Sandwiched between a run of career-making fan favorites and blatant late-period cash-grabbing, Tim Burton’s big-budget crack at the mid century B-picture sits at the proverbial acme of the macabre master’s ever-growing filmography. Critical consensus, last I checked, still regards 1994 biopic Ed Wood as Burton’s most “mature” effort, but there is a compelling case to be made for its follow-up: Mars Attacks!, likely the most successful adaptation of a Topps trading card game in cinema history.
Where Ed Wood offered Burton an opportunity to engage with childhood favorites from a deliberately poignant remove, Hollywood was less receptive to an out-and-out homage. Released in 1996 after a decade in development limbo, Mars Attacks! seemed destined for punchline status from the get-go. The gluttonous budget, disappointing box office performance, and icy critical reception undercut any merchandising scheme Warner Brothers had in store and effectively delegated it to a special storeroom for ambitious and unprofitable genre pictures. That Mars Attacks! was adapted from a toy to begin with didn’t help matters, although it did presage a slate of playthings-turned-movies that have dominated multiplexes for two decades.
In the 25 years since its release, Mars Attacks! has had a surprisingly viable shelf life. After a quarter-century spent slapping his good name on disappointing remakes and franchises, Mars Attacks! may well be the last whiff of that Burton magic so cherished by generations of angsty teens, the swan song of an era before self-styled outcasts outgrew their spooky niche and spilled their nerd viscera all over the front offices. Despite its long-held “Rotten” status, the film’s A-list ensemble cast, genuinely impressive Industrial Light and Magic effects, and Death Valley-dry comedic tone have aged spectacularly. One could scarcely imagine the Snyders and Russos of this world producing anything so deliberately “fun” as Burton’s mid-career blow-out, and with such apparent affection for the long-forgotten product at its core.
Mars Attacks! screens on 35mm Friday at 3:00 pm at MoMA, the inaugural film of its reopening for in-person screenings. It shows as part of the hybrid in-person/online film series Wynn Thomas, Production Designer.