Mars Attacks! draws on the famous (or more accurately notorious) Topps gum card series. These consisted of 55 cards that were released in 1962. These prompted parental outrage because of their lurid and gory images of Martians invading the Earth, torturing people, unleashing deadly rayguns and giant robots. The parental outrage was such that it ended up causing the card series to be withdrawn. (Nowadays, the cards are collectors items, worth more than $1000 apiece).
The film comes across almost as a science-fictional version of Gremlins (1984), with Tim Burton revelling in the same sense of gleefully malicious humour that Joe Dante delighted in. The Martians are a wonderfully evil bunch of creations sewing peoples heads onto dogs, crisping animals and people, always with an evil cackle and the film delights in the sheer anarchy unleashed.
The special effects are very impressive. Although, there is something odd in this peculiar fad for retro science-fiction when one realizes that top-drawer Industrial Light and Magic effects are being employed for the purpose of creating flying saucers that look like bad effects out of 1950s science-fiction movies, and when normally seamless CGI effects are deliberately designed to move with the jerky gait of stop-motion animation.
On the minus side, Mars Attacks! lacks much enervation when the Martians are not on screen. The film affects the same disaster movie structure that Independence Day (1996), which only came out a few months earlier, did of a large ensemble of characters dealing with the menace in a variety of locations. Tim Burton has assembled a huge big name cast. Everybody seems to have regarded the exercise as a comedy and deliver deliberately broad performances. The film lacks much in the way of a plot it consists of not much more than Tim Burtons cornball set-ups. The method of despatch of the Martians at the end is a steal from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978).
The best way of viewing Mars Attacks! is as anathema to the deadpan pomposity of Independence Day. The two films were both in production at the same time so it is more a case of coincidence of timing rather than exploitation of theme. Despite itself, the situation feels not unlike back in 1975 when Roger Corman jumped in and sent-up the self-important Rollerball (1975) with Death Race 2000 (1975) and made a far more enjoyable film than his source of inspiration. If it wasnt the case, one might not be mistaken in thinking of Mars Attacks! as a parody of Independence Day. Where Independence Day reverentially brings out a parade of American landmarks and intends us to be shocked as they are blown to pieces, Mars Attacks! shows us the Martians posing for a photo as the Taj Mahal is blown up in the background; recrafting Mount Rushmore with their own faces; and playing bowls with the statues on Easter Island. Where Independence Day stands still for The President to give a rousing patriotic speech, Mars Attacks! has The President give a noble and stirring speech pleading for togetherness and understanding only to have the Martin leaders hand come off when The President shakes it, crawl around his back, stab him and then sprout a flag through his chest. When the invasion is over, Tim Burton sends-up passover scenes by having the survivors emerge from a cave accompanied by doves, deer and raccoons all lying down in harmony. And when it comes to the great speech about rebuilding the world, all Lukas Haas has to offer is a vague: I think you should go and rebuild and all that ... And I think people should use more tepees.
Tim Burtons other films of genre interest include the kitsch Pee-Wees Big Adventure (1985); the bizarre ghost story Beetlejuice (1988); Batman (1989); the genteel artificial boy fairy-tale Edward Scissorhands (1990); Batman Returns (1992); Ed Wood (1994), a biopic of the worlds worst director; the ghost story Sleepy Hollow (1999); the remake of Planet of the Apes (2001); Big Fish (2003) about an habitual teller of tall tales; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005); the stop-motion animated Gothic Corpse Bride (2005); the horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007); Alice in Wonderland (2010); the film remake of the tv series Dark Shadows (2012) the stop-motion animated Frankenweenie (2012); and Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Burton also produced Henry Selicks darkly brilliant stop-motion animated fantasies The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996); as well as the live-action conte cruel Cabin Boy (1994), Batman Forever (1995) the animated 9 (2009), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016). The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? (2015) is a fascinating documentary about Burtons failed Superman Lives project.
(Nominee for Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 1996 Awards).