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Remind Me

Mars Attacks!

Tim Burton's outlandish sci-fi parody, Mars Attacks! (1996) is the first film to have been based on a set of trading cards, and it sure as hell seems like it. Burton, who's seldom concerned with generating story momentum or weaving together intricate plot threads, simply lets a stellar cast of actors run wild while they get vaporized by ray gun-wielding little green men. If you're looking for connective tissue between the various scenes of intergalactic destruction, you'll have to settle for troops of computer-animated rabble-rousers endlessly going "Yak-yak-yak!" (More on that later.)

For what it's worth, Jack Nicholson plays two roles - a Las Vegas real estate hustler and an excessively dimwitted U.S. President who completely misreads an earthly visit from what he imagines to be friendly space aliens. The aliens play nice for a little while, but it's not long before they're blowing the planet to smithereens, one building and scenery-chewing actor at a time. Rod Steiger, who plays a gung-ho military commander, tries to stop them with force, but he' No one in the movie has the slightest idea how to handle the attack, and they basically get fried for your amusement in scene after scene.

So how did Mars Attacks! make the leap from colorful little pieces of cardboard to a very expensive celluloid epic featuring such luminaries as Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Steiger? Not long after completing what may well be his most fully-realized film, Ed Wood (1994), Burton began formulating ideas for his next project. While talking to executives at Warner Bros., he came across a series of 1970s Topps trading cards entitled, Dinosaur Attacks!, which detailed the damage that might occur if a bunch of dinosaurs went rampaging through a modern American city. Burton vaguely recalled a similar set of concept cards from his own childhood, but wasn't certain if he was just imagining that they existed.

It turned out they were real. In 1962, Topps had issued a series of cards called Mars Attacks!, but they contained some scenes that were deemed too "intense" for younger children, and they were quickly removed from the marketplace. This, of course, sent kids around America scrambling to collect them. Over the years, they had become very hot items at card shows. Warner Bros. soon secured the rights to the Mars Attacks! series, and Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems set about turning the various images into a bizarrely entertaining but chaotic narrative.

Burton loved alien invasion movies when he was growing up, and was primed to put a modern, satirical twist on them. "They meant everything to me," he once said. "They're like a collective, primal fairy tale. I've watched them voraciously ever since I was a kid, and I can never remember what they're about. They all sort of meld together. But the things you see as a child remain with you, especially if you like them." How he got from there to having Jim Brown run around in a Roman centurion's outfit while fighting off laser blasts is anybody's guess.

The special effects, of course, were the real stars of the film and the screenplay contained more than 120 shots of global destruction and flying saucer action scenes. Scale models of such famous tourist attractions as Big Ben, the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles, the Eiffel Tower and others were constructed only to be zapped by the Martians in quick succession. One of the most detailed sequences was the title credits in which the Martians are seen departing the Red Planet for Earth, requiring two and a half minutes of saucer animation.

As for the Martians' "yak-yak"-style dialogue, when the screenplay was originally written, there was a lot of genuine conversation between the aliens. But Warner Bros. thought the script was too long given the one-joke premise -- so Burton removed all the interplanetary chit-chat and just let the aliens make what he considered to be a funny sound. "We did a storyboard reel using a cheap tape recorder," Burton later explained. "And we don't even remember who did it - someone just did yak-yak-yak when it came time for the Martians to speak."

Burton told his sound men that he wanted the aliens to make that particular noise when they spoke, but their attempts to re-create the low-tech "yak-yak" always came out too polished. So Burton ended up using the original, cheapo track, rather than wasting more time and money on something that, in the end, probably wouldn't have worked as well anyway. That's a nice little cost-cutter...not that it helps all that much when you have teams of computer whizzes animating an Army of nihilistic space invaders and figuring out how to put Sarah Jessica Parker's head on a dog's body. Sometimes you just can't scrimp.

Additional Trivia:
- Warren Beatty was originally approached to play the President but turned it down.
- The sound effect for the ray guns was taken from the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds.
- Lisa Marie, the Martian Girl, had to be sewn into her costume every day to make it appear as seamless as possible - Mars Attacks! had originally been scheduled for a Christmas release which explains Burton's color preference for scenes in which victims vaporized by the Martians became glowing green or red skeletons.
- Pahrump, Nevada, the home of talk show host Art Bell whose favorite topic is aliens and close encounters, is where the Martians first land in Mars Attacks!.

Director: Tim Burton
Producers: Larry J. Franco, Tim Burton
Screenplay: Jonathan Gems
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Danny Elfman
Editor: Chris Lebenzon
Production Design: Wynn Thomas
Art Direction: John Dexter
Set Design: Richard G. Berger, Nancy Haigh, Randy Thom
Costume Design: Colleen Atwood
Sound/Sound Design: Dennis Maitland, Sr.
Principal Cast: Jack Nicholson (Art Land/President Dale), Glenn Close (Marsha Dale), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (Donald Kessler), Danny DeVito (Rude Gambler), Jim Brown (Byron Williams), Martin Short (Jerry Ross), Michael J. Fox (Jason Stone), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Tom Jones (Himself), Sarah Jessica Parker (Nathalie Lake), Natalie Portman (Taffy Dale), Sylvia Sidney (Grandma Norris), Rod Steiger (Gen. Decker), Paul Winfield (Gen. Casey).
C-103m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara