Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / PalaeoArtist
We all know the story leading up to the summer of 1993: God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates Steven Spielberg, Spielberg creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs inherit the box office (other creation timelines are available). The titanic impact of Jurassic Park brought a head to the public’s interest in dinosaurs which had been bubbling over for some years.
Although Spielberg may have been the one to break the ice, another familiar director almost had their own shot at a prehistoric blockbuster around the same time. That director was Tim Burton. Burton’s creation would have taken on a darker, violent and comedic tone (as perhaps we would expect from him). But hold on…an adult-oriented Burton-directed dark sci-fi comedy from the 1990s? That sounds familiar! Mars Attacks! anyone?
That Burton released Mars Attacks! a few years later in 1996 is no coincidence. He and Warner Bros had acquired the rights to Mars Attacks! a couple of years prior, which was an American trading card game by The Topps Company dating back to the 1960s. The cards came in bubble gum packs and were something of a sign of the times – undertones of the Cold War abounded in these cards with their “us vs them” story of Earth fighting off the comically violent and evil Martians.
Despite proving popular, the cards also drew controversy. Some of the cards were strangely shocking in their themes despite being marketed to kids, featuring (for the time) extreme violence and other nasty things as the Martians invaded, tortured and subjugated various Earth nations. As a result the cards became a hot topic for the collector scene over the years and the lore was expanded accordingly to meet resurgent interest. There’s now tonnes of merchandise and memorabilia centred on the titular googly-eyed big-brained Martians, and Warner Bros fuelled this with Tim Burton’s movie based around the card game’s story.
The movie was relatively popular at the time, but more so in Europe than the USA, and took a while to generate a cult following as it divided critics. Its box office performance was also hampered somewhat by another bigger and thematically similar film coming out around the same time (Independence Day). It seems Burton just couldn’t escape the shadow of the big hitters, even with a cast including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Michael J Fox and Tom Jones(!) in his favour.
So that’s some context of how things went. But how about what could have been? When Warner Bros acquired the rights to Mars Attacks!, this included the rights to one of Topps’ other card games which appeared in the 1980s – Dinosaurs Attack!.
As you can guess from the title, Dinosaurs Attack! was pretty much the same deal but with dinosaurs (yay!) as they were becoming very popular. This was likely due to the “Dinosaur Renaissance” which was in full swing; when the likes of John Ostrom, Robert Bakker and others brought dinosaurs back into the limelight with a wave of ground-breaking research.
The basic premise of this new Attack! incarnation was that some kind of time travel experiment had gone disastrously wrong, summoning dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties into the present day where (or indeed when) they start destroying cities and horribly killing thousands of people. And when I say horribly, I am not kidding…
The book upon which Jurassic Park is based, by Michael Crichton, is well-known for being a damn sight more sinister and violent than on screen. Characters in the novel are graphically eviscerated and torn to bits, whereas in the film these scenes are either toned down or obscured. Given the controversial legacy of Mars Attacks! on this front, Dinosaurs Attack! was no different.
The cards and comic really put the “graphic” in graphic novel, parroting mid-century B-movies but with a liberal dose of blood splattered over it, concocting scenes so ridiculously violent that they became comedic. People are impaled on ankylosaur spines, torn in half by pterosaurs, swarmed by vampiric trilobites, hounded by giant Carboniferous insects and burnt alive by…wait for it…Dinosaur Satan (actual name The Supreme Monstrosity, but nicknamed by fans because of his demonic appearance).
The only dinosaur in the whole 55 card set not depicted killing someone (the herbivorous “Trachodon”, a nomen dubium now encompassing multiple lambeosaurine hadrosaurs) still triggers manslaughter through frightening someone who then accidentally shoots their fishing partner.
Dinosaurs Attack! was not very popular as a card game and it’s relatively easy to find for sale online. Talks of turning its parent game Mars Attacks! into a film had been going on since the mid-80s but it wasn’t until 1993 that Jonathan Gems, one of Burton’s collaborating screenwriters, approached him with a pitch. At the same time he presented Burton with Dinosaurs Attack!.
If the Multiverse Theory is correct, somewhere out there is a parallel timeline in which Jurassic Park didn’t exist, or was released later. But in this universe Burton decided that Dinosaurs Attack! was too similar to Jurassic Park and would almost certainly suffer from the comparison. The decision made a lot of sense considering Burton was working on a biographical film of the director Ed Wood, who made one of the sci-fi films Mars Attacks! would go on to parody (Plan 9 From Outer Space).
So now we have Mars Attacks!, and we have the Dinosaurs Attack! cards and comics. Put the two together and we can imagine what kind of film Burton could have given us. A star-studded parody of the monster flicks of old brought up to date with CGI, cutting dark (and political) humour and comic violence. Whereas Spielberg’s dinosaurs were mostly rendered in a way that reflected scientific understanding of the time, Burton’s may well have been the lumbering upright lizards seen in films like King Kong and The Valley of Gwangi.
The story revolves around a device called the TimeScanner, which is capable of transporting things from the past to present day Earth and looks suspiciously similar to the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Naturally, it all goes wrong, begins transporting creatures from all kinds of time periods and apparently making all of them ravenous carnivores along the way (which turns out to be the doing of the aforementioned Supreme Monstrosity). The rest of the story consists of various scenes of them eating people, destroying stuff and occasionally being killed themselves as the humans fight back. Eventually scientists figure out how to fix the TimeScanner and (spoiler alert) one of the main characters, the lead scientist Elias Thorne, sacrifices himself to The Supreme Monstrosity to save humanity.
Mars Attacks! spent a good portion of its opening from the perspective of eager news crews trying to get the big scoop on Earth’s invasion, and Dinosaurs Attack! has its own man-on-the-ground referred to simply as ‘The Anchorman’. Another interesting side character of note is ‘The Saurian’. The Saurian is one of those classic old ideas of a “dinosauroid” – an intelligent dinosaur which walks upright like a human to accommodate its large brain. The Saurian appears in one of Elias’ dreams and tells him about The Supreme Monstrosity.
What we did get in Mars Attacks! was a fun, silly film that relished in its tendency for the over-the-top, so replacing the Martians with dinosaurs and adding a lot more people-eating sounds like the makings of another cult hit. Although the cards and comic were highly visceral, the film probably wouldn’t have gone that far, at least not in its original 90s pitch form (Mars Attacks! is rated 12 and although lots of people are offed, their fates are more funny than overly graphic). But if left largely unchanged from its source material, this formula fits in extremely well with some more modern cinematic trends.
Well, maybe not cinematic, more straight-to-video. Look at our Sharknados, our Kung Furies, Lavalantulas, Velocipastors…we love our schlocky, clichéd, violent, retro-tinged comedy romps. Dinosaurs Attack! would probably have little trouble as a mature (in the loose sense of the word) budget antithesis to the modern family-friendly behemoth that is Jurassic World. I for one would welcome our satanic dinosaur overlords…
Reference & Further Reading:
Tim Burton & Mark Salisbury, “Burton on Burton” Faber & Faber, London (2006)
www.bobheffner.com/dinosaursattack (here you can see all the cards in their horror/hilarity)
Edited by Rhys Charles