Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks!
Mars Attacks!

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Tim Burton
Larry J. Franco
Written by Jonathan Gems
Starring Jack Nicholson
Lukas Haas
Annette Bening
Jim Brown
Pierce Brosnan
Sarah Jessica Parker
Glenn Close
Martin Short
Jack Black
Natalie Portman
Danny DeVito
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Peter Suschitzky
Editing by Chris Lebenzon
Studio Tim Burton Productions
Warner Bros. Pictures
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s) December 13, 1996 (1996-12-13)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $100 million
Box office $101.37 million

Mars Attacks! is a 1996 American not-so comic science fiction film directed by Tim Burton and based on the cult trading card series of the same name. The film uses elements of black comedy, surreal humour, and political satire, and claims to be also a parody of multiple science fiction B movies. Mars Attacks! stars an ensemble cast, which includes Jack Nicholson, Lukas Haas, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Danny DeVito, and Christina Applegate.

Director Tim Burton and writer Jonathan Gems began development for Mars Attacks! in 1993, and Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the trading card series on Burton's behalf. When Gems turned in his first draft in 1994, Warner Bros. commissioned rewrites from Gems, Burton, Martin Amis, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski in an attempt to lower the budget to $160 million. The final production budget came to $80 million, while Warners spent another $220 million on the Mars Attacks! marketing campaign. Filming lasted from February to November 1996. It was made famous for the quirky alien laugh, which was created by reversing the sound ducks make when they quack.

The filmmakers hired Industrial Light & Magic to create the Martians using computer animation after their previous plan to use stop motion, supervised by Barry Purves, fell through because of budget limitations. Mars Attacks! was released on December 13, 1996 to mixed reviews from critics. The film grossed approximately $101 million in box office totals, which was seen as a disappointment. Mars Attacks! was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and earned multiple nominations at the Saturn Awards.



Martians surround Earth with an armada of flying saucers; whereupon President James "Jimmy" Dale addresses America concerning the historic event, watched by news anchors in New York, employees and guests at the Luxor Las Vegas hotel in Nevada, U.S.A., and a trailer trash family in Perkinsville, Kansas. The President's science aides set a first contact meeting with the Martians in Pahrump, Nevada.

Using a defective universal translator the Martians announce they have "come in peace"; but when a hippie releases a dove as a symbol of peace, the Martians shoot it down and attack. General Casey, Jason Stone, and Billy-Glenn are among those killed. Believing the reason of this a "cultural misunderstanding", President Dale has Professor Donald Kessler continue negotiations with the Martians, whose ambassador is invited to address the United States Congress. At this meeting, the Martians destroy the Congress and war is established.

General Decker tries to convince President Dale to retaliate with nuclear warfare; but the president refuses. After a Martian assassin disguised as a beautiful woman enters the White House and unsuccessfully attempts to kill the President, the other Martians begin a full-scale invasion, in which they destroy Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, Tokyo, the Washington Monument, one of the Great Pyramids, Hawaii, and other locations, and rebuild Mount Rushmore to resemble themselves. The president is killed by a robotic hand during another attempted negotiation. Richie Norris, a Kansas teenager, discovers that the Martians are vulnerable to Slim Whitman's song "Indian Love Call", whereupon he and his grandmother use it to destroy the Martians. Richie and his grandmother are thereafter awarded the Medal of Honor by the president's teenaged daughter, Taffy.


  • Jack Nicholson as
    • James Dale: President of the United States, who wants peace and friendship with the Martians. He is later killed during a negotiation.
    • Art Land: A Las Vegas real estate developer not worried by the invasion, being interested chiefly in the pleasure of his investors. He is the husband of Barbara.
  • Lukas Haas as Richie Norris: Often ostracized by his family, but loved by his grandmother. When Richie attempts to save her, he discovers the Martians' weakness.
  • Annette Bening as Barbara Land: Recovering alcoholic and Art's wife, who is interested in New Age philosophy.
  • Jim Brown as Byron Williams: Former heavyweight champion boxer who singlehandedly fights dozens of Martians in unarmed combat, allowing Tom Jones, Barbara, and Cindy to escape Las Vegas. Byron is ultimately overwhelmed by the Martians, but survives.
  • Pierce Brosnan as Donald Kessler: A British anatomy professor, who thinks the Martians are friendly and (therefore) cannot explain their attacks. When he is captured by the Martians, his head is disembodied and kept alive as one of the Martians' experiments.
  • Sarah Jessica Parker as Natalie Lake: Talk show host for Today in Fashion. She is Jason's girlfriend and also in love with Donald Kessler. The Martians exchange her head with that of her chihuahua in their experiments. Natalie and Donald are presumed to drown when their spacecraft is submerged underwater.
  • Sylvia Sidney as Florence Norris: A senior citizen—supposedly with dementia—who helps her grandson Richie save the world with her Slim Whitman music.
  • Glenn Close as Marsha Dale: President Dale's wife and First Lady of the United States, who is killed by a falling chandelier when the Martians invade the White House.
  • Pam Grier as Louise Williams: Washington, D.C. bus driver who is worried by her sons' rebellious behavior. She is also Byron's ex-wife.
  • Martin Short as Jerry Ross: White House Press Secretary who is killed after sneaking a disguised Martian, whom he mistakes for a prostitute, into the White House.
  • Rod Steiger as General Decker: Warmonger United States Army General who does not trust the Martians, and advises nuclear warfare. Decker is proven right in his distrust, but is shrunken to a tiny size and intentionally stepped on by the Martian leader while protecting President Dale.
  • Tom Jones as Himself: Famous singer who assists Barbara, Byron, and Cindy's escape Las Vegas after the Martian attack on it.
  • Michael J. Fox as Jason Stone: Network news anchor for GNN. Although jealous of his girlfriend Natalie's show, Jason attempts to save her from the Martians, but is incinerated.
  • Joe Don Baker and O-Lan Jones as Mr. Norris and Sue-Ann Norris: Trailer trash husband and wife and the parents of Richie and Billy-Glen, who hold the aggressive Billy-Glen as an American hero and the placid Richie as the black sheep of the family.
  • Jack Black as Billy-Glen Norris: Richie's brother; a U.S. Army soldier killed by the Martians in Nevada.
  • Ray J and Brandon Hammond as Cedric and Neville Williams: Rebellious sons of Byron and Louise who spend most of their time playing Light gun games. They help the President escape from a Martian attack at a White House tour, being themselves armed with Martian rayguns.
  • Natalie Portman as Taffy Dale: Daughter of President James Dale and First Lady Marsha. She does not care much about the Martians until they kill both her parents. She survives the invasion and awards Ritchie with a Medal of Honor.
  • Paul Winfield as Lt. General Casey: Is sent as the American ambassador in Nevada and becomes the first human victim of the Martian attack.
  • Danny DeVito as Rude Gambler: Obnoxious lawyer vacationing in Las Vegas who is incinerated by a Martian after failing to negotiate over a Rolex wristwatch.
  • Lisa Marie Smith as Martian Girl: A Martian assassin sent to kill President Dale. She is distracted by a parakeet and then killed by Secret Service agents.
  • Brian Haley as Mitch: Obedient Secret Service Agent who sacrifices himself to save President Dale's life. At one point of the Martian invasion, he is shot in the arm with a red raygun; but only suffers a fracture.
  • Janice Rivera as Cindy: Waitress at the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel. Terrified of the Martians, she escapes from the city with Barbara, Byron, and Tom Jones.
  • Christina Applegate as Sharona: Billy-Glen's girlfriend.
  • Jerzy Skolimowski as Dr. Zeigler: Inventor of a universal translator device. Present in Nevada during first contact between Martians and humans.
  • Barbet Schroeder as Maurice: President of France who attempts to negotiate with the Martians and is killed after he believes he has reached an agreement.
  • Frank Welker as the voice of the Martians, whose speech appears composed entirely of repeated use of the syllable "Ack".
  • Roger L. Jackson as the voice of Dr. Zeigler's Martian-language Translator.



Jonathan Gems, who had previously written multiple unproduced screenplays for director/producer Tim Burton, came up with the idea of doing a film adaptation of the Mars Attacks trading card series in 1993. The writer then pitched both concepts of Mars Attacks and Dinosaurs Attack! to Burton,[1] and decided that Dinosaurs Attack! would be too similar to Jurassic Park (1993), but went on to create Mars Attacks!.[2] Burton, who was busy preparing Ed Wood (1994), believed that Mars Attacks! would be a perfect opportunity to pay homage to the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., especially Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and other 1950s science fiction B movies,[1] such as Invaders from Mars (1953),[3] It Came from Outer Space (1953),[2] The War of the Worlds (1953), Target Earth (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).[1]

Burton set Mars Attacks! up with Warner Bros. and the studio purchased the film rights to the trading card series on his behalf.[4] The original theatrical release date was planned for the summer of 1996. Gems completed his original script in 1994, which was budgeted by Warner Bros. at $260 million. The studio wanted to make the film for no more than $60 million.[5] After turning in numerous drafts in an attempt to lower the budget, Gems was replaced by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.[1] Martin Amis also was hired for rewriters' work, but later stated that although he "rather liked [the film], it contained not a word I wrote".[6]

Gems eventually returned to the project, writing a total of 12 drafts of the script. Although he is credited with both the screen story and screenplay of Mars Attacks!, Gems dedicates his novelization of the movie to Burton, who "co-wrote the screenplay and didn't ask for a credit".[1] Warner Bros. was dubious of the Martian dialogue and wanted Burton to add closed captioning subtitles, but he resisted.[7] Working with Burton, Gems pared the film's 60 leading characters down to 23, and the worldwide destruction planned for the film was isolated to three major cities. Scenes featuring Martians attacking China, the Philippines, Japan, Europe, Africa, India, and Russia were deleted from the screenplay. "Bear in mind this was way before Independence Day (1996) was written", Gems commented. "We had things like Manhattan being destroyed building by building, the White House went and so did the Empire State Building. Warner Bros. figured all this would be too expensive, so we cut most of that out to reduce the cost."[5]


The decision to hire an A-list ensemble cast for Mars Attacks! parallels the strategy Irwin Allen used for his disaster films, notably The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).[1] Warren Beatty was the original choice for the role of President Dale, but dropped out. Paul Newman replaced him, but then considered playing another role, and left the production over concerns about the film's violence. Jack Nicholson was then approached, who jokingly remarked he wanted to play all the roles.[8] Burton agreed to cast Nicholson as both Art Land and President Dale, specifically remembering his positive working relationship with the actor on Batman (1989).[1]

Susan Sarandon was originally set to play Barbara Land[8] before Annette Bening was cast, who modeled the character after Ann-Margret's performance in Viva Las Vegas (1964).[2] Hugh Grant was the first choice for Professor Donald Kessler, which eventually went to Pierce Brosnan.[9] Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Stockard Channing were considered for First Lady Marsha Dale, but Glenn Close won the role.[8] In addition to Jack Nicholson from Batman (1989), other actors who reunited with Burton on Mars Attacks! include Sylvia Sidney from Beetlejuice (1988), Sarah Jessica Parker (who signed on before reading the script) from Ed Wood (1994), O-Lan Jones from Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Danny DeVito from Batman Returns (1992), continuing Burton's trend of recasting actors multiple times from his previous works.[10]


The original start date was mid-August 1995 but was delayed until February 26, 1996.[9] Director Tim Burton hired Peter Suschitzky as the cinematographer because he was a fan of his work in David Cronenberg's films. Production designer Thomas Wynn (A Beautiful Mind, Malcolm X) intended to have the war room pay tribute to Dr. Strangelove (1962).[11] During production, Burton insisted that the art direction, cinematography and costume design of Mars Attacks! incorporate the look of the 1960s trading cards.[3]

On designing the Martian (played by Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie Smith) who seduces Jerry Ross (Martin Short), costume designer Colleen Atwood took combined inspiration from the playing cards, Marilyn Monroe, the work of Alberto Vargas and Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968).[12] Filming for Mars Attacks! ended on June 1, 1996.[13] The film score was written/composed by Burton's regular Danny Elfman, to whom Burton was reconciled after a quarrel incurred during The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), for which they did not co-operate in producing Ed Wood (1994). Elfman enlisted the help of Oingo Boingo lead guitarist Steve Bartek to help arrange the compositions for the orchestra.[1]

Visual effects

The Martians were created using computer-generated imagery from ILM.

Tim Burton initially intended to use stop motion animation to feature the Martians,[2] viewing it as a homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen, primarily Jason and the Argonauts. Similar to his own Beetlejuice, Burton "wanted to make [the special effects] look cheap and purposely fake-looking as possible".[1] He first approached Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, to supervise the stop motion work; but Selick was busy directing James and the Giant Peach, also produced by Burton. Despite the fact that Warner Bros. was skeptical of the escalating budget (Mars Attacks! had yet to be greenlighted by the studio), Burton hired Barry Purves to shepherd the stop-motion work. Purves created an international team of about 70 animators, who worked on Mars Attacks! for eight months[2] and began compiling test footage in Burbank, California.[1] The department workers studied Gloria Swanson's choreography and movement as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard for inspiration on the Martians' movement.[2]

When the budget was projected at $100 million[13] (Warner Bros. wanted it for no more than $75 million),[1] producer Larry J. Franco commissioned a test reel from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects company he worked with on Jumanji. Burton was persuaded to change his mind to employ computer animation, which brought the final production budget to $80 million. Although Purves was uncredited for his work,[2] stop-motion supervisors Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, who would later collaborate with Burton on Corpse Bride, received character design credit.[1] Warner Digital Studios was responsible for the scenes of global destruction, airborne flying saucer sequences, the Martian landing in Nevada, and the robot that chases Richie Norris in his pickup truck. Warner Digital also used practical effects, such as building scale models of Big Ben and other landmarks. The destruction of Art Land's hotel was footage of the real-life night-time demolition of The Landmark Hotel and Casino, a building Burton wished to immortalize.[10]



Warner Bros. spent $420 million on the movie's marketing campaign; together with $80 million spent during production, the final combined budget came to $100 million.[14] A novelization, written by writer Jonathan Gems, was published by Puffin Books in January 1997.[15] The film was released in the United States on December 13, 1996, earning $9.38 million in its opening weekend. Mars Attacks! eventually made $37.77 million in US totals and $63.6 million elsewhere, coming to a worldwide total of $101.37 million.[16]

The film was considered a box office bomb in the U.S. but achieved greater success, both critically and commercially, in Europe.[17] Many observers found similarities with Independence Day, which also came out in 1996. "It was just a coincidence. Nobody told me about it. I was surprised how close it was," director Tim Burton continued, "but then it's a pretty basic genre I guess. Independence Day was different in tone - it was different in everything. It almost seemed like we had done kind of a Mad magazine version of Independence Day."[1] During Mars Attacks!' theatrical run in January 1997, USA Network purchased the broadcasting rights of the film.[18]

Critical reaction

Mars Attacks! also drew mixed responses from critics. Based on 56 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 51% of the reviewers enjoyed the film, with an average score of 5.6/10.[19] Mars Attacks! was more balanced with the 15 critics in Rotten Tomatoes' "Top Critics" poll, receiving a 33% approval rating and a 5.2/10 score.[20] By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 52/100 from 19 reviews.[21] Roger Ebert observed the homages to the 1950s science fiction B movies. "Ed Wood himself could have told us what's wrong with this movie: the makers felt superior to the material. To be funny, even schlock has to believe in itself. Look for Infra-Man (1975) or Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and you will find movies that lack stars and big budgets and fancy special effects but are funny and fun in a way that Burton's megaproduction never really understands."[22]

Albert Varnish of the Bulgarian Filmi Vreme called it the "biggest bunch of crackpot nonsense I have ever had the misfortune to witness. God help us all if this kind of crap now passes for comedy. Or for a movie." [23]

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Mars Attacks! is all 1990s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that Independence Day takes seriously. This all sounds clever enough but in truth, Mars Attacks! is not as much fun as it should be. Few of its numerous actors make a lasting impression and Burton's heart and soul is not in the humor".[24] Desson Thomson from The Washington Post said "Mars Attacks! evokes plenty of sci-fi classics, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1962), but it doesn't do much beyond that superficial exercise. With the exception of Burton's jolting sight gags (I may never recover from the vision of Sarah Jessica Parker's head grafted on to the body of a chihuahua), the comedy is half-developed, pedestrian material. And the climactic battle between Earthlings and Martians is dull and overextended".[25]

Richard Schickel, writing in Time magazine, gave a positive review. "You have to admire everyone's chutzpah: the breadth of Burton's (and writer Jonathan Gems') movie references, which range from Kurosawa to Kubrick; and above all their refusal to offer us a single likable character. Perhaps they don't create quite enough deeply funny earthlings to go around, but a thoroughly mean-spirited big-budget movie is always a treasurable rarity."[26] Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader praised the surreal humour and black comedy, which he found to be in the vein of Dr. Strangelove and Gremlins (1984). He said it was far from clear whether the movie was a satire, although critics were describing it as one.[27] Todd McCarthy of Variety called Mars Attacks! "a cult sci-fi comedy miscast as an elaborate, all-star studio extravaganza."[28]


Mars Attacks! was on the shortlist for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects nomination, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose Independence Day, Dragonheart and Twister instead.[29] The film was nominated for seven categories at the Saturn Awards. Danny Elfman won Best Music, while director Tim Burton, writer Jonathan Gems, actor Lukas Haas, costume designer Colleen Atwood and the visual effects department at Industrial Light & Magic received nominations. Mars Attacks! was nominated for both the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film (which went to Independence Day)[30] and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.[31]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mark Salisbury; Tim Burton (2006). "James and the Giant Peach, Mars Attacks!, Superman Lives and The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy". Burton on Burton. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 145–163. ISBN 0-57122-926-3. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Christine Spines (January 1997). "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus". Premiere. 
  3. ^ a b Susan Stark (1996-12-07). "Director Tim Burton Rebels In His New Space Comedy". The Detroit News. 
  4. ^ Cindy Pearlman (1996-12-08). "Today, Vegas: Tomorrow, The World! Mean Little Green Guys Attack Earth". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  5. ^ a b Anthony C. Ferrante (March 1997). "Hidden Gems". Fangoria. 
  6. ^ Gavin Keulks. "Filmography". Martin Amis Web. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  7. ^ Henry Sheehan (1996-12-27). "Yak-Yak Is Way Martians Communicate". The Orange County Register. 
  8. ^ a b c Jeff Gordinier (1996-02-23). "Jack's Back". Entertainment Weekly.,,291486,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  9. ^ a b Staff (1995-07-28). "Target Hollywood". Entertainment Weekly.,,298129,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  10. ^ a b "About the Production . . .". Warner Bros. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  11. ^ Ken Hanke (1999). "A Plan 9 of His Own". Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books. pp. 183–192. ISBN 1-58063-162-2. 
  12. ^ Richard Natale (1997-11-21). "Art of fantasy". Variety. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  13. ^ a b Staff (1996-08-23). "Fall Movie Preview: December". Entertainment Weekly.,,293903,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  14. ^ Bernard Weinraub (1997-01-02). "Season of Many Movies, but Not Many Hits". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ "Mars Attacks! : A Novelization (Paperback)". Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  16. ^ "Mars Attacks!". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  17. ^ Edwin Page (2007). "Mars Attacks!". Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton. London: Marion Boyars Publishers. pp. 143–158. ISBN 0-7145-3132-4. 
  18. ^ John Dempsey (1997-01-23). "USA Network trumps net window for six features". Variety. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  19. ^ "Mars Attacks!". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  20. ^ "Mars Attacks!: Top Critics". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  21. ^ "Mars Attacks! (1996): Reviews". Metacritic.!. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  22. ^ Roger Ebert (1996-12-13). "Mars Attacks!". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  23. ^ Albert Varnish (1996-12-24). "Mars Attacks - Worst Shit Ever!". Filmi Vreme. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  24. ^ Kenneth Turan (1996-12-13). "Mars Attacks! Tim Burton's Plan 9". Los Angeles Times.,0,3908983.story. Retrieved 2009-04-15. [dead link]
  25. ^ Desson Thomson (1996-12-13). "Mars Attacks! We Lose". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  26. ^ Richard Schickel; Richard Corliss (1996-12-30). "A Rich Film Feast". Time.,9171,985779-1,00.html. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  27. ^ Jonathan Rosenbaum. "Flirting With Disaster". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  28. ^ Todd McCarthy (1996-12-02). "Mars Attacks!". Variety. Retrieved 2009-04-16. 
  29. ^ Andrew Hindes (1997-01-09). "7 pix set to vie for 3 Oscar f/x noms". Variety. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  30. ^ "Past Saturn Awards". Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Retrieved 2007-04-14. 
  31. ^ "1997 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards Organization. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 

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