There have been lots of alien invasion movies, but there’s never been one quite like Mars Attacks! Tim Burton’s 1996 sci-fi/comedy presents its aliens as a genuine threat to humanity, yet everything that takes place is portrayed in hilariously goofy style. The film centers around what happens when hostile Martians arrive on Earth and begin wreaking all kinds of havoc. Intentionally designed to spoof the often cheesy science-fiction adventures of the 1950s, it has an all-star cast, led by the great Jack Nicholson. The real stars, though, are the aliens themselves. Rarely have extra-terrestrial visitors been so lethal and so silly at the same time.
Mars Attacks! had a rather unexpected and interesting genesis. Bringing it to the screen took quite some time and involved different writers, and the means by which key elements were realized occasionally caused dispute. Several in-jokes were inserted into the story. The movie even helped to resolve a feud between two of the most recognized members of its creative team. And what happened after the release…well, there are a couple of stories to tell there. We’ll give you all of this and more in our look back at a motion picture that could only have come from the inimitable Tim Burton.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Mars Attacks!
15. It’s based on a line of trading cards
If you don’t pay close attention to the opening credits, you may miss a really important fact: Mars Attacks! has some very bizarre source material. The Topps company released a series of trading cards in the early 1960s, on which the movie is based. If you had the whole set and looked at them in sequence, they told a story about a Martian invasion of Earth and the eventual efforts of mankind to fight back.
The cards were extremely controversial, as they featured fairly graphic depictions of people getting slaughtered and tortured by the aliens, in addition to images of implied sexuality. One of the more gruesome images (seen above) featured the Martians ripping a man’s heart out of his chest while a caged, half-naked woman looks on in horror. Parents were aghast by what their kids were collecting, which led to vocal outrage. Topps considered reissuing some of the cards with tamer illustrations. Ultimately, though, they stopped producing them altogether because of the negative feedback. Nevertheless, those cards made a strong impression on those who saw them, including Tim Burton, who later recognized comedic potential in their basic premise.
14. Repo Man director Alex Cox tried to make it first
Alex Cox is best known for writing and directing the 1984 cult classic Repo Man, as well as the acclaimed 1986 punk rock drama Sid & Nancy, which chronicled the fatal romance between the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Those movies gave him a lot of heat in Hollywood, but they couldn’t help him succeed in launching his own version of Mars Attacks!, which he very much wanted to do. The filmmaker had been a fan of the card series as a child, managing to procure a whole set before they were banned by the British parliament.
On his official website, Cox says that he proposed a Mars Attacks! movie to Orion Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures. Over the course of four years, he penned three different drafts of a screenplay. Despite all this work, the studios wouldn’t greenlight his script. Another writer was assigned to the project, which was eventually shelved until the ’90s, when Tim Burton picked up the ball. If you want to know what an Alex Cox version of Mars Attacks! might have been like, he posted a .pdf file of his third draft script online. Take particular note of the fact that he describes the walls of a public relations company containing “pictures of former presidents Carter, Reagan, [and] Donald Trump” on the walls. Apparently, the man is psychic.
13. A famous author worked on the screenplay
With Cox’s screenplay a no-go, another writer was brought in to work on the project. His name was Martin Amis, and if he sounds familiar, there’s a very good reason for that. Amis is an acclaimed British author who has twice been nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. His novels London Fields and Money were best sellers, and The Rachel Papers was turned into an Ione Skye movie in 1989. Amis was an ambitious writer who certainly knew how to craft compelling plots and characters.
The author got involved after befriending Jon Davison, a writer for Premiere magazine. When Davison went on to become a producer on Mars Attacks!, he asked his pal to take a crack at it. Given that he’d previously written the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3 (starring Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett), asking Amis to work on another project in the genre didn’t seem like a far-fetched idea. The writer, for his part, was thrilled to have the chance. Once again, though, the script didn’t pass muster with the studio, and Amis was replaced. When asked years later about his involvement, he stated, “I rather liked the film, though it contained not a word I wrote.”
12. The inclusion of Pahrump, Nevada is a big inside joke
During a crucial moment in the film, Jack Nicholson’s President Dale watches a television broadcast as some scientists and aides make contact with the Martians in the town of Pahrump, Nevada. It ends with the aliens opening fire and killing a lot of humans with their ray guns. The town’s name may seem like some silly-sounding moniker made up by screenwriters seeking a cheap giggle. Pahrump is quite real, however, and there’s a very specific reason why it was chosen.
Pahrump is the residence of Art Bell, an author and radio show host. Bell’s stock in trade was covering paranormal subjects, including UFO sightings and other unexplainable phenomena. He was also known for loving conspiracy theories — the more “out there,” the better. The show he hosted, Coast to Coast AM, ran overnight and was syndicated to radio stations across the country, where it developed a following of like-minded listeners. Bell, now retired, eventually left that program, moving on to host Art Bell’s Dark Matter for Sirius XM. This, too, was based out of Pahrump. That hostile Martians would land in the town where Bell made a name for himself proffering cosmic conspiracies is a great big inside joke.
11. Budget issues changed how the Martians were created
Tim Burton is a huge fan of stop-motion animation. He’s used it in his films many times over his career, as in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie. He wanted to have the aliens in Mars Attacks! be stop-motion animated, as well. This was an intention to pay homage to Ray Harryhausen, the master of the technique, whose exemplary work elevated a lot of sci-fi/fantasy films in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Among Harryhausen’s best-known efforts are Mighty Joe Young, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original Clash of the Titans. Burton had always been very inspired by what the animator accomplished. He thought that creating the Martians in this manner would be fitting, given the pictures that influenced the story and tone of Mars Attacks!
The problem with this plan was that Warner Brothers decided to slash the budget. Burton and his producers wanted a reported $100 million with which to make the film, but the studio capped them at $75 million. As a result, some preliminary stop-motion work had already been done and needed to be tossed. Meanwhile, Industrial Light & Magic was brought in to create CGI Martians for approval. When he saw how well the company was able to realize his vision for the alien beings, Burton relented and agreed to the more budget-conscious option. No one can say how things would have played with stop-motion, but it’s hard to deny that the CGI is incredibly effective, especially for the mid-’90s.
10. There are disputes over how the Martian language was conceived
The Martian language featured in the film is pretty distinct — and pretty funny. When they speak, the words come out in a weird “ack ack ack” sound. It’s perfect for the film because it emphasizes the juxtaposition between the weirdness of the aliens and their inherent lethality. The effect was achieved by taking the sound of a duck quack and playing it backward, with some subtle sound mixing to give it an otherworldly vibe. If you’re wondering where the “Ack!” idea originally sprang from, there are varying accounts.
Burton has said in interviews that the script didn’t specify any actual dialogue for the characters. Instead, it just said things like “Martian Commander speaks.” Therefore, during the process of assembling a storyboard reel, the words “yak yak yak” were simply used to indicate that the aliens were talking. According to his version, that seemed oddly fitting, and was therefore kept. Meanwhile, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who did an uncredited rewrite of the script, claim that they came up with “ack ack ack” as temporary dialogue to assist them in establishing the rhythm in scenes featuring the characters. Who’s right? We may never know for sure.
9. The hotel implosion is real
The Landmark Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had a storied history. The structure, which opened in the late 1960s, hosted such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, both of whom performed there. Sections of it were used in motion pictures, ranging from Diamonds Are Forever, to The Cooler, to Martin Scorsese’s Casino. For many years, it was one of the hottest destinations on the Vegas strip. Time marched on, however, and bigger, fancier hotels and casinos were erected in the city, causing the Landmark to lose much of its popularity. It closed permanently in 1990.
As it happened, the screenplay for Mars Attacks! contained a scene in which the fictional Galaxy Hotel is destroyed by death rays coming from the Martian saucers. Special effects technically could have accomplished this sequence, but the producers had a better idea. The Landmark, with its distinct tower shape, was scheduled to be demolished. Camera crews were set up to film the implosion, which lasted all of about seventeen seconds, and the glorious footage was used in the film. So when you see the Galaxy Hotel go down, know that you’re seeing an actual casino get destroyed for real.
8. Jack Nicholson wasn’t the first choice to play the president
Mars Attacks! reunited Tim Burton with legendary actor Jack Nicholson, who earned raves portraying the Joker in the director’s 1989 classic, Batman. Nicholson was cast in two roles: developer Art Land and President of the United States James Dale. The latter role was seemingly perfect. Presidents are supposed to be authoritative figures, and who in Hollywood has more stature than Jack?
Okay, so maybe there are a few who equal him in this regard. Some of those actors were even considered for the role of President Dale before he was. Warren Beatty – a true contemporary of Nicholson’s – was initially cast in the part. He dropped out, although his wife Annette Bening remained a cast member. After Beatty, the production went to Paul Newman, who reportedly had concerns over the story’s violence (shades of the trading card controversy, right?) and also bolted the project. Batman himself, Michael Keaton, was talked about as well. In the end, though, the part went to Nicholson, who, in retrospect, seems just about the best choice imaginable. He’s so funny that it’s hard to see anyone else playing President Dale.
7. The girlfriends of both Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton appeared in the movie
The set of Mars Attacks! must have been a little bit of a lovefest. Two of the most prominent individuals on the production had the special people in their lives right there with them. Burton cast his then-girlfriend, model Lisa Marie, in the role of Martian Girl. She had also appeared in her boyfriend’s previous movie, Ed Wood, as Vampira. They were together from 1993 to 2001, at which time the director fell for his Planet of the Apes star Helena Bonham Carter. Lisa Marie later unsuccessfully tried to sue Burton for money she claimed he promised her during the course of their relationship. The judge ruled against her, pointing out that Burton gave her $5.5 million upon their split, in addition to a New York apartment, a Jaguar coupe, and some artwork.
Playing the very small role of a prostitute, meanwhile, was Rebecca Broussard, an actress better known to the public as the girlfriend of Jack Nicholson. They’d split a couple of years before Mars Attacks! was made, but maintained a close relationship due to the fact that they had two children together. Broussard appeared in the actor’s movies with some regularity, having also turned up in The Two Jakes and Man Trouble.
6. The makers of Independence Day raced to beat it to theaters
There were two prominent alien invasion movies released in 1996. Mars Attacks! elected to take a straight-on comedic approach to the subject, while Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (starring Will Smith) approached the concept of aliens attacking our planet a bit more seriously, delivering a grade-A adventure full of impressive visual effects and genuine thrills. ID4 went on to become the year’s biggest hit, earning over $817 million worldwide. It’s hard to believe now, but at one point, the makers of that blockbuster were afraid of competing with Mars Attacks!
In an interview with The Guardian, Emmerich recalls a conversation he had with co-writer and producer Dean Devlin. The director said it would be bad for their film to come out after a parody, so they needed to ensure they got to theaters first. He wanted to shoot for the long July 4 holiday weekend, to give them a jump on Burton’s picture (which was, at that time, slated for an August release). Emmerich and Devlin came up with the title Independence Day and set the story around the date, knowing the studio would see the obvious marketing benefit to releasing the film during that lucrative summer month. They did indeed come out first, and ended up with a humongous hit.
5. Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman resolved their feud for the film
Danny Elfman was the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the seminal ’80s rock band Oingo Boingo. Their biggest hit was the eponymous theme song from Weird Science, but they had many other great tunes as well. On the side, Elfman composed film scores. He and Tim Burton first worked together on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and they continued to collaborate on every subsequent movie from the director. Then they had a falling-out, which led to Elfman not doing the score for Ed Wood – a picture he would have been perfectly suited to. The feud lasted several years, but the pair eventually patched things up, with Elfman returning to compose the music for Mars Attacks!
He explained the incident to the Huffington Post, saying that his work writing the songs and score for Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas had been a two-and-a-half year project, and he also scored the director’s Batman Returns in the middle of that process. The stress put a strain on their relationship. “I really felt like I had lost a sibling,” Elfman explained. A couple of years later, they reunited in a Kansas City coffee shop and made amends. “We just got together and said, ‘Let’s just never speak of it.’ And everything’s been lovely since then.” With that, one of the great modern cinematic collaborations was saved.
4. It was a box office flop in the U.S.
Mars Attacks! was initially intended to be a summer release, but it didn’t end up hitting cinemas until December 13, 1996. Despite the delay, Warner Brothers had high hopes that it prove to be a holiday blockbuster. After all, it came from one of the hottest directors in town and featured an impressive all-star cast, including Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, and Michael J. Fox. That wish didn’t come to pass. The movie was a surprise flop, earning just $37.7 million in its North American run.
What was the reason for this? For starters, the Christmas moviegoing season was especially competitive that year. Mars Attacks! opened against the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire and the Denzel Washington/Whitney Houston romance The Preacher’s Wife, while other recent releases – 101 Dalmatians, Star Trek: First Contact, and Ransom – all continued to perform strongly. (The following week would see the release of Beavis and Butthead Do America, which turned out to be the picture of choice for comedy fans at the time.) Mixed reviews didn’t help, either. A few critics appreciated what Burton did, but many of them echoed Roger Ebert, who suggested that “A movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse.” Only over time did Mars Attacks! really find its proper audience.
3. It was nominated for a number of awards (but no Oscars)
Because it wasn’t a huge box-office hit, and because the reviews were middling at best, you might assume that Mars Attacks! was not an awards contender. You’d only be partially right. It’s true that the movie wasn’t recognized by any of the major awards bodies. No Oscar nominations (although it did make the shortlist for Best Visual Effects), no Golden Globes, no BAFTAs. That said, it was recognized by several other notable organizations.
The Saturn Awards — created to honor outstanding accomplishments in science-fiction, horror, and fantasy — nominated it for seven awards, including Best Science-Fiction Film, Best Director, and Best Special Effects. It won one award, allowing Danny Elfman to take home the Best Music prize. The Art Directors Guild nominated the movie for Excellence in Production Design, and the Hugo awards (which also honor sci-fi) named it as one of the contenders for Best Dramatic Presentation. Topping it all off was an MTV Movie Award nomination in the Best Fight category for a brawl between Jim Brown and an alien. While not your typical “awards bait,” Mars Attacks! certainly did receive some acclaim in that area.
2. Singer Slim Whitman was forever affiliated with the movie, even in death
Slim Whitman was a country-western singer known for his three-octave range and tendency to incorporate a stunning yodel into many of his songs. He toured with Elvis, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and was a favorite of both George Harrison and Michael Jackson. Oh, and he is said to have sold over 120 million records. To a different generation, though, Whitman was a bit of a joke. In the 1980s, direct marketing TV commercials plugging his albums were ubiquitous. In the age of Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, and Prince, something about this yodeling cowboy seemed utterly strange.
The Slim Whitman-as-a-joke idea made its way into Mars Attacks! when it is discovered that the only way to stop the aliens is to make their heads explode by playing the singer’s “Indian Love Call.” What no one could have predicted was how much impact this gag would have. Despite not appearing onscreen, Whitman was associated with the movie until the day he died in 2013. Virtually every obituary of him made reference to Mars Attacks! The New York Times obit for the singer mentioned it in the very first sentence. Even now, years after his passing, the mention of Slim Whitman’s name immediately evokes memories of Tim Burton’s sci-fi silliness. People today think of his connection to the film more than they do his music.
1. Howard Stern claimed the movie ripped off his idea
The previously-mentioned Slim Whitman gag provides Mars Attacks! with one of its biggest laughs. The very notion of blowing up aliens’ heads by playing weird yodel-singing music is hilarious. For a movie as intentionally silly as this, the means by which the Martians are defeated is the kookiest bit of all. One person who didn’t find the idea to be all that funny was infamous radio shock jock Howard Stern, as the so-called “King of All Media” believed the movie was ripping him off.
Back in the ’80s, Stern did a bit on his WNBC show entitled “Slim Whitman vs. the Midget Aliens from Mars.” It involved — you guessed it! — Slim Whitman music being used to ward off an alien attack. After seeing Mars Attacks!, Stern was taken aback. He went on his show and registered his displeasure, saying that the experience of unexpectedly seeing something so similar to his own concept “freaked me out.” His co-host, Robin Quivers, speculated that perhaps it was merely a case of the writers paying tribute to him, as opposed to actual plagiarism. Stern didn’t totally buy that explanation, but he didn’t hold a grudge either, saying that he was a fan of Burton’s. The director, meanwhile, dismissed the incident as a mere coincidence.
What’s your favorite part of Mars Attacks? Do you know of any other cool trivia regarding the film? Tell us about it in the comments.
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