In 1910, Thomas Edison debuted a four-minute silent short film titled “A Trip to Mars”, kicking off a century-long, on- and off-again love affair between moviegoers and our sister planet. With the 90-day Mars Exploration Rover Mission mission now in its astounding ninth year, the increasing discussion of a manned mission to Mars as a rallying point for our rudderless space program, and the recent release of The Martian in megaplexes far and wide, the Red Planet is once again in the public eye. Mars seems to have a curse about it though: Just as the Russians can’t land a probe on the damn thing, few filmmakers can seem to make a decent movie using it as a setting. It’s got us here a Movie Ink in a mood to revisit a few of the more notable (and notorious) cinematic voyages to Mars:
Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924). This silent film was one of the first full-length science fiction features. It’s a curious tale about a young Russian man who journeys to Mars, falls in love with its queen, and leads a popular uprising against the ruling council of elders. An oddball work of communist propaganda with a distinct visual style that influenced Flash Gordon serials and other productions.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). We can hear your eyes rolling at the title of this one. Director Byron Haskin (who also directed the classic The War of the Worlds) does an adequate job of combining the best of two very different worlds into an old-school sci-fi adventure, but it still gets silly more often than not. Paul Mantee is the titular castaway, an astronaut who survives a crash landing on Mars and learns to adapt to its unforgiving environment with only the ship’s monkey and an escaped alien slave laborer for company. A pre-Batman Adam West appears as an ill-fated crewman.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). In an effort to ween their children off television, Martians kidnap Santa and convince him to teach Martian kids how to have fun while fending off assassination attempts and acts of sabotage by a group of Martian dissidents. (Seriously.) Believe it or not, it shows up on a lot of “Worst Movie Ever” lists.
Total Recall (1990). Sure, it plays fast and loose with its source material, but Paul Verhoeven’s hyper-violent adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” makes for a great science fiction action-thriller. Mixed in with the massive body count, Sharon Stone-Rachel Ticotin cat fight, classic Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners, triple-breasted prostitute, and mutant revolutionaries are some (then) cutting-edge special effects and impressively realized Martian landscapes. It may be the only decent movie set on Mars, though arguably it never takes place there at all…
Mission to Mars (2000). Brian De Palma made a rare and ill-advised venture into science fiction with this 2001: A Space Odyssey Lite tale of a manned mission to Mars. Gary Sinise, apparently having learned nothing from Apollo 13, leads a mission to rescue a stranded Don Cheadle, and in the process discover the origins of life on Earth. Underdone on every level, it screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, named #4 of the 10 Best Films of the Year by Cahiers du Cinema, and earned De Palma a Razzie nomination for Worst Director. Make of that what you will.
Red Planet (2000). In the not-to-distant future, the first manned mission to Mars is undertaken in a bid to save a dying Earth. Of course, all goes to hell and the crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Carrie-Anne Moss, Terence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt, and Simon Baker) are systematically done in by a solar flare, crash landing, infighting, and a robot run amok. It’s so full of scientific inaccuracies that NASA refused to serve as a technical advisor, but what can one expect from a flick that only seems to have been produced in order to deliver a snippet of nude footage of a post-Matrix Moss.
Ghosts of Mars (2001). John Carpenter strip mines classic westerns, zombie flicks, and his own Assault on Precinct 13 for this curious misfire about a group of colonists besieged by the reanimated spirits of ancient Martians led by a warlord resembling Marilyn Manson on steroids. The ill-conceived plot, bizarre flashbacks-within-flashbacks story structure, and eclectic cast (which boasts Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, and Joanna Cassidy) make this watchable for all the wrong reasons.
John Carter (2012). Audiences flocked in dozens to see this adaptation of the classic science fantasy pulp novel series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. The stories (first published in 1912) are a dated but largely fun swashbuckling mix of romanticism and adventure that have entertained and inspired readers for a century. Therein lies the problem; by the time they were finally adapted for film, they had been plundered for ideas by Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, et al, and so very little of this film felt new. Disney essentially blew $265 million on a niche movie. It’s not bad, but the unrealistic expectations behind it doomed it from the start.