Retro Nostalgia: Mars Attacks (1996) and Its Detached Timestamp


Long-time viewers of science fiction film will likely recognize Tim Burton’s homage to 50s/60s SF cinema.  How could they not?  From the narrative undertones of the Cold War’s nuclear fears to its borrowing and twisting of the narrative structure of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and its 1953 adaptation, which helped solidify a developing SF cinematic aesthetic (the Orson Welles radio drama certainly stuck Wells’ terrifying tale of alien invasion in the public consciousness beforehand), the film is in every way a mockery of the 50s and 60s.*  But it’s not simply the politics or the narrative that make the 1996 alien invasion comedy Mars Attacks! an amusing bedfellow of or foil to the 1950s (and 60s).  Rather, its visuals are an at times direct parody/assault on the material and social logic of the era, despite having no clear temporal placement of its own — after all, the film is neither set in the 1950s, nor the 1990s, and instead
merges or maps the span of historical time over itself (a palimpsest).

Part of the reason I am mashing the 50s and 60s together here is because Mars Attacks! is never fixed to a specific decade.  It is, in a sense, trapped in the limbo of transition between two cultures we like to think as distinct, but which bleed into one another.  The Beehive (B-52) hairstyle, after all, didn’t gain popular momentum until the 60s, despite existing as early as 1954.  There are times when the film veers a hard right into 60s territory (most notably through cars and the flashy fashion of Vegas that conjures images of a somewhat neutered, caricatured Hunter S. Thompson), but it frequently bounces back, merging the two periods — both understandably important to SF cinema — into one incoherent mishmash.  I’ll refer to this as the 50s Transition to save space (roughly the late 50s to the early 60s).

A primary example of this assault on 50s Transition culture is the aptly named Martian Girl played by Lisa Marie (seen in the above image).  Her swaying, robotic walking style, her absurd hair style (a greatly exaggerated B-52), and her eye-catching pointed breasts are all digs on the visual culture of the 1950s Transition.  She is at once a clone of the era and a play on the sex symbol of the era:  Marilyn Monroe (minus the hair).

Or, perhaps, a mix of Monroe and another female icon of the time:  Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The exaggeration of the Martian Girl’s features — to the point of perfect exaggeration, even — seems, in my mind, to make light of the hyper-commercialized culture that arose at the turn of the century and solidified after WW2, one which hyper-sexualized certain “ideal” forms of women, fashion, etc. (or, to put it another way, created a specific set of images for the era that were hyper-sexualized).  After all, she is, in every way, a “perfect” 50s Transition girl.  Except that she isn’t.  She’s a grotesque perfection that draws attention to the fact that she isn’t real.  Her features are too perfect.  Too exaggerated.  Blame it on the aliens for translating their own genetic monoculture onto our own.

Much of the film’s fashion aesthetics draw upon the transitional era, almost to comedic effect, sometimes by exaggeration and sometimes by simply cloning things that already existed.  Some of this is deliberate.  Annette Bening, for example, modeled her performance as Barbara Land on Ann Margret from Viva Las Vegas.  The resemblance is clear.  This shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because the mish mash was intended by the writers and Burton himself, who imagined Mars Attacks! as an homage to 50s scifi flicks, with a heavy dose of mockery.  Whether they intended to critique the culture of the 50s Transition is hard to say.  I like to think this was an unintended consequence of transplanting a cultural period into a different cinematic paradigm.  Rather than stare with nostalgic eyes at a bygone era, we are compelled to think about what made the 50s Transition fascinating and thankfully dead at the same time.

I could probably say more about this topic, but I won’t.  That would require tracing all the ways Mars Attacks! explores 50s SF and the 50s Transition period (as mockery, parody, or direct homage).  Maybe for another time!


*The 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds was nominated for three Academy Awards and has since been included in the Library of Congress catalogue.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Retro Nostalgia: Mars Attacks (1996) and Its Detached Timestamp

  1. Like most film adaptations, I think the final result is less about the intent of the filmmakers as it is a natural hybrid result of adaptation. MARS ATTACKS in particular bears a number of influences and adaptations that, in the end, are a convoluted sum of parts.

    MARS ATTACKS is based on a trading card set that told an original story (in 55 cards w/ caption text) that was inspired by old Wally Wood comics. The film was then an adaptation of the card set, that originally was set to cost $260M to make, which was deemed waaaay too much by the studio, and the script was pared down to be budgeted at $80M. During this time, Burton was doing the ED WOOD movie, and ame on board the Mars Attacks train thinking this would be a great way to make a modern Ed Wood film that paid tribute to all the crazy goodness of those terrible cult favorites. And the screenwriter has gone on record saying that Burton co-wrote the final script.

    So an attempt to re-create Wally Wood comics from the 50's, adapted into a film meant to re-create the Ed Wood films of the 50's. Right there you've got your mess of intents that combined with how not terribly specific people's memories of the 50's and 60's are – and the fact that both Woods ran into the 60's and 70's with their work – I think it explains, at least in general, how we got the final result to be such an oddball look at the stereotypes of the times.

  2. Dave: Absolutely. I knew about the trading card angle, but I didn't discuss it here for some reason…

    I think the result is actually a good one, though. At $80m, they kept me entertained 🙂

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