Mars Attacks!
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Brain overload in Mars Attacks! Credit: Warner Bros.

This Week in Genre History: Mars Attacks! might have wanted to destroy Earth a bit too much

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Dec 9, 2020, 10:28 AM EST (Updated)

Welcome to "This Week in Genre History," where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Even before the pandemic, movie studios seemed increasingly wary of green-lighting pricey passion projects. If your film wasn't connected to a well-known piece of intellectual property, it was highly unlikely Hollywood would want to take a chance on it. Superheroes and Star Wars sequels were welcome, but the odd and quirky had to go elsewhere. The financial risk just wasn't worth it.

So let's pause a moment to remember Dec. 13, 1996, which is when one of the weirdest studio movies of the last 25 years hit theaters. Mars Attacks! may not be a great movie, but it's certainly an unusual one, starring a huge cast and directed by a commercially successful filmmaker. And all that money and talent were devoted to producing... well, a knowingly goofy and nerdy old-school sci-fi alien-invasion flick that catered to a very niche audience. This is not how studio movies are made now, where they're designed to appeal to the widest viewership possible. Mars Attacks! gleefully thumbed its nose at that convention, and a lot of others. After all, this is a movie in which you're meant to root for the extra-terrestrials, not the human race.

Based on a series of Topps trading cards from the 1960s, the film featured Jack Nicholson as James Dale, the American president who presides over the arrival of some visiting Martians. The aliens swear they mean no harm but, spoiler alert, they most certainly do, quickly destroying Congress with their laser guns. Soon, it's Earth versus the Martians as we meet a cross-section of bizarre people, including a news reporter (Michael J. Fox), a square government scientist (Pierce Brosnan), and Vegas singer Tom Jones (played by, duh, Tom Jones). And this whole crazy circus was overseen by Tim Burton, the wry misanthrope behind Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

"I wanted to do something fun with a bunch of Martians with big brains," Burton once said. "Basically, make a modern version of Plan 9 From Outer Space or The War of the Worlds." In a sense, he succeeded — Mars Attacks! is a snotty satire of low-budget sci-fi/horror films of the 1950s — but his approach was so inside-baseball that if you didn't get the references, you were stuck wondering why all the human characters were dummies while the aliens were really funny. (Their big eyes and skeletal grin made them scary and adorable in equal measure.) No wonder both critics and moviegoers mostly shrugged. Yet despite its faults, Mars Attacks! is often charming. It really is the sort of film you don't see much anymore.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Burton was in the midst of a hot streak when he began work on Mars Attacks! His previous feature, Ed Wood, about the notoriously untalented schlock film director, had been an Academy Award winner, and he'd enjoyed hits with Edward Scissorhands and the Michael Keaton Batman pictures. (And don't forget the stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was developed from his original idea and directed by Henry Selick.) Burton had been enchanted by the Topps cards, which told the story of a violent Martian overthrow of Earth, and was ready to tackle a project with a much larger scope after the intimate character comedy of Ed Wood.

"I really wanted to try something different," he said in 1996. "The only time I had ventured into bringing together several high-profile stars was for the Batman movies 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."

Nicholson, who'd worked with Burton on Batman, actually played two roles. (He's also a shady Vegas land developer.) And if he hadn't signed on, the movie might never have happened. "Agents didn't want to see their star clients playing loser roles, and a lot of big acts passed on the project," Mars Attacks! screenwriter Jonathan Gems later revealed. "At one point we actually thought we were going to have to cancel the film. The guy who saved our butt was Jack Nicholson." But once the Oscar winner gave it his blessing, Mars Attacks! quickly became a who's-who of Oscar nominees and future winners, including Glenn Close, Natalie Portman, and Annette Bening, as well as rising stars like Jack Black and Sarah Jessica Parker, who was just a few years away from Sex and the City.

The reason why actors initially balked was obvious. Gems' script depicted the humans — who are normally the valiant heroes defending Earth from the evil aliens — as morons and self-absorbed nitwits. Less than six months before Mars Attacks! arrived in multiplexes, the crowd-pleasing spectacle Independence Day had been the summer's biggest hit by having cocky, charismatic Will Smith and righteous American president Bill Pullman defeat a lot of nasty interstellar monsters. By comparison, Mars Attacks! upended those tropes, showing just how fallible and pathetic humans can be. The movie was a love letter to cheesy old sci-fi movies like 1953's The War of the Worlds — the stiff melodrama and cardboard characters were a feature, not a bug — while also conveying Burton's typically jaundiced worldview. It shouldn't have been a surprise that a guy who worshiped misfits like Pee-wee Herman, Bruce Wayne, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood would craft an alien-invasion film in which the Earthlings deserve to be eradicated because they're such dummies. As far as Burton was concerned, let the Martians have the planet.

"There's a certain kind of joy in the way that the Martians just come and smash everything up," Gems later said. "I was a punk in London and we always used to do pranks. So here you get the Martians taking the piss out of society."

But after rooting for Will Smith, did audiences really want to cheer for the aliens?

What was the impact? The film opened during a crowded mid-December marketplace, premiering opposite The Preacher's Wife and Jerry Maguire. Predictably, the feel-good Tom Cruise drama ended up topping the box office, leaving the peculiar Mars Attacks! far behind at No. 2. With a budget of potentially around $100 million — ironic considering the cheap-o bygone movies it was parodying — Mars Attacks! was a major flop.

As for the critics, well, you either were on Burton's wavelength or you weren't. Most weren't, including the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, who declared, "Probably the most expensive movie ever to be inspired by a set of bubble gum cards, Mars Attacks! is also Tim Burton at his Tim Burton-est, which means that it's a kind of hipster stunt, with bursts of mild humor outnumbered by a retro taste for the bizarre and the weird. Why it was thought sane to invest a reported $100 million in such an odd and particular sensibility is a question even Martians might ponder."

What was especially striking about Mars Attacks! was that it seemed to be a willfully perverse exercise in audience alienation. The movie contained not one but two Nicholson performances, but they were both uncharacteristically broad. Although the film was rated PG-13, it was still plenty violent, with the aliens laying waste to lots of humans. There was none of the fun escapism of Independence Day — it was as if Burton was taking active pleasure in his fellow Earthlings getting pulverized. What kind of Christmastime movie was this?

But if you felt like an outsider — in other words, if you were like Burton and Gems — then Mars Attacks!'s snide irreverence felt liberating. Here was a movie that didn't offer the usual comforting message about the triumph of the human spirit. "The question is not whether the Martians are good or bad and what are their motivations," Burton said. "The question becomes what kind of human beings are we under such pressure? Are we willing to sell out our friends and family? Are we cowards for trying to avoid the fight? What are we? I believe that it is in such times of high pressure and stress that you get to the heart of your soul and you face your demons. Sometimes the enemy isn't the aliens or your neighbors or your family. Sometimes we are our own enemy."

It was a daring message. And not many viewers were excited about embracing it.

Has it held up? Even fans of Mars Attacks! have to admit that this is a deeply flawed, uneven film. As giddily chaotic and deliciously mean-spirited as it is, the movie can be so cartoon-y that it's impossible to care about any of the human characters. Granted, that's part of the point, but the performances are so arch that it can be grating.

But, ultimately, it's the film's sheer nuttiness that gives the story its kick. With each passing year, Mars Attacks!'s very existence is all the more miraculous. No studio would allow such a thing now. Of course, for the film's many detractors, that might not be such a bad thing. But for us who liked Burton's troublemaking, subversive streak — something that's sadly calcified into a shtick with his series of recent, often terrible films — Mars Attacks! felt rebellious. But like his malicious Martians, it was an insurrection not destined to last.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.