I love Mars movies. Anything that takes place on the angry red planet appeals to me in an escapist kiddie matinee sort of way, and there’s something about the fourth sphere from the sun that intrigues to this day with the potential of hidden life trapped within its sedimentary layers.
Over the decades more than a few filmmakers have tried to mine the mysteries of our neighboring planet for big-screen excitement. But do audiences generally flock to see these films? Aside from a few exceptions, if box-office numbers could talk the answer would be a resounding, “Meh,” thanks to such big-budget disappointments as JOHN CARTER, MARS NEEDS MOMS, and MISSION TO MARS; the contemporary perception is that Mars in the title equals box-office poison (which is why Disney dropped “Mars” from JOHN CARTER OF MARS). But unlike such alien invasion movies as MARS ATTACKS! and INVADERS FROM MARS, perhaps it’s simply films that take place on Mars that fail (save for Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN, the anomaly of the group).
That being said, here are six arguably cool, campy and questionable flicks that take place on the red planet. Watch ’em with a bucket of popcorn on a rainy Saturday afternoon…
THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959)
This campy Sci-Fi relic from the waning days of the ’50s cosmic cinema casts Gerald Mohr, Nora Hayden, Les Tremayne and Jack Kruschen as astronauts landing their M-1 Rocket on Mars, only to discover that the red planet is indeed angry, with a deadly, 40-foot “bat-rat-spider” monster, an amphibious, one-eyed, won-ton-soup beast, and giant carnivorous plants lurking around every corner. Perfect for the young kiddies on a rainy Saturday afternoon, this movie would make Ed Wood green — er, red — with envy. In Cinemagic!
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964)
BATMAN star Adam West, a monkey in a spacesuit and alien ships borrowed from George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS punctuate this otherworldy adaptation of the classic Daniel Defoe tale. **Spoiler Alert!** After West is killed in their crash landing, Paul Mantee is Commander Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper — the “modern Robinson Crusoe, struggling for survival in a cruel environment.” Learning to forage for food and breathe the air by burning strange, yellow rocks, Kit must “face the reality of being alone forever,” only to discover slaves laboring for alien mining ships. He helps one escape and naturally names him “Friday,” only to face more alien attacks and a deadly meteor crash/firestorm in the Martian ice cap.
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1979)
Based on the Ray Bradbury classic about the colonization of Mars, this sleepy, three-part miniseries for NBC (later packaged as a mercifully shorter 90-minute movie overseas) stars ’70s staples Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Bernie Casey, Fritz Weaver, Barry Morse and Bernadette Peters — and some serious ’70-style clothes. Paralleling our Old West battles with the Native American population with the initial resistance by the Martians (including a virus brought by the Earthlings that practically eradicates the Martian population), Bradbury’s story contains lofty ideas about war, imperialism, and religion, but the script and acting here is the real killer.
MISSION TO MARS (2000)
Director Brian De Palma, well-known for appropriating Hitchcock’s style, turns his attention to Kubrick territory and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with this story of an interplanetary exploration gone awry and its doomed rescue mission. Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O’Connell turn in admirable performances on expensive sets, but the film is ultimately derailed by a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS-style ending with a chintzy, CGI alien. The trailer (featuring stirring music from Vangelis’ 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE soundtrack) is much more exciting than this exercise in patience with little payoff. Another Mars movie, RED PLANET (starring Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss), came out the same year and similarly borrowed from 2001, with a HAL-inspired killer robot that was more reminiscent of Hector in SATURN 3.
TOTAL RECALL (1990)
One of the best movies set on Mars also happens to be one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most popular flicks next to TERMINATOR, CONAN, and PREDATOR. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, TOTAL RECALL casts Ah-nuld as Doug Quaid, a construction worker who has recurring dreams of being on the human colonies of Mars. Unable to afford the actual trip, he decides to have false memories implanted into his brain to simulate an exciting vacation in which he’s a secret agent – only to learn the hard way that everything he’s been dreaming about is true. Oh, and the pyramids of Mars hold an ancient secret that men are willing to kill to protect. Skip the 2012 remake starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale — it will only make you pine for the original.
JOHN CARTER (2012)
Based on the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels, the action of Disney’s JOHN CARTER takes place on the planet Barsoom (aka Mars, for the rest of us) and casts Taylor Kitsch in the title role. While this effects-driven film is solid entertainment and nowhere near as bad as its failed box-office pedigree would suggest (blame the bland marketing and generic title for that), the problem is that all the cool surprises contained within the original novels have been already been mined ad nauseam by great Sci-Fi films and filmmakers, from the likes of George Lucas to James Cameron. Burroughs was one of the first to come up with many of these great notions, but unless you’re 7 years old, you’ve seen them all before. With that in mind, JOHN CARTER is very much worth the watch.