The filmmakers hired Industrial Light & Magic to create the Martians using computer animation after their previous plan to use stop motion, supervised by Barry Purves, fell through because of budget limitations. Mars Attacks! was released theatrically by Warner Bros. Pictures in the United States on December 13, 1996 and received mixed reviews from critics. The film grossed approximately $101 million in box office totals, which was seen as a disappointment. Mars Attacks! was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and earned multiple nominations at the Saturn Awards.
In Kentucky, a family watches in confusion as a herd of cattle starts running past their home, on fire. A spaceship explodes before it returns to Mars, and hundreds of other Martian ships leave Mars and head towards Earth. President James Dale, along with his aides, addresses the United States concerning the historic event. The President's science aides set up a first contact meeting with the Martians in Pahrump, Nevada as President Dale watches the development on TV with his wife Marsha and his daughter Taffy.
Using a translation machine, the Ambassador of Mars announces that they "come in peace". When a hippie releases a dove as a symbol of peace, the Ambassador shoots and kills it before he and the other Martians slaughter a large number of people at the event, including General Casey, news reporter Jason Stone and Billy-Glenn Norris before capturing chat-show host Nathalie Lake and her pet Chihuahua Poppy, whose heads they later transpose back onboard one of their flying saucers.
Thinking that the Martians assumed that the dove was a symbol of war, President Dale tells Professor Donald Kessler to renegotiate with the Martians, whose ambassador is invited to address the United States Congress. At this meeting, the Martians massacre most of Congress. Donald begs the Martian Ambassador to stop, but is rendered unconscious and taken aboard their ship, where he is later shown with his body parts dismembered and his disembodied head remaining animated. General Decker tries to convince President Dale to retaliate with nuclear warfare, but the President refuses.
After a failed attempt to assassinate President Dale, the Martians invade Earth, starting with Washington, D.C. As they attack the White House, the Secret Service evacuates the President, but the First Lady Marsha is crushed to death by the Nancy Reagan chandelier. Taffy vanishes during the chaos. After the U.S. government unsuccessfully attempts a nuclear attack on the mother ship, the Martians expand their invasion to the rest of Earth, defacing world landmarks for their own amusement as they do so. That night, the Martians breach the bunker where Dale has been taken and the leader reduces Decker to the size of an insect before killing him. The Martians kill everyone else in the bunker except for Dale, who makes an impassioned speech in an attempt to plea for peace and his life. The Martians seem convinced, but then use a false hand to kill the President.
As the Martians ravage Las Vegas with Art Land, a Las Vegas developer, being among their victims, Byron Williams, a casino employee and former world champion boxer, leads a small group of survivors consisting of Barbara Land (Art's wife), Tom Jones, a beautiful waitress named Cindy, and a gambling lawyer to an airfield in the hopes of flying a small jet to safety. They barely make it, losing the lawyer in the process, but discover a large group of Martians stationed there as they are preparing to take off. Byron creates a diversion by challenging them to a fistfight. While he succeeds in killing the Ambassador, he is outnumbered and overwhelmed, but Tom, Barbara and Cindy escape.
Billy-Glenn's brother Richie discovers that the Martians' heads explode when they hear Slim Whitman's song "Indian Love Call." He and his grandmother Florence drive around town, using the song to kill the Martians. The military thereafter broadcast the song around the globe, killing most of the Martians and their leader and causing the few remaining survivors to try to flee from Earth. Nathalie and Donald's disembodied heads kiss while the Martian spaceship they are on explodes when it crashes into the ocean.
In the aftermath, Richie and Florence are awarded the Medal of Honor by Taffy, she being the only surviving member of the government. Byron, who survived his brawl with the Martians, arrives in D.C. to reunite with his former wife Louise and their two sons Cedric and Neville (who saved Dale's life back in the White House using two guns they stole from a dead Martian) as the devastation is being cleaned up. Barbara, Cindy and Tom Jones emerge from a cave with some animals to see dozens of crashed Martian ships in the adjacent Lake Tahoe.Jack Nicholson as President James Dale, the President of the United States.
Nicholson also portrays Art Land, a developer in Las Vegas.
Glenn Close as First Lady Marsha Dale, James Dale's wife.
Annette Bening as Barbara Land, Art Land's wife.
Pierce Brosnan as Professor Donald Kessler, a scientist working for President Dale who is later captured and experimented on by the Martians.
Danny DeVito as Rude Gambler
Martin Short as Press Secretary Jerry Ross
Sarah Jessica Parker as Nathalie Lake, a talk show host who is later captured and experimented on by the Martians.
Michael J. Fox as Jason Stone, a news reporter who is killed during the Martians' first attack.
Rod Steiger as General Decker, a U.S. Army general who works for President Dale.
Lukas Haas as Richie Norris, Billy-Glenn Norris's younger brother.
Natalie Portman as Taffy Dale, James and Marsha Dale's daughter.
Jim Brown as Byron Williams, a Las Vegas casino employee and former boxer.
Lisa Marie Smith as Martian Girl, a Martian posing as a human female.
Sylvia Sidney as Florence Norris, Richie and Billy-Glenn's grandmother.
Tom Jones as Himself
Christina Applegate as Sharona, Billy-Glenn's girlfriend.
Pam Grier as Louise Williams, Byron's former wife.
Jack Black as Billy-Glenn Norris, a U.S. Army private who is Richie's older brother and gets himself killed trying to stand up to the Martians.
Paul Winfield as General Casey
Janice Rivera as Cindy, a co-worker of Byron.
Brian Haley as Mitch, a Secret Service agent.
Joe Don Baker as Mr. Norris, Billy-Glenn and Richie's father.
O-Lan Jones as Sue-Ann Norris, Billy-Glenn and Richie's mother.
Ray J and Brandon Hammond as Cedric and Neville Williams, Byron and Louise's sons.
Jerzy Skolimowski as Dr. Zeigler, a scientist who created a device that (badly) translated the Martian language.
Barbet Schroeder as Maurice, the President of France.
Joseph Maher as White House Decorator
Steve Valentine as TV Director
Frank Welker as Martian Vocal Effects
Roger L. Jackson as Dr. Zeigler's translator (voice uncredited)
In 1985, Alex Cox pitched the idea of a film based on the Mars Attacks trading card series as a joint-production to Orion and Tristar Pictures. He wrote three drafts over the next four years, but was replaced by Martin Amis before Orion/Tristar placed Mars Attacks in turnaround.
Jonathan Gems, who had previously written multiple unproduced screenplays for director Tim Burton, came up with his own idea for a Mars Attacks film in 1993. The writer pitched both concepts of Mars Attacks and Dinosaurs Attack! to Burton, who both decided that Dinosaurs Attack! would be too similar to Jurassic Park (1993). Burton, who was busy preparing Ed Wood (1994), believed that Mars Attacks! would be a perfect opportunity to pay homage to the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., especially Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and other 1950s science fiction B movies, such as Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Target Earth (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).
Burton set Mars Attacks! up with Warner Bros. and the studio purchased the film rights to the trading card series on his behalf. The original theatrical release date was planned for the summer of 1996. Gems completed his original script in 1994, which was budgeted by Warner Bros. at $260 million. The studio wanted to make the film for no more than $60 million. After turning in numerous drafts in an attempt to lower the budget, Gems was replaced by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
Gems eventually returned to the project, writing a total of 12 drafts of the script. Although he is credited with both the screen story and screenplay of Mars Attacks!, Gems dedicates his novelization of the movie to Burton, who "co-wrote the screenplay and didn't ask for a credit". Warner Bros. was dubious of the Martian dialogue and wanted Burton to add closed captioning subtitles, but he resisted. Working with Burton, Gems pared the film's 60 leading characters down to 23, and the worldwide destruction planned for the film was isolated to three major cities. Scenes featuring Martians attacking China, the Philippines, Japan, Europe, Africa, India, and Russia were deleted from the screenplay. "Bear in mind this was way before Independence Day (1996) was written," Gems commented. "We had things like Manhattan being destroyed building by building, the White House went and so did the Empire State Building. Warner Bros. figured all this would be too expensive, so we cut most of that out to reduce the cost." Howard Stern claimed that the film's climax, where an attack by Martians was thwarted by playing Slim Whitman songs to them, was originally created by him when he worked at WNBC in 1982, in a sketch named "Slim Whitman vs. The Midget Aliens From Mars." As Burton listened to the sketch while being interviewed by Stern, he dismissed it as mere coincidence.
The decision to hire an A-list ensemble cast for Mars Attacks! parallels the strategy Irwin Allen used for his disaster films, notably The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Jack Nicholson, approached for the role of president, jokingly remarked he wanted to play all the roles. Burton agreed to cast Nicholson as both Art Land and President Dale, specifically remembering his positive working relationship with the actor on Batman.
Susan Sarandon was originally set to play Barbara Land before Annette Bening was cast. Bening modeled the character after Ann-Margret's performance in Viva Las Vegas (1964). Hugh Grant was the first choice for Professor Donald Kessler, which eventually went to Pierce Brosnan. Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Stockard Channing were considered for First Lady Marsha Dale, but Glenn Close won the role. In addition to Nicholson, other actors who reunited with Burton on Mars Attacks! include Sylvia Sidney from Beetlejuice (1988), O-Lan Jones from Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Danny DeVito from Batman Returns (1992), continuing Burton's trend of recasting actors several times from his previous works.
The originally scheduled start date was mid-August 1995, but filming was delayed until February 26, 1996. Director Tim Burton hired Peter Suschitzky as the cinematographer, because he was a fan of his work in David Cronenberg's films. Production designer Thomas Wynn (A Beautiful Mind, Malcolm X) intended to have the war room pay tribute to Dr. Strangelove (1964). During production, Burton insisted that the art direction, cinematography and costume design of Mars Attacks! incorporate the look of the 1960s trading cards.
On designing the Martian (played by Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie Smith) who seduces Jerry Ross (Martin Short), costume designer Colleen Atwood took combined inspiration from the playing cards, Marilyn Monroe, the work of Alberto Vargas and Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968). Filming for Mars Attacks! ended on June 1, 1996. The film score was written/composed by Burton's regular Danny Elfman, to whom Burton was reconciled after a quarrel occurred during The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), for which they did not co-operate in producing Ed Wood (1994). Elfman enlisted the help of Oingo Boingo lead guitarist Steve Bartek to help arrange the compositions for the orchestra.
Tim Burton initially intended to use stop motion animation to feature the Martians, viewing it as a homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen, primarily Jason and the Argonauts. Similar to his own Beetlejuice, Burton "wanted to make [the special effects] look cheap and purposely fake-looking as possible." He first approached Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, to supervise the stop motion work, but Selick was busy directing James and the Giant Peach, also produced by Burton. Despite the fact that Warner Bros. was skeptical of the escalating budget and had not yet greenlit the film for production, Burton hired Barry Purves to shepherd the stop-motion work. Purves created an international team of about 70 animators, who worked on Mars Attacks! for eight months and began compiling test footage in Burbank, California. The department workers studied Gloria Swanson's choreography and movement as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard for inspiration on the Martians' movement.
When the budget was projected at $100 million (Warner Bros. wanted it for no more than $75 million), producer Larry J. Franco commissioned a test reel from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects company he worked with on Jumanji. Burton was persuaded to change his mind to employ computer animation, which brought the final production budget to $80 million. Although Purves was uncredited for his work, stop-motion supervisors Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, who would later collaborate with Burton on Corpse Bride, received character design credit. Warner Digital Studios was responsible for the scenes of global destruction, airborne flying saucer sequences, the Martian landing in Nevada, and the robot that chases Richie Norris in his pickup truck. Warner Digital also used practical effects, such as building scale models of Big Ben and other landmarks. The destruction of Art Land's hotel was footage of the real-life night-time demolition of The Landmark Hotel and Casino, a building Burton wished to immortalize.
The movie’s opening sequence, which depicts the saucers leaving Mars and flying to Earth, "measured some 5,000 frames long and was created almost entirely by computer graphics. While the first shot showing a lone reconnaissance ship leaving earth was handled by ILM, the tour de force sequence’s remaining 12 shots were all done by Warner Digital.... On Mars, irises open over the craters dotting the craggy surface, emitting hundreds of thousands of saucers that assume battle formations and head for Earth."
The film's music was composed by Danny Elfman. The soundtrack was released on March 4, 1997 by Atlantic Records.
All music composed by Danny Elfman (except "Indian Love Call", performed by Slim Whitman and "It's Not Unusual", performed by Tom Jones).
Warner Bros. spent $20 million on the movie's marketing campaign; together with $80 million spent during production, the final combined budget came to $100 million. A novelization, written by screenwriter Jonathan Gems, was published by Puffin Books in January 1997. The film was released in the United States on December 13, 1996, earning $9.38 million in its opening weekend. Mars Attacks! eventually made $37.77 million in US totals and $63.6 million elsewhere, coming to a worldwide total of $101.37 million.
The film was considered a box office bomb in the US but generally achieved greater success both critically and commercially in Europe. Many observers found similarities with Independence Day, which also came out in 1996. "It was just a coincidence. Nobody told me about it. I was surprised how close it was," director Tim Burton continued, "but then it's a pretty basic genre I guess. Independence Day was different in tone – it was different in everything. It almost seemed like we had done kind of a Mad magazine version of Independence Day." During the film's theatrical run in January 1997, TBS purchased the broadcasting rights of the film.
Mars Attacks! drew mixed responses from critics. Based on 63 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 52% of the reviewers enjoyed the film, with an average score of 5.9/10. By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 52/100 from 19 reviews. Roger Ebert observed the homages to the 1950s science fiction B movies. "Ed Wood himself could have told us what's wrong with this movie: the makers felt superior to the material. To be funny, even schlock has to believe in itself. Look for Infra-Man (1975) or Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and you will find movies that lack stars and big budgets and fancy special effects but are funny and fun in a way that Burton's megaproduction never really understands."
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Mars Attacks! is all 1990s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that Independence Day takes seriously. This all sounds clever enough but in truth, Mars Attacks! is not as much fun as it should be. Few of its numerous actors make a lasting impression and Burton's heart and soul is not in the humor". Desson Thomson from The Washington Post said "Mars Attacks! evokes plenty of sci-fi classics, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964), but it doesn't do much beyond that superficial exercise. With the exception of Burton's jolting sight gags (I may never recover from the vision of Sarah Jessica Parker's head grafted on to the body of a chihuahua), the comedy is half-developed, pedestrian material. And the climactic battle between Earthlings and Martians is dull and overextended."
Richard Schickel, writing in Time magazine, gave a positive review. "You have to admire everyone's chutzpah: the breadth of Burton's (and writer Jonathan Gems') movie references, which range from Kurosawa to Kubrick; and above all their refusal to offer us a single likable character. Perhaps they don't create quite enough deeply funny earthlings to go around, but a thoroughly mean-spirited big-budget movie is always a treasurable rarity." Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader praised the surreal humor and black comedy, which he found to be in the vein of Dr. Strangelove and Gremlins (1984). He said it was far from clear whether the movie was a satire, although critics were describing it as one. Todd McCarthy of Variety called Mars Attacks! "a cult sci-fi comedy miscast as an elaborate, all-star studio extravaganza."
Mars Attacks! was on the shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects nomination, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose Independence Day, Dragonheart and Twister instead. The film was nominated for seven categories at the Saturn Awards. Danny Elfman won Best Music, while director Tim Burton, writer Jonathan Gems, actor Lukas Haas, costume designer Colleen Atwood and the visual effects department at Industrial Light & Magic received nominations. Mars Attacks! was nominated for both the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film (which went to Independence Day) and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.