“Mars Attacks!” is one seriously strange movie. It’s both inspired by a set of graphically violent collectible cards (think “Garbage Pail Kids” with disembowelment) and 1950s science fiction. While the alien invasion stories of the 1950s were unsubtle allegories for fears of communism, they were also pretty tame and followed the rules of the Hays Code, ensuring that “good morals” and such prevailed. The heroes would be heroic, the villains would be defeated, and America would look like the guardians of the world. “Mars Attacks!” is not that movie. This is a movie where an alien kills the president’s dog and the First Lady (Glenn Close) throws the poor Golden Retriever’s skull at the alien in self-defense.
“Mars Attacks!” is star-studded and lured in audiences with a cast that includes Pam Grier, Annette Benning, Jack Nicholson in a double role, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, and even lounge singer Tom Jones as himself. Combined with a PG-13 rating and advertisements that played up the silliness of the Martians, it looked like a funny, slightly satirical take on something like “Independence Day.” This was 1996, after all, and people were still living in a bubble of optimism that wouldn’t be popped until just after the turn of the century. Burton’s cynicism was far too much for audiences who thought the future was going to be bright, but in retrospect, he was just pointing out the inevitable truth that humans, even/especially the ones in power, can be exceptionally stupid.