By the time Mars Attacks! came out, Tim Burton had gone from being a solid albeit oddball director to a money-printing machine. His creepy sensibilities lent themselves to darkly comic films that thrust audiences into a world of underdogs.
With two wildly successful Batman films under his belt, along with the sleeper goth hit Edward Scissorhands and the award-winning Ed Wood, Burton could do no wrong. When he pitched a disaster movie based on a trading card series about aliens, Warner Brothers probably threw a pile of money at him. Unfortunately, 1996's Mars Attacks! didn’t turn out how anyone expected, except for maybe Burton.
Burton followed his wonder and made Mars Attacks!, a film that heavily references 1950s and ‘60s science-fiction while radiating a very ‘90s cynicism. The inspiration for Mars Attacks! may have been a trading card set, but there’s so much more going on in the bonkers film.
Burton’s offbeat sensibilities are on full display in the film; it’s bursting with color, and it’s violently wild. This is the kind of movie that happens when a director gets to make exactly what they want.
No matter how weird or disappointing, even the strangest big-budget film adaptations are based loosely on other forms of narrative content. Speed Racer is based on an anime of the same name, Old Boy is based on a manga, the list keeps going.
But Mars Attacks! is the only big budget film based on a set of underappreciated Topps cards from 1962. The cards present a world where big-brained Martians come to Earth and gruesomely eliminate its inhabitants with laser beams, until the US military nukes their home planet.
This narrative is only presented on the back of one of the cards, which explains why Burton’s adaptation is so fractured. Even if the cards did have a tightly constructed narrative, it’s risky to green-light an $80 million movie based on 55 trading cards.
Initially, the aliens in Mars Attacks! were meant to be created via stop-motion animation, but after seeing a series of CGI tests performed by a team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Burton flipped his wig and threw himself into the world of computer animation.
At the time of the ILM tests, the Mars Attacks! crew was already working with 12-inch, fully articulated figures, but the amount of time it took to change their facial features proved problematic. Each time an alien’s face changed, the shooting had to stop so puppeteers could take off their helmets and swap out eyes and mouths.
According to Jim Mitchell of ILM, he put together a quick test using a background from Jumanji and sent it over to a producer on Mars Attacks!. With the producer’s go-ahead, he created a more in-depth test that showed the aliens moving and acting pretty much how they do in the finished product. After Burton saw the test, he gave the team the okay, but still wanted the aliens to have a stop-motion feel.
To achieve this, the animators had to rethink CG animation. Mitchell explained:
So there was even talk at some point about, what is stop-motion? Well, to start with there wasn’t motion blur, at least not in a big way. There’s a staccato sort of quality to the look so we thought, should we just go that route?
He continued, saying the animators exaggerated keyframes (a location that marks when an animation starts and stops) to simulate "the stop-motion quality.”
Burton has never shied away from shocking imagery, but the action scenes in Mars Attacks! are so overwhelming that it’s no wonder it turned off some audiences. Much of the gore in the film is bloodless, with the Martians evaporating humans into red and green skeletons (this is a Christmas movie after all), similar to what happens in the original trading card series.
Viewers who don’t know that, however, are in for a rude awakening once a crowd of Americans is slaughtered after they gather to welcome the Martians. This is just the beginning, as Michael J. Fox is soon obliterated while holding his girlfriend’s hand, leaving only his charred skeleton behind.
Humans aren’t the only ones dispatched with nihilistic glee, as the Martians are destroyed in equally horrific ways. They have their minds literally blown in an increasingly gooey and disgusting fashion before their heads burst in the climax of the film. The most jarring act comes when two teens get in on the chaos after they pick up a ray gun while touring the White House.
It’s impossible to identify the “strangest” moment of Mars Attacks!, but one scene that’s in the running happens after the Martians wipe out their welcome wagon. First, they remove the head of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Nathalie Lake, before putting it on her dog’s body and vice versa. Then, the Martians abduct Pierce Brosnan’s Professor Donald Kessler and take his head off too.
Kessler and Lake spend the rest of the film discussing their love for each other, with Kessler stating he wishes he had arms to hold Lake. It’s a truly bizarre series of scenes that have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. To top it off, Parker’s dog is actually Burton’s Chihuahua.