Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mars and/or Bust: 12 Essential Films about the Red Planet

Naura Hayden in The Angry Red Planet -- see how everything's red? This indicates they're on Mars. Wish her helmet had a faceplate.
 The success of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the latest in a string of movie hits set in outer space – Gravity, Interstellar, et al. As the closest planet in our solar system, Mars has inspired dreams and speculation for decades, from War of the Worlds to The Martian Chronicles. “Martians” has become shorthand for alien invaders, but we pass on those here and focus on the reverse – our imaginary invasions of Mars. Here’s a survey of the best films relating to our scarlet sibling.

The Constructivist design of Mars in Aelita.
 1.      Aelita: Queen of Mars (Yakov Protazanov, 1924)

Soviet explorers travel to Mars and find that there, the workers are being exploited too! So they lead a revolution. The sci-fi elements, alas, constitute only a small part of this earnest film, but the crazy Constructivist production design bridges the looks of the earlier Cubist Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the later Art Deco excesses of Flash Gordon.

Bus and Marvin in Haredevil Hare.
2.      Haredevil Hare (Charles M. Jones, 1948)

Bugs Bunny volunteers to be the first creature on the Moon (OK, he’s in it for a rocket ship full of carrots). However, once there he finds Marvin the Martian, complete with Roman helmet and sneakers, who is ready to blow up the Earth with his Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Can our furry hero defeat his nefarious plan? Well, what do you think, kids? He’s Bugs Bunny, after all!

Look at that matte painting off in the distance! Rocketship X-M.
3.      Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, 1950)

This low-budget extravaganza was whipped out in record time, in order to beat the rival film Destination Moon to the theaters. An expedition to the Moon goes awry and ends up on Mars. There, the radioactive remains of great cities are all that’s left of Martian civilization. That, and some cavemen (?) who attack the team. Helpfully, the screen is tinted red whenever they’re outside on Mars – so you know they’re outside on Mars. Aside from some early performances from Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O’Brien, and Noah Beery Jr., not too remarkable. They changed the original title from None Came Back – someone figured out that was a bit of a spoiler.

Look closely at the monster's tongue -- it's actor Ray Corrigan's chin. (The mask was too small.)
4.      It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

“In the silent void of outer space, puny man matches his cunning against a monster from Mars, running rampant!” Just as Indiana Jones was cribbed from The Secret of the Incas (1954), so was Dan O’Bannon’s idea for Alien ripped off wholesale from this indie no-budget gem. In 1973 (!), a nuclear-powered spaceship goes on a rescue mission to Mars, and finds only Marshall Thompson left alive. He swears a murderous alien killed his crewmates. They bring him aboard, lock him up, and head for home. But people keep dying . . . A variant of the classic The Thing from Another World (1951), but with the alien monster as a homicidal stowaway. Sound familiar? With kooky old character actor Dabs Greer, and B-movie icon Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who had a lucrative sideline playing gorillas and monsters, in his final film role.

The mouse/bat/spider monster in The Angry Red Planet -- a rare case of bad creature design being more terrifying than a skillful job.
5.      The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959)

“I can’t say that I recommend spacesuits for beautiful young dolls. What happened to all your lovely curves?” It’s the ‘50s, so of course there is one easy-on-the-eye female scientist who’s offfhandedly sexually harassed throughout the film. Filmed in 10 days using “Cinemagic,” which attempted to blend live-action footage and hand-drawn backgrounds together seamlessly and cheaply (it didn’t work). Instead, the director double-exposed all the Martian exterior scenes and threw the reliable Red Filter on it to boot. Kooky, illogical fun with radio stars Gerald Mohr, Les Tremayne, and Jack Kruschen.

(From left) Barney, Paul Mantee, and Victor Lundin in Robinson Crusoe on Mars..
6.      Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964)

With a decent script and special effects, not nearly as bad as it sounds. Everyone involved with the project took it quite seriously, despite the kids’-matinee subject matter, and there’s an attention to detail that distinguishes it from most other early sci-fi. Adheres closely to Defoe’s original novel, including a Martian “Friday” who’s rescued from slaver aliens. With Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, and Adam West – and Barney as Mona, the flight-test monkey!

Ahnold suffers from rapid decompression in Total Recall.
7.      Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

“Get your ass to Mars!” One of the best sci-fi movies made, it preserves the complexity, satire, paranoia, and uncertainty (is this real or a dream?) of the Philip K. Dick story from which it is taken. Arnold Schwarzenegger is or isn’t a secret agent who must go to Mars to overthrow its corrupt boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). A tangled tale of deception and turnabout, this film was so violent that it earned an X rating before cuts were made. This last pre-CGI blockbuster is a marvel of animatronics and practical effects. With Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, and Rachel Ticotin.

Why so glum, chum? Running out of air in Red Planet.
8.      Red Planet (Antony Hoffman, 2000)

Well, dammit, they tried. This massive flop tries to tie in to the wisecracking, gung-ho spirit of the high-adventure film (in fact, you may recognize some of Mars as Jordan’s Wadi Rum from Lawrence of Arabia) but it tries too hard – killer robots, flammable flesh-eating bugs, it all gets confusing. Great cast and great production design, to no avail. The director never got another chance to make a feature. With Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Tom Sizemore, Terence Stamp.

About the meet the Wizard, in Mission to Mars.
9.      Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000)

They loved it in France! This mystically-tinged saga is a classic De Palma effort – it is a magpie’s nest of influences, in this case space movies from Kubrick to Spielberg. It flows across the screen, unimpeded by even a shred of logic. Another great cast literally wasted. Gary Sinise is made to say things like, “We’re millions of miles from Earth inside a giant white face” and “They’re us, we’re them.” Even Morricone’s most over-the-top score can’t save the day. Registers zero on the Sense-o-Meter. With Don Cheadle and Tim Robbins.

How long do you stay fresh in that can? Stranded.
10.  Stranded (Jose Magan, 2001)

Did this movie piss Andy Weir off so much it inspired him to write The Martian? Is this another example of the Battle Royale/Hunger Games Syndrome, whereby concepts teeter ever-so-close to plagiarism? This low-budget indie flick is about some astronauts who are – wait for it – STRANDED. On Mars! At least it was filmed in the pleasant land of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. With Vincent Gallo, Maria de Medeiros, and for some reason, perhaps best left un-understood, Johnny Ramone as a NASA scientist.

Ice Cube has 99 problems, but lack of ammunition is not one of them in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.
11.  John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)

Mars plus ghosts plus badass cops and criminals plus massive amounts of cursing, violence, and tough John Carpenter-style buddy love equals ridiculous fun. Come on, it’s a John Carpenter film – that is what you are getting here, and you can roll with it or not. Who else could put Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, and Jason Stratham in close quarters and make it work . . . kind of? Carpenter claimed this movie burned him out on Hollywood. It’s not his best, but he’s our John Ford – his movies are about people, codes of honor, and society, and that’s always interesting – even when a city full of mutilated, possessed miners are trying to kill our protagonists.

Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) meets John Carter.
12.  John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

This movie was in turnaround for 79 years – animator Bob Clampett pitched a cartoon feature adaptation idea to Edgar Rice Burroughs himself in 1931, and even made some test footage. OK. Just to show you where my sensibilities lie, at the end of this film I applauded, while innocent, wide-eyed children around me booed cynically. I, like Disney, thought that since CGI had made the superhero movie possible, it would work wonders for the epic, swashbuckling fantasy series, turning it into a long-lived franchise. Nope. Still, it’s a wonderfully realized world of adventure, in which the post-Civil War-era protagonist, magically transported to Barsoom (as the Martians call it), has the strength of a superhero. With Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Ciaran Hinds, and Willem Dafoe as the voice of the 15-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked green Tars Tarkas.

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