Mars Attacks! – USA, 1996

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Mars Attacks! is a 1996 American comedy science fiction horror film directed by Tim Burton (Corpse Bride; Sleepy Hollow; Dark Shadows) from a screenplay by Jonathan Gems, based on the cult trading card series of the same name. The film is a parody of science fiction B movies with elements of black comedy and political satire.

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The movie stars Jack Nicholson (in a dual role), Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie Smith, and Sylvia Sidney.

Alex Cox (Repo Man) had tried to make a Mars Attacks! film in the 1980s before Burton and Gems began development in 1993. When Gems turned in his first draft in 1994, Warner Bros. commissioned rewrites in an attempt to lower the budget to $60 million. The final production budget came to $80 million, while Warner Bros. spent another $20 million on the marketing campaign. The film grossed approximately $101 million in box office totals making it a blockbuster flop.

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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.

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Plot:

When Martians surround Earth with a fleet of flying saucers, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) along with his aides Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), Press Secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), and Army Generals Decker (Rod Steiger) and Casey (Paul Winfield) address America concerning the historic event.

People around the country follow the story, including news anchors in New York, developer Art Land (Jack Nicholson) and his wife Barbara (Annette Benning) alongside employees and guests at the Luxor Las Vegas hotel in Nevada, and the family of US Army private Billy-Glenn Norris (Jack Black) and his brother Richie (Lukas Haas) in Kansas. The President’s science aides set up a first contact meeting with the Martians in Nevada as President Dale watches the development on TV with his wife Marsha (Glenn Close) and his daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman).

Martians

Using a universal translator, the Ambassador of the Martians announces that they intend to colonize the Earth. To prevent this intention from causing panic, the translator is reprogrammed to say that the Martians “come in peace”. When a hippie (Josh Philip Weinstein) releases a dove as a symbol of peace, the Ambassador shoots it, then he and the other Martians slaughter a large number of people at the event including General Casey, news reporter Jason Stone (Michael J. Fox), and Billy-Glenn Norris before capturing chat show host Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her pet Chihuahua Poppy whose heads they transpose…

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Reviews:

‘ …lacking in the uproarious humor that might well have ensued from the material, which instead inspires occasional laughs but, much more often, bemused fascination and wonderment at the bizarre imaginations and impressive skill of the filmmakers. Pic is loaded with wit, nifty little ideas and an extraordinary sense of design, but its allure is of quite a particular nature, much closer to that of Ed Wood than of Burton’s earlier, and far more commercially successful, works.’ Todd McCarthy, Variety

‘Mr. Burton now shows why money isn’t everything. Here at his disposal are clever special effects, darling Martians, loads of talent and a genre (fleabag sci-fi) that is tailor-made for his satirical talents. Yet here, too, is a screenplay (by Jonathan Gems) based on old Topps bubble gum cards, which makes for a definite lack of connective tissue. Mars Attacks! is just a parade of scattershot gags, more often weird than funny and most often just flat.’ Janet Maslin, New York Times

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‘The anarchy is sometimes inspired […] but much of the film is flat and cripplingly indulgent. It feels nearly half an hour too long, and Nicholson, in a double role, is just too much. It’s a personal work, but not a mature one. It didn’t hit home at the US box-office, but the reviews have been surprisingly accommodating. In that sense, this sour, prefabricated cult movie has the last laugh – and I’m afraid the joke’s on us.’ Time Out

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Cast and characters:

  • Jack Nicholson as President James Dale, the President of the United States.
    • Jack Nicholson also portrays Art Land, a developer in Las Vegas.
  • Glenn Close as First Lady Marsha Dale, the wife of James Dale.
  • Annette Bening as Barbara Land, the wife of Art Land.
  • Pierce Brosnan as Professor Donald Kessler, a science expert that works for President Dale who is later captured by the Martians.
  • Danny DeVito as Rude Gambler
  • Martin Short as Press Secretary Jerry Ross
  • Sarah Jessica Parker as Nathalie Lake, a talk show host who is later captured by the Martians.
  • Michael J. Fox as Jason Stone, a news reporter who is killed during the Martians’ first invasion.
  • Rod Steiger as General Decker
  • Lukas Haas as Richie Norris, the brother of Billy-Glenn Norris
  • Natalie Portman as Taffy Dale, the daughter of James Dale
  • Jim Brown as Byron Williams, a Las Vegas casino employee and former boxer
  • Sylvia Sidney as Florence Norris, the grandmother of Richie Norris and Billy-Glenn Norris
  • Tom Jones as Himself
  • Christina Applegate as Sharona
  • Pam Grier as Louise Williams, the wife of Byron Williams.
  • Jack Black as Billy-Glenn Norris, a US Army private who is Richie’s older brother
  • Lisa Marie Smith as Martian Girl, a Martian posing as a human female.
  • Paul Winfield as General Casey
  • Janice Rivera as Cindy, a co-worker of Byron
  • Brian Haley as Mitch, a Secret Service agent
  • Joe Don Baker as Mr. Norris, the father of Billy-Glenn Norris and Richie Norris
  • O-Lan Jones as Sue-Ann Norris, the mother of Billy-Glenn Norris and Richie Norris
  • Ray J as Cedric Williams, the son of Byron Williams and Louise Williams
  • Brandon Hammond as Neville Williams, the son of Byron Williams and Louise Williams
  • Jerzy Skolimowski as Dr. Zeigler, a scientist who created a device that translated the Martian language
  • Barbet Schroeder as Maurice, the French President.
  • Joseph Maher as White House Decorator
  • Steve Valentine as TV Director
  • Josh Philip Wenstein as Hippie
  • Frank Welker as Martian Vocal Effects
  • Roger L. Jackson as Dr. Zeigler’s translator (voice uncredited)

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3 Comments on “Mars Attacks! – USA, 1996”

  1. Still to this day cannot understand the hate for this film. No, on second thought, I can from some areas. Many thought it was a cheap cash in on Independence Day, fans of the original card series were disgusted it wasn’t a straight up adaptation of the card’s narrative. Then you had those who had (inexplicably I always felt) never heard of the card series and it’s controversy. But I love this film. And I am generally a man who does not like anything that Tim Burton did post Batman Returns. I wish it had been a hit, It might have made him quit working with Johnny Depp and the color grey.

    1. Yep, it doesn’t all work but there’s enough mean-spirited dark humour to make it worthwhile. People bleat on about about CGI but I think the aliens look great. Plus I love blockbuster flops as it amuses me to imagine the studio execs at war with each other over who is more to blame. Oh and welcome back David. I did wonder where you’d been just earlier!

      Adrian, Horrorpedia

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