The Movie That Made Tim Burton Take A Hiatus From Hollywood

Deliberately immature, comedically violent, amorphously satirical, and boasting a cast of celebrities destined to be skeletonized, Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" is one of the more bracingly strange studio blockbusters of the 1990s. Based on a series of ultra-violent, parent-outraging trading cards first distributed in 1962, "Mars Attacks!" is a gleeful nocturnal emission for violent, antisocial 12-year-olds everywhere. It's one of the few alien invasion films wherein the audience is supposed to root for the aliens. Mars didn't merely attack Earth, but any sense of politeness or common decency. They didn't merely explode the White House as in "Independence Day," they re-carved Mt. Rushmore, transplanted heads between human women and chihuahuas, deliberately knocked the Washington Monument onto a group of visiting Boy Scouts, and inhaled Earth's nuclear weapons as a party gag. "Mars Attacks!" is a film for the vicious little s*** in all of us. 

It was also received very poorly. Audiences didn't quite jibe with Burton's puckish sense of humor, nor were they in the mood for something as weird as "Mars Attacks!" at the time. Only five months earlier, Roland Emmerich's alien invasion of "Independence Day" took the world by storm, and audiences were on the same wavelength as that film's clunky earnestness. It seems no one was in the mood to see one of the year's biggest hits taken down a peg by big-brained, ray-gun-wielding, hipster '60s-retro creatures with a hatred of all things human. "Mars Attacks!" garnered plenty of negative reviews (the film has a near-respectable 55% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and grossed only about $38 million on a reported budget of $70 million. The film was a hit overseas, however, and while it did eventually make back its budget, the rejection by American audiences left Tim Burton reeling a bit, forcing him to take a step back from Hollywood for a few years. 

Tim Burton, outsider populist

In an extensive oral history published on Inverse in December 2021 to coincide with the film's 25th anniversary, "Mars Attacks!" cinematographer Peter Suschitzky nailed Tim Burton's character in a few quick words: 

"Tim has always walked a difficult path, very skillfully, wanting to be an eccentric auteur and at the same time knowing that to succeed in Hollywood, you have to stay a star. And they're incompatible, those two aims." 

Burton occupies a rarified space in the Hollywood firmament, in that he is very odd and is often allowed to play extensively with a pretty extreme aesthetic. But the filmmaker also knows how to play ball, as it were, directing some of the more notable blockbusters of his day: His 1989 film "Batman" has certainly being talked about a lot in the wake of the release of "The Batman." Weird kids the country over connected strongly with Burton's goth visuals (it could be argued that Burton was one of the key artists of the '90s goth movement), turning many of his films into a bizarre combination of massive hits and cult favorites. How odd to see his twisted Halloween dolls from Henry Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" festoon the sanded-down, ultra-safe aesthetic of Disneyland

In that same oral history, Burton admits to making a film intended to be an act of punk defiance: "It just sort of encapsulated everything I felt at the time," he said. "I felt very misplaced at that time, for some strange reason, whether I'd been working at Disney too long." 

Burton started has career as an animator for Disney, working on the notorious bomb "The Black Cauldron." His film immediately before "Mars Attacks!" was the critically lauded but financially unsuccessful "Ed Wood," which he made for Touchstone, a subsidiary of Disney. Burton has always lived in the company's shadow, sometimes literally: He spend his youth in Burbank, CA, where the Disney studio is located. Burton continued on his dissatisfaction: "Or something else, I don't know. Nobody ever really knows what I'm doing anyway, so they really can't comment too much on it because they don't even know what to say about it."

Burton would return to Disney a few times, remaking the studio's animated films "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dumbo," but — especially in the case of the latter — Burton has always had an anti-establishment angle in his films. 

The establishment

Screenwriter Jonathan Gems was frank about the lack of success for "Mars Attacks!," feeling the studio got cold feet and pulled advertising dollars. "It got the thumbs down from New York, the bankers who finance the studios." And whither advertising? Gems added, "It wasn't marketed properly at all. I think they decided they didn't want people to watch the film." Gems also recalls that Warner Bros., the film's distributor, felt the need to punish Burton after the dust had settled, eventually pulling the plug on "Superman Lives," one of the great unrealized blockbusters of the era. Gems recalls that Burton had worked very hard, and had to leave the country after the debacle:

"This film was a f*** of a job — writing it and making it. I worked my ass off, but Tim worked twice as hard as I did. By the end, he was burnt out. He was a wreck. I think he went to India with his girlfriend for about a month. I think I remember him telling me at that time that he didn't want to ever make another movie again."

At the time, Burton was dating actress Lisa Marie, who appears in "Mars Attacks!" as a bizarre Martian spy with a beehive hairdo.

Not everyone was dismayed. Jack Nicholson, who appears in "Mars Attacks!" as both the president and as a sleazy Las Vegas real estate tycoon, loved the script. Indeed, his dual role was inspired by his adoration of Gems' screenplay. According to a 1996 interview in Premiere Magazine (now defunct), Nicholson was asked which part he wanted to play, and reportedly responded with "All of 'em!" Indeed, Nicholson might have been happy actually playing every role. 

Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton was busy throughout the 1990s. In addition to directing "Batman Returns," "Ed Wood," and "Mars Attacks!," he was also producing multiple projects, including "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach," the short-lived animated series "Family Dog," and the cult oddity "Cabin Boy." He also played a version of himself in Cameron Crowe's '90s relationship angst drama "Singles." 

Although he is not on record with this, it's easy to postulate that Burton was overworked. More likely, he had put a lot of time and energy into a bonkers, aggressive, violent comedy film that '90s audiences weren't on the same wavelength as. Larry Karaszewski, who co-wrote "Ed Wood," understands the film's outsider appeal: "There's a singularity about the weirdness of it all," he said. "It's a big crazy confection. Does it all work? I have no clue whether it all works, but it's a good time whenever you put it on."

I agree with Karaszewski. "Mars Attacks!" is a good time. It offers an outlet for any aggressive feelings you may have about society, and there's an odd, bleak comfort to that. "Mars Attacks!" is, like much of Burton's work, a bizarre combination of the cult and the corporate. Fans of slick, relaxing corporate entertainment likely rejected its playful, nihilistic aggression, and cult kids knew better than to accept something that had been given the stamp of approval from Warner Bros. I see "Mars Attacks!" as slipping through the company cracks. A strange, strange movie that a strange director convinced famous people to be in, forcing the Hollywood establishment to take notice, but delivering a middle finger with a booger on the end. What a magical experience.

 "Mars Attacks!" is available for rent on multiple video rental platforms. Don't run. It is your friend.