The Movie Mars Attacks: Cult Classic or “Fireball of Failure?”

A lot of alien invasion action movies are built upon the thematic narrative about the “fear of the unknown.” Each time a futuristic spaceship of unknown origin is caught approaching the Earth’s atmosphere, you can expect most movies to deploy advanced weaponry in an attempt to take down the presumed threat. Check out everything Mars Attacks now!

Mars Attacks

In the 1996 sci-fi film Mars Attacks!, the idea expands into nonsensical sequences of comedic nature. Government agencies arrange a welcome party, and press conference, and invite an alien ambassador to Congress. Unsurprisingly, nothing in the film works out as planned.

Mars Attacks! is a part dark comedy and part B-movie, loosely based on a series of trading cards. Despite the “low-budget” status, it brought a star-studded cast on board and was directed by a commercially successful filmmaker. Sitting at the director’s seat was Tim Burton, overseeing a production that involved major Hollywood names like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Tom Jones, Jack Black, and Michael J. Fox, among others.


As soon as the population becomes aware of the incoming Martian fleet, people see it as an opportunity to advance their own plans. In Kansas, the entire members of the Norris family are excited by the arrival. The same thing happens in New York, as newsman Jason Stone and fashion reporter Nathalie Lake plan to exploit the buzz for their own benefits. Real estate dealer Art Land and his wife Barbara also cannot wait to welcome the aliens.
Mars Attacks

James Dale, the President of the United States, gives the Martians too much benefit of the doubt and treats them as alien dignitaries, against the advice of General Decker. President Dale even orders military officers to arrange a welcoming event in Nevada, where the Martians land. Doves are released as a sign of peace only to irritate the Martians, who see the act as a disrespectful gesture. And then all hell breaks loose. The little green men begin shooting and killing people.

In spite of the menacing demonstration of aggression, the government sets up a formal meeting between a Martian ambassador and the Congress. The meeting soon turns into a massacre. President Dale narrowly escapes an assassination attempt by a Martian disguised as an attractive blonde woman. Following the failed attempt, the Martians launch a full attack on the world and destroy such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, and Big Ben.

The world is now in panic mode. Richie Norris of Nevada is determined to save his grandmother, Florence, from an old people’s home. He arrives in time when several little green men are preparing to shoot her with a notably cartoonish death ray gun. It just so happens that she was listening to Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call on headphones. She turns around and the cable becomes unplugged from the audio player. As the song automatically plays out loud, the aliens are distracted to the point where their brains burst. At that very moment, Richie and Florence inadvertently discover a secret weapon to defeat the aliens. They drive around town and broadcast the song on local radio stations, killing every alien on the way.

Picking up the clue, military forces soon follow suit. They broadcast the song worldwide to kill all the Martians. Now that the enemy has been defeated, Richie and Florence receive the Medals of Honor.

Apples to Oranges

Alien invasion was a major Hollywood theme in 1996. Mars Attacks! was released in December, just six months after Independence Day hit theaters. And observers couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the two films.

On the one side, the big blockbuster Independence Day uplifts a utopian vision with careful high art to depict human ingenuity in the struggle against an all-powerful enemy from another world. As extraterrestrial intelligence creatures and weapons lay waste to Earth-based civilizations, humans’ fighting spirit and basic decency eventually prevail. An overall serious tone and impressive CGI make the film a crowd-pleaser.
Mars Attacks

Meanwhile, Mars Attacks! refuses to succumb to the mainstream idea that humans’ conventional weaponry and valor can do any damage to the Martians. The movie even describes the aliens as somewhat ridiculous little green men with childish mannerisms and a taste for cruel pranks. Humans are depicted not as resourceful, but somehow oblivious of the potential danger. A coherent plan to fight back doesn’t exist, and the aliens are too playful with their superior weapons. Humans and Martians are equally ineffective in their own peculiar ways.

Both are disaster films, but each has its own take on an eerily similar premise. Extraterrestrial life invades the planet, destroys well-known landmarks, reduces cities to ruins, and slaughters people. In the end, humanity wins the battle. While Independence Day commemorates itself as an escapist film, Mars Attacks! embraces a comedic non-pretentiousness at full scale and in the process violates the very core of the disaster film genre.

Mars Attacks! may not be the greatest alien invasion movie of all time or a commercially successful one, but it is certainly unusual. More than just comedy, it is a full-blown satire that roasts critics, artists, and even fans. The film does it all within a package of trash culture, delivering and mocking every possible apocalyptic cliché. Take the film with a massive pinch of salt and then you can truly enjoy it to the fullest. However, the computer-generated aliens interact with human actors with great precision, as evidenced by technical expertise in state-of-the-art filmmaking. It begs the question if the mismatched cast and the rather subversive directorial approach by Tim Burton were, in fact, deliberate.

Commercially, Mars Attacks! delivered a financial headache to Walt Disney and the bankers. Critics never really liked the movie and viewers’ opinions remain divisive. Those who expected to see an escapist visual treatment similar to that of Independence Day were utterly disappointed. But many others appreciated the satire, adored the film’s unmistakable playfulness, and still, today think of it as a cult classic.

In case you have not watched Mars Attacks! yet, you might be in for a pleasant surprise. Do you think the film is an outright failure? Or does it deserve enduring fandom? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

Other things you might want to know.

What was the budget for Mars Attacks! film?

Provided with around $70 million by the studio, Mars Attacks! was considered a low-budget film. That said, much of the money was spent on the special effects, leaving only around $28 to cover everything else including the ensemble cast. Added to marketing costs, the actual budget was a little less than $100 million. Its worldwide Box Office revenue was $101.4 million.

What are the most popular Tim Burton’s movies?

Despite the critics’ negative opinions on Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton remains one of the most highly regarded directors in Hollywood. Some of his best works include:

  • Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
  • Beetlejuice (1988)
  • Batman (1989)
  • Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  • Batman Returns (1992)
  • Ed Wood (1994)
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
  • Corpse Bride (2005)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
  • Alice in Wonderland (2010)

What are some other popular alien invasion movies?

  • The War of the Worlds (1953/2005)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  • It Came from Outer Space (1953)
  • The Thing from Another World (1951)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and (1978)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978)

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