Tim Burton’s 1996 sci-fi comedy was misunderstood at its time of release – now, it demonstrates how depressingly accurate a cartoonish story was about real human behaviour in the face of annihilation
When re-evaluating critical or commercial disappointments, it can happen that artists’ work goes underappreciated because of trends and tastes at the time of its original release, only for the film, album, or artwork to age like fine wine as the world changes its sensibilities. Case in point: Tim Burton’s gleefully chaotic Mars Attacks!, in which humanity at large is incredibly stupid and short-sighted in the face of a potential extinction-level event. Sound familiar?
Mars Attacks! opened to largely middling reviews in December 1996 and commercially bombing domestically. It was unfairly and unfavourably compared by many to Independence Day. The two projects have little in common beyond alien invasion plots, big ensembles, and the same year of release. Independence Day had opened five months earlier, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was a no-win situation for Mars Attacks! opening that Christmas season, coming across like a rushed, snarky response to its supposed counterpart film, despite the established (and then still fresh) brand of Burton and a much more star-studded cast.
And what a stacked cast it is: Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close as the American President and First Lady; the contemporary James Bond, Pierce Brosnan; Michael J. Fox playing against his usual type as a total dick; Sarah Jessica Parker, Annette Bening and Martin Short having a blast; Hollywood veterans (Rod Steiger, Sylvia Sidney); young rising talent (Natalie Portman, Jack Black, Ray J); a legendary athlete (Jim Brown); and Tom Jones as Tom Jones. And then there’s Danny DeVito, whose entire presence is one of the film’s stealth funniest gags, when it dawns on you that he’s fifth-billed in the credits for his part as ‘Rude Gambler’, who’s in maybe four scenes and doesn’t have his own storyline.
Loosely based on a notoriously graphic 1960s trading card series, Mars Attacks! was envisioned by screenwriter Jonathan Gems as a parodic throwback to the alien invasion boom of 1950s cinema (titles like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), as filtered through the mode of 1970s disaster movies popularised by producer Irwin Allen. Among the biggest hits of their day, Allen’s films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure were known for their A-list ensemble casts fighting incredible odds.
Unfortunately for Gems, Burton, and studio Warner Bros, while they were doing a dark comedy spin on that recognisable formula, Independence Day was pulling off an attempt to modernise the disaster epic so that it could be taken at face value again. Game-changing special effects made the apocalyptic scenario believable, while those of Mars Attacks! deliberately favoured hyper-stylisation, inspired by the trading cards and bright-coloured 1950s sci-fi. A very patriotic film, Independence Day is all about Americans rising to the occasion, banding together despite their differences. It wants to make you believe in the heroism humanity is capable of achieving.
Flash forward 25 years to 2021, as we continue to deal with a worldwide pandemic (to say nothing of the ever-growing climate elephant in the room), and one of these films speaks to Western civilisation’s general character far more than the other. As a portrait of people repeatedly trying to rationalise a global threat that’s consistently shown to be unmerciful in its devastation, with governments trying the same daft, ineffective strategies over and over again in the face of chaos (with only minor alterations to their plans at each stage), Mars Attacks! isn’t a prescient movie, per se. But the humour has only gained layers, because it now feels like the most accurate projection of how society might actually respond to Martian invaders. What was once sardonic in a simpler way now leans towards honesty. Although not realism; this is, after all, a film in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is successfully transplanted to a chihuahua.
“Almost every character we follow has a narcissistic tendency to frame Earth’s close encounter with alien life around their own wants or desires, whether ostensibly good or overtly selfish“
In contrast to Independence Day’s positing of humanity’s assured collective power, virtually everyone in Mars Attacks! makes things about themselves. With a few key exceptions, almost every character we follow has a narcissistic tendency to frame Earth’s close encounter with alien life around their own wants or desires, whether ostensibly good or overtly selfish. Many act as though they think they’re in a movie, whereby they have the right idea. In this respect, Mars Attacks! is a blockbuster that epitomises what’s now referred to as Main Character Syndrome.
The delusions take on many forms. Despite mounting evidence that the Martians are mere nihilists who just want to destroy everything, while actively trolling attempted peace negotiations, Brosnan’s scientist keeps thinking they can be reasoned with. The initial response of Nicholson’s President mostly concerns how he’ll be canonised if contact with the aliens goes well. Nicholson’s second character, a Las Vegas proprietor, thinks Martians will want a place to stay, continuing deals with investors as a spaceship literally hovers outside his window. Even Annette Bening’s generally sympathetic character, a spiritual alcoholic, is insistent on the invasion being the universe trying to tell us something, then believing she can escape Earth’s imminent destruction by hiding in a remote cave.
Mars Attacks! endures because the ensuing 25 years, especially the last two, have demonstrated how depressingly accurate even this cartoonish a story was about real human behaviour in the face of annihilation. It’s not complete doom and gloom, though. Crucially, characters who do end the film looking heroic are the few who act selflessly despite the influences around them. Lukas Haas’s gentle doughnut shop employee, who ultimately saves the world by accidentally discovering that Slim Whitman's music blows up the Martians’ brains, has no delusions of being a hero. He never frames the alien invasion as part of his story. He just wants to protect his grandmother.