Sunday, 6 November 2011

Tim Burton's 'Mars Attacks!', 1996...

Fig. 1 Mars Attacks! Poster.

Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! is a fun and loving homage to the B-Movies that he grew up with. According to MobileReference it's "Based on a popular science fiction trading card series, the film was a hybrid of 1950's sci-fi flicks anarchic cacophony of clever satire and goofy mayhem." (MobileReference) 
This is definitely an apt description of the film's tone and content.  However, to understand what Tim Burton is trying to do with his genre film the three variations of referencing should first be looked at. The first of these categories is the 'pastiche'.  A pastiche is often used as an imitation of a film's visual language not for comedic value, but for a more satirical purpose.  The second is the 'parody', which is often imitation in order to directly ridicule the film or text it is trying to imitate.  The last is the 'spoof', which is often a re-enactment for a broad comedic outcome.  Mars Attacks! is the latter, as it re-enacts visuals from old 1950's B-Movies for good humour as its style is very well known, and when it isn't the audience can still enjoy the 'goofy mayhem' that ensues. The visual style of the fifties science-fiction movies is incredibly iconic, as Eric S. Rabkin expresses "The backdrop is the Red Planet, which is releasing saucers speeding our way and causing flaming destruction...this end-of-the-century spoof intends to satirize not only our images but the earnest warnings of earlier science fiction movies like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. In Mars Atacks!, too, Washington is covered by descending saucers. But to blasé 1990's, this is all just hilarious." (Rabkin, 2005:172) The attempts that the old movies made to warn us of the risks of science and invasion through their special effects is almost comedic to the modern audience, so Mars Attacks! has used this to its advantage and made a spoof that is silly fun and still using the original visual language of the films.
Fig. 2 Mars Attacks! Trading Card.
Something that is very interesting to consider for Mars Attacks! is that although it is a spoof of the 1950's science-fiction alien invasion movies, it has taken its title from an old trading card collection.  John L. Flynn explains that "In 1962...Topps Incorporated issued a fifty-five card set that updated H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds to the paranoid Fifties, called "Mars Attacks!" The bubblegum cards told the familiar story of an invasion from Mars and how individual humans responded to the attack." (Flynn, 2005:163)  These trading cards were clearly drawing their audience from those that enjoyed the old fifites films, but these cards were intended for children so their visuals would have been bright and non-threatening in nature, despite what might be taking place in the image.  The original fifties films were considered horror movies and were intended for adults, but the fact that the cards are taking these old horror films and using them for a child's toy makes it a similar spoof of the genre.  Due to this, the film Mars Attacks! can be considered a spoof of a spoof as it takes its visual style and production design directly from the card game, so not only was the title taken from the cards but the actual imagery too.
Fig. 3 Alien and his ray gun.
The themes seen in the old fifties science-fiction/horror genre movies are all covered in Tim Burton's film. As Rabkin points out, that "we see the evolved big-brain alien with a nasty, death-dealing skeletal smile; the sexual competition in the pointy-breasted model (who turns out to be a Martian remodeled like a pod person to appear human); and the fairy-tale punishment of a woman melded with a dog. (Rabkin, 2005:172) Here he has covered the themes of threat by intellectually superior and aesthetically unpleasant alien, sexually threatening and ambiguous creature and the more Tim Burton-esque theme of talking heads. Although the latter is more common in his films, they have all appeared in the science-fiction movies of that period.  This borrowing from films of the same genre is seen in the soundtrack too. Marc Saltzman revealed that "the sound effects used for the ray guns in Mars Attacks! were taken from Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds" (Saltzman, 2003:95). A film about a destructive alien invasion on Earth, it doesn't really get much more appropriate than that.  Even the clothing in the film is taken from this time period in film.  Though Mars Attacks! it is set in modern day, the soldier's uniform and even the president's wife's dresses, are all echoing the fifties/early sixties fashions.

Although some people may find that this 'borrowing' from other films of the same genre from a specific period unoriginal or perhaps a little old now, others can see it as a loving spoof of films that many generations have fond memories of. It is a lovely example of how good production design can really place a movie in a particular time, even when it is clearly in the present day.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Mars Attacks! (1996) Mars Attacks! Poster. At: (Accessed on: 05.11.11)

Figure 2. Mars Attacks! (1962) Mars Attacks! Trading Card. At: (Accessed on: 05.11.11)

Figure 3. Mars Attacks! (1996) Alien and his ray gun. At: (Accessed on: 05.11.11)


Flynn, John L. (2005) War of the worlds: from Wells to Spielberg. USA: Galactic Books.

Rabkin, Eric S. (2005) Mars: a tour of the human imagination. USA: Praeger Publishers

MobileReference. Encyclopedia of American Cinema for Smartphones and Mobile Devices

Saltzman, Marc (2003) DVD Confidential 2: The Sequel. USA: MacGraw-Hill Professional.

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