! quite easily

It just wouldn't be a Tim Burton movie without a score as unique as its characters from composer Danny Elfman. Over the decades, Elfman has translated Burton's distinctive spirit into a wide assortment of orchestral accompaniments, ranging from the moodily epic cues of his "Batman" movies to the darkly whimsical score of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." For "Mars Attacks!," Elfman channeled midcentury music, to match the retro visual aesthetic of the film and pay tribute to its source material.

Even an unfinished clip from "Mars Attacks!" proved to be so vividly imagined, it got Elfman's creative juices flowing. In fact, it was almost easy for this experienced composer to conjure up the necessary music. "I saw the opening for 'Mars Attacks!,' when Tim showed me just a simple pre-vis version, and I said, 'Hold the film!,'" Elfman told Collider in 2019. "I ran out in the lobby of the theater, and I started making all of these notes to myself, for what became the theme. Usually, it's much harder than that." With this sudden burst of creativity, one of the most unforgettable parts of "Mars Attacks!" was firmly cemented.

The box office performance of Mars Attacks!

By the time "Mars Attacks!" hit theaters in December 1996, director Tim Burton had already developed a reputation for helming lucrative fare, thanks to his work on the first two "Batman" movies and "Beetlejuice." However, "Mars Attacks!" ended up being a step backwards for the filmmaker in terms of box office prowess. Grossing $37.7 million domestically, "Mars Attacks!" ultimately earned just half of what "Beetlejuice" amassed eight years prior. It also came in well beneath the $45.6 million North American opening weekend of "Batman Returns."

The zany comedic sensibilities of "Mars Attacks!" ended up resonating more overseas, where the quirky feature grossed enough to put the film's worldwide box office at $101 million. Still, the movie's lackluster reception remains notable, given its status as a Burton flick and its all-star ensemble cast. Perhaps "Mars Attacks!" was seen as too much of an "Independence Day" clone by the general public. Maybe the exposed brains were a little too creepy. It's even possible that the movie's trading card origin was just too niche.

Here's one thing we do know for certain:  December 1996 saw the release of mega-hit movies like "Jerry Maguire" and "Scream." It seems likely that the public rushed to see those films, instead of the considerably more expensive "Mars Attacks!" Thanks to "Ed Wood," Tim Burton had directed box office duds before, but "Mars Attacks!" was the first Burton blockbuster to come up noticeably short. 

The enduring cult fandom of Mars Attacks!

At the time of its release, critics praised "Mars Attacks!" for its visual effects and strong performances, but took umbrage with, among other perceived shortcomings, its emphasis on stylized dark gags over compelling characters. All of the anarchic mayhem on display just wasn't to everyone's taste. These lukewarm notices made "Mars Attacks!" a noticeable step down in terms of critical reception from prior Burton films like "Beetlejuice" and "Ed Wood."

However, in the decades since the film hit movie theaters, "Mars Attacks!" has managed to endure quite nicely in the public consciousness. Websites like Collider and Consequence have published lengthy essays extolling the virtues of the film, with Dominick Suzanne-Mayer on the latter site praising "Mars Attacks!" for how much it commits to old-school movie homages and gruesome violence. Steve Desch of Slate, meanwhile, opined that "Mars Attacks!" has only grown more relevant since its 1996 debut, thanks to its depiction of politicians as being utterly inept in the face of global catastrophe. Desch also praised the film for committing to the idea that a war between otherworldly invaders and human beings would be an incredibly one-sided affair, in favor of the Martians. 

"Mars Attacks!" may not have been universally beloved upon its initial release, but some of the film's most outlandish qualities have aged remarkably well. Today, it's treasured by the fans who get what it's going for as a stand-out part of Burton's oeuvre.