A Martian Chronicle - Mars and Movies. A Survey in Five Parts
by Christoph Huber
0 Dim Childhood Memories
Die Abenteuer der Maus auf dem Mars (The Adventures of the Mouse on Mars, Temesi Miklós, Branko Ranitovic, 1976-1982)
When I was small there was a five-minute-long slot for little kids called “Betthupferl” (“bedtime treat”) every day at 5:55 pm on Austrian television. My favourite program in the rotating schedule was this animation series about a mouse stranded on Mars, which, for some reason, was said to be Czechoslovakian at the time, although the show was actually made in Hungary with major German input. Its picture book style animation and psychedelic ideas were irresistible to me. The image forever imprinted on my mind is of the mouse running around a planet about half its size, which must have been in the credits sequence, because in the stories themselves the mouse would only become huge from eating the sugar-cane-like plants that grow on the planet. I felt I had learned everything there is to know about Mars. Scientifically and poetically, it was all downhill from there for me, though not without its rewards.
Die große bunte Bunny Schau (recycled from the material of many masters, from 1983 onward)
Another fixture of my youth was this German-dubbed compilation of Looney Tunes classics, similar to The Bugs Bunny Show, from which it drew most of its material, including the framing sequences with Bugs and Daffy. Usually, four Looney Tunes cartoons would be squeezed into 25 minutes, so surely there was some meddling going on, and yet the greatness was undiminished – to this day, there is no better encapsulation of the classical Hollywood style than the work of Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, Frank Tashlin, et.al. It’s both the perfect condensation and ultimate parody. Back then, such considerations were beyond me; it was just pure hilarity, introducing me to many things, including Marvin the Martian, whose considerable significance in film history I would rediscover later in an unadulterated form (→The Golden Age). At that point I felt I had learned everything there is to know about Martians, and possibly aliens in general. Aesthetically and comically, it was all downhill from there for me, though not without its rewards.
1 The Silent Pioneers
A Trip to Mars (Ashley Miller, 1910)
An early five-minute short from Edison’s film factory in which a scientist simply floats up to Mars after he discovers the secret of “reverse gravity”. A showcase for special effects and some bizarre ideas, though overall more of a straightforward product than those inventive, lyrical flights of fancy concocted by Méliès or de Chomón. In that sense, it also anticipates things to come – and, after all, you could do much worse in inaugurating Mars film history. What else should fantastic cinema do but turn the world upside down?
Un Matrimonio Interplanetario (A Marriage on the Moon, Enrico Novelli, 1910)
Telescopic romance: An astronomer gazes at Mars, and a beautiful woman gazes back at him; complications ensue until they meet to marry on the Moon. An important precursor for two major tropes that will be explored years in much less compressed form than these 15, not-exactly-riveting minutes from Italy: one, the irresistible allure of women from another planet and two, the curious fact that Mars and the Moon will be treated time and again as symbolically interchangeable (cf. all those films where a Moon mission suddenly gets upgraded to a Mars mission, as if the difference were negligible).
A Message from Mars (Wallett Waller, 1913)
A slog at over an hour , but, as they say, a work of historical interest. (In fact, the first so-called ‘Mars movie’ seems to be a lost New Zealand short which is based on the eponymous play, bears the same title and was made exactly a decade earlier). Basically, it presents an alien-themed Christmas Carol with the “Martians” as just guys in medieval suits. Are these the pioneering British Templars of sci-fi?
Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars, Holger-Madsen, 1918)
Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, 1924)
Time to upgrade from “of historical interest” to “of historical importance”. Both as narrative and as visually ambitious spectacle, these two features establish much of what is alluring about Mars travel in cinema: They’re the European foundation of the clichés we’ve grown fond of, mostly thanks to Hollywood. Holger-Madsen’s early space opera from Denmark caps the World War I era with a touchingly naive plea for peace. “In space there are a thousand mysteries,” proclaims an intrepid explorer, but the flight to Mars turns out to be so uneventful that alcoholism and near-mutiny ensue, the latter averted only at the last moment by the sight of the Red Planet – which turns out to be inhabited by a pacifist vegetarian society that might be thought of as proto-hippies dressed in the style of classical Greeks. Could there be a more fun utopian vision than their “dance of chastity”?
Perhaps yes, according to Soviet super-professional filmmaker Yakov Protazanov and his resident costume design genius Alexandra Exter, who were the leading forces in setting up a constructivist feast intended as export spectacular for world-wide consumption. Aelita is the story of a revolution-weary engineer (he’s a former bourgeois playboy) who escapes to Mars via his daydreams, where he falls in love with the eponymous queen. With kissing hitherto unknown to the Martian civilisation, major upheavals await – although in the end it’s all form over content, even as that content has inspired more than its share of filmic Mars expeditions. Certainly, Aelita’s pageantry and its ambivalent, if not confused, vision of revolution vs. oppression overpowered by love – and then betrayal – have come to seem more pertinent than the pacifist utopia of Himmelskibet, whatever that says about humanity (and its filmic output).
Mezhplanetnaya revolyutsiya (Interplanetary Revolution, Nikolai Khodataev, Zenon Komissarenko, Yuri Merkulov, 1924)
League of Nations (Dave Fleischer, 1924)
Trip to Mars (Dave Fleischer, 1924)
Before sound arrives, another glimpse of the short form and its comedic potential: a swiftly made parody of Aelita, only fragments of which survive, and two works by master animator Dave Fleischer that already feature much of the craziness that would subsequently be found in outer space cartoon glory. This Trip to Mars, the third so-titled on this list within the short span of 14 years, is particularly recommended, its meta-machinations culminating in the unforgettable image of the creator falling upside-down through space alongside his unflappable protagonist Clown Koko.
2 The Transitional Period
Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
Famously, a huge flop that contributed to Hollywood studios nixing major money for science fiction productions over the next decades. Yet who would not shed tears over this immortal and entirely interchangeable love story between J-21 and LN-18? So much for sarcasm, but that still leaves several other reasons to complain: first and foremost, the many painful jokes by faux-Swedish comedian El Brendel, a harbinger of ‘comic relief’ who disgraced many finer works in the name of presumed entertainment – he even managed around the same time as Just Imagine to almost wreck a great Raoul Walsh western (→ The Golden Age and beyond). For a film that is often, and somewhat inaccurately, given the shorthand description of ‘Metropolis as musical’, the music is unmemorable, to say the least, and most of it amounts to a joyless vision of a world in which prohibition never ended. But fear not, ye completist, the bizarre saves the day, especially once it’s off to Mars – which, even as cinema is just beginning to speak, is already established as the planet of the scantily clad girls and lobo servants to the queen, not to mention mad monkeys and weird decor (the shadow of Aelita looms, obviously). And yet, for all the intermittent allure of its imbecility, the final result is as resolutely bland as the letter-numeral names of its characters: despite the evident expense, it’s merely a construction-kit affair. On the other hand, parts of it are so outré that it remains an eternal curio, rewarding the suffering… to a certain degree.
Up to Mars (Dave Fleischer, 1930)
Back to the cheaper joys of shorts. All of these trips to Mars have their surreal moments, even if they don’t yet display the magic of full Termite Terrace glory. But, for the interested, they are all worth checking out, no matter who’s making the journey. In Up to Mars, it’s Bimbo; at the same time there’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Mars (Walter Lantz, William Nolan, 1930); later on, Popeye will join the invasion effort in Rocket to Mars (Bill Tytla, 1946) and the impoverished 3-D extravaganza Popeye, the Ace of Space (Seymour Kneitel, 1953). You’d even be well advised to look for the few leftover minutes of the never-realised John Carter of Mars Animation (Bob Clampett, 1936), a riff on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories; less so the very belated Burroughs adaptation, the colossal, and colossally boring John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012). Krazy Kat’s entry into the Mars sweepstakes, Krazy’s Race of Time (Manny Gould, Ben Harrison, 1937), is especially notable for bringing up the subject of traffic (on Earth), which in later years will be a recurring issue in short Mars-related animation – be it the conjunction of anti-communist and pro-petroleum propaganda via Destination Earth (Carl Urbano, 1956), “presented by the Oil Industry Information Committee of the American Petroleum Institute”, or the satirical outlook on automobile culture in Canadian Oscar nominee What On Earth! (Les Drew, Kaj Pindal, 1967), where Martian scientists explore what they believe to be earthlings, but are actually their cars (people, meanwhile, are understood as parasites) and which was “produced by the National Film Board of Mars”.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Ford Beebe, Robert F. Hill, 1939)
→ Dim Childhood Memories? Actually, I suspect it was its sadly Mars-less predecessor Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani, 1936) that aired on TV when I was a kid, allowing a fascinating glimpse of a hitherto unknown cultural artifact: the serial form. Still, the wave of nostalgia I felt on seeing this was unmistakable, despite all drawbacks connected to its production principle (again, the serial form). As far as breakneck cliff-hanger construction goes, this is unimpeachable, just like it is almost perfectly exemplary of cheap sci-fi pulp. Surely, this is the only time in film history that Mars serves as a stand-in for the planet Mongo (a huge surprise when the Red Planet turns out to be the spot from which the death-ray that’s destroying Earth’s invaluable Nitron, whatever that is, emanates). Thus we get not only good ol’ Ming the Merciless, but the magic-powered Martian queen Azura, not to mention both Clay and Forest People, one weirder than the other, all adding considerably to the typical template of completely strange, yet at the same time totally human civilisations on Mars. In other words, as will so often be the case later, the Red Planet could be any planet – though I can nominate only the anime Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Watanabe Shinichirō, 2001) as a film in which Mars might just as well be Earth, seemingly set on the Red Planet just because. One could contemplate that the Cowboy Bebop TV series that preceded the film is a good example of what serials became; meanwhile, the undernourished, pre-serial, special one-off short of Flash Gordon’s most direct competitor that was made for the Chicago World Fair gets a mention here simply so that I can list its director’s name with the proper academic title: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars (Dr. Harlan Tarbell, 1934).
3 The Golden Age
Haredevil Hare (Chuck Jones, 1948)
The Hasty Hare (Chuck Jones, 1952)
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century (Chuck Jones, 1953)
Hare-Way to the Stars (Chuck Jones, 1958)
Mad as a Mars Hare (Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, 1963)
“Man is the most interesting insect on Earth,” declares Marvin the Martian. This series of classic Looney Tunes in which he’s featured (and, praise be, often his stupid, loveable, green dog K-9 too) serves to introduce the flipside of the Mars movie coin – namely, Martians invading Earth, namely, Martians invading Earth, in many cases here in the unforgettable form of “instant Martians”. But these Looney Tunes gems, for which Chuck Jones cornered the market, are also the perfect parodies of the films in which puny earthlings, be they rabbit or duck, set foot in space onlu to clash with alien forces of inanity: “When it disintegrates, it disintegrates.” If you only have time to see a half hour’s worth of the movies on this list, the quintessence is here, abetted by two non-Marvin, but Martian-related entries: Rocket-bye Baby (Chuck Jones, 1956) and Martian Through Georgia (Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow, Maurice Noble, 1962). The completist will also want to take a look at the decades-later additions that find (despite some → Fallout) some of the old magic amidst what had then become a Looney Tunes franchise mostly for TV, especially Jones’ own Another Froggy Evening (1995), Superior Duck (1996) – plus Marvin the Martian in the Third Dimension (Douglas McCarthy, 1996) and, even if just for comparison, K-9 Quarry (Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone, 2004).
Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, 1950)
Flight to Mars (Lesley Selander, 1951)
“Pray not for us, for that is too late. Pray for yourselves. Quiet, please,” were a Martian’s parting words in an episode of that old time radio classic, Quiet Please. Two years later, the big bang of Rocketship X-M would offer the same shocking revelation in reverse: A very human Martian civilisation has bombed itself from “the Atomic Age to the Stone Age” (and the still-impressive ending even manages to up the fear factor one more notch). Heed the warning, mankind – even if otherwise, this is a rush job. For that, Kurt Neumann is actually to be commended: He shot in 18 days, gunning to beat George Pal’s rebound, the high profile post-war sci-fi Destination Moon (1950), into cinemas. He succeeded, with a margin of 25 days, cannily exploiting the competitor’s publicity. The success of Neumann’s strategy testifies to the eternal wisdom of the Hollywood genre tenet that two movies on the same subject have to be released concurrently, if one film would have easily been enough.
Unlike Destination Moon, which tried to be reasonably scientific (within limits), Rocketship X-M bluntly spits not just science but logic itself in the eye, which is part of its primitive charm: From their displays of sexist male privilege to the inevitable, painful comic sidekick, much of what dates Golden Age Hollywood’s science fiction films is celebrated unthinkingly here. But one cheap shortcut still works like gangbusters: To give this black-and-white movie some colour sheen, all the scenes on Mars were tinted red, giving an additional edge to the camerawork (Murnau-Chaplin-masterpiece-seasoned pro Karl Struss inaugurates the genre’s B-picture-tradition of top DPs on shoestring budgets).
Similarly, Flight to Mars charms through its curious Cinecolor alone (William Cameron Menzies would use it to full mastery two years hence with a very weird three-colour mutation), whose bipack process gives everything an alien look: With greens so muted in comparison to blue and red tones, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re seeing everything from a Martian perspective. This may explain why the astronauts on what seemed to be a suicide mission are not surprised at all to meet humanoids wearing space suits that probably came directly from Destination Moon’s wardrobe department and, within a minute of crash-landing, are escorted to palatial surroundings instead of having to contemplate certain death. The even-keeled reaction may be part of the minimalism-is-not-enough-magic of ever-maligned directing workhorse Lesley Selander, who along with Jack Webb may be the best answer to Bresson from Hollywood’s lowest-budget regions. Apart from great legwork from the leading ladies (inadvertently inaugurating a quickly escalating ‘space babes’ trend?) nothing is allowed to stand out unduly, giving this film a pleasantly uneventful, yet hypnotic drift. Considering the name of the Martian maiden of choice –[which is?] – you could argue that the film is, finally, Aelita without the pretension. Thank you, Lesley. After all, what can you say? “They seem to have advanced technology here.”
Two features are enough (→ The Silent Pioneers) to set the template for Hollywood’s sci-fi-cheapness. If you’re partial to that kind of thing, don’t miss freeloading successors like World Without End (Edward L. Bernds, 1956), in which astronauts return to Earth from Mars only to be catapulted via time-warp into a future of radiation mutation, not to mention the most splendidly titled The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959), which epitomises the glory of schlock in many ways, not least for one-upping the red tint of Rocketship X-M through the solarized-looking redness of CineMagic (DP: Stanley Cortez) and stocking its silly script with unforgettable monster creatures like Batratcrabspider.
Red Planet Mars (Harry Horner, 1952)
Whatever you may have heard about this being the ne plus ultra of demented anti-communist propaganda, rest assured that it is even better, taking the insanity of The Next Voice You Hear to another level while zoning in on the fear of atheism that was so crucial to the campaigns against those “Un-American Activities” (-> The Cold War). Nazi technology, the spoils of war, allows Peter Graves to contact Mars, and receives[?] messages that seem to come from “the carpenter of Nazareth”. Before you can say ‘druzhba’, the Soviet people decided that they’ve seen the light, throwing away their pictures of Stalin and digging out the old pope’s regalia so as to worship the Lord like all good people do. There’s much more madness where that came from, starting with the “brilliant [Nazi] criminal who hates all people” in his Andes lair cooperating with some Soviet emissaries straight out of Ninotchka (one gets reprimanded by his superior to “talk English, you fool”, because his accent is so repulsive to him) and ending with a last-act-reappearance that provokes truly jaw-dropping martyrdom mania –not to mention a vision of peaceful democracy back home as warped as the blunt caricature of the enemy. It’s a movie that keeps on giving, even it admittedly has many weaknesses. And yet, they hardly register.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (Charles Lamont, 1953)
Spoiler: They only make it to Venus.
The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)
As far as alien invasion pictures go, Robert Wise’s equally excellent and convincingly sober The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was there first, with a pacifist plea as the message of visitor Klaatu, who – considering the distance he mentions –may be from Mars (only other option: the dwarf planet Ceres), but still, it was probably wise to leave that open. Regardless, it is the original adaptation of H.G. Wells’ literary classic The War of The Worlds that has set the bar for the fear of the Red Planet (and by implication, any other), with its astonishing and still-gripping Technicolor panorama of orchestrated fear and a last-minute redemption, the Christian underpinnings of which coming across as much more palatable than the paranoia of Red Planet Mars, while setting the tone for the religious fervour associated with much of space race moviedom during the next decade (a disconcerting bedfellow for “rational” science. By now, there’s also NATO to be reckoned with: “Washington is in constant contact with the military of other nations,” assures an officer, and the nations featured in the montage of worldwide destruction pointedly do not include any from the “Eastern bloc” (→ The Cold War).
This remains a milestone in many senses, and both its producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin qualify as the major Mars auteurs in US cinema without being auteurs in the classical sense. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake War of the Worlds is longer and lesser, suffering from the loss of wonder movies in general have contracted, but since a certain classicism tempers the blockbuster megalomania, I can live with it, which I is more than I can say about most of his work after Duel.
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953)
Larry Cohen called it “one of the great films of its time”, but I’d venture even further and state that it is one of the few genuine works of art produced in Hollywood, tapping into something deeper than the obvious explanations would suggest (the fusion of genuine childhood fears with the anti-communist invasion template; the aesthetic brilliance of its warped perspectives, strange colours, distended time, all made to fit its kid protagonists’ POVs – and yet it goes far beyond that still). Let’s simply accept it is a miracle and leave it at that. By comparison, the still-commendable remake Invaders from Mars (Tobe Hooper, 1986) merely feels like it’s dragging the material down into the 1980s (in fact, a perfect example of → Fallout, even though it is a superior one).
Devil Girl from Mars (David MacDonald, 1954)
Even when not held up to the gold standard of Invaders from Mars, this British cheapie demonstrates everything that can go wrong with the invasion template. Set almost exclusively in a pub – showing its theatrical roots and casting a static pall over the proceedings, which is among the least of its offences – it proves that even the most interesting concept can cause terminal boredom. Patricia Laffan (fresh from her triumph as scheming Queen to Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis), dressed in proto-S/M gear, steals the show as Nyah, the titular invader who has come to find replacements for the declining male population on Mars, but finds only disappointment – much like the audience. Even that makes it sound better than it is (but trust me, you could do much worse: → Fallout). It is even easier to resist follow-up offenders like the alienated beach party movie Pajama Party (Don Weis, 1964) and that cinematic equivalent to flatlining, Mars Needs Women (Larry Buchanan, 1967). The best of its kind is definitely Maury Dexter’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1962), which at times comes across as an overlong Twilight Zone/Outer Limits episode, but has some atmospheric charm and the occasional effective idea.
Conquest of Space (Byron Haskin, 1955)
Pal and Haskin strike again, although hampered by Paramount intervention, which results in an underwhelming, at times almost idiotic script that undercuts the conceptual ambition, with only the impressive effects work remaining unhampered. Still, the end result is a fantastic mixture of the religious and the colonial – America’s mission, as ever – yet all is presented in terms of 50s lovability and good fun, which in retrospect adds to its bizarre charm. Who could forget Mickey Shaugnessy’s slavishly devoted sergeant evoking a decades-long history, asking his master officer: “Korea, China, Africa…space”? In our beloved future, all is governed by the Supreme Interstellar Space Authority, the use of chopsticks is still dubious, but good for a nominally heroic speech too unbelievable to be called outright racist and then a throwaway gag. The sheik harem musical number must be the apotheosis of space in-flight entertainment (in fact it’s just imported from the Bob Hope vehicle Here Come the Girls, made for the studio two years prior), while the food orgy reserved for the non-special mission crew members is just one of the many unscientific joys in this heroic tale that’s more like a descent into a hotbed of madness. Mars awaits “as if she were angry”, a fatal religious spleen is the response. There’s only one way for this to end, as if John Ford were Walt Disney with a “print the legend” moment that makes everybody incomprehensibly happy.
Disney-Land: Mars and Beyond (Ward Kimball, 1957)
Speaking of Disney: This 50-minute special made for his ongoing TV series when his empire was on the brink of becoming a mouthpiece of corporate feudalism is not without its faults, but its also a treasure-trove of marvellous ideas that showcase the talent of outstanding animator Ward Kimball, including a parodic history of Mars-as-seen-by-humans, including literature and pulp movies. Then it casually drops some the most terrifying of all visions of Mars as if it were just another Disney children’s cartoon.
Invasion of the Flying Saucer Men (Edward L. Cahn, 1957)
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958)
To comprehend Hollywood cinema means to understand the filmographies of George B. Seitz, Edward L. Cahn, Fred F. Sears, and so on (but especially Sears). The much-maligned Cahn may be no Selander, but just compare Invasion of the Flying Saucer Men to its TV remake The Eye Creatures (Larry Buchanan, 1965) – which is twenty minutes longer, but feels like twenty years – and you know what tenacity under the most adverse circumstances means. Both films were allegedly shot in six days and nevertheless manage to fill 69 minutes, and although they’re known mostly only to cultists, they have made a lasting mark on film history. This Invasion is conceived as an uneasy mix of comedy and grimness for the teenage crowd: The Martians deploy alcohol as a killer weapon and do some nasty things to a cow, and they are clearly an inspiration for the computer-generated invaders in what remains Tim Burton’s best film, Mars Attacks! (1996), which seems overlong by comparison, even if it is admittedly so for showcasing its better resources. Meanwhile, in the Cahniverse, It! The Terror from Beyond Space makes more of its meagre means, and one would be daft not to see it as the genius loci for Ridley Scott’s Alien (also overlong in comparison to its modest sources, cf. → Fallout) alongside Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.
Quatermass and the Pit (Rudolph Cartier, 1958/59)
Another excursion to television (which I’ve mostly neglected for reasons of space), but few things in my memory can compare to the thrill I felt as a young cinephile discovering this supposedly out of reach and then still very mysterious item on an imported VHS. It remains a knockout example of a television of ideas, for which British writer Nigel Kneale is considered a master in the fantastic realm. Its heretic transposition of atavistic folklore (the fairy-tales of my youth called it the “Wilde Gjoad”, the “Wild Hunt”) into a man(-and-ape)-as-an-outcome-of-Martian-experiments-storyline, especially when contrasted with the unglamorous British set(ting)s, still packs a wallop. Unlike the other (great) Quatermass movies-made-from-the-miniseries, it took Hammer a while to get around to the cinematic Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967), the first adaptation[?] in shining colour and with a script condensed to feature-length by none other than Kneale himself. It’s a beautiful adaptation, but it can’t measure up to that memory of fuzzy fear seeping from the cathode ray tube.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1963)
Naive and picturesque, risible and splendiferous in equal measure. Life on Mars proves easier than a David Bowie song – even the air is almost breathable. Haskin’s minor obsessions with astronaut food and Mars burials remain, but more importantly so does the major one – after all, it’s his director’s showcase movie – for the visual over the sensible. “Science tells us there are canals up here,” the protagonist says, and that’s that for science. If you cannot live with such innocence and want your sense of wonder destroyed, I direct you towards the pseudo-science of The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), which mines a similar concept – minus the Defoean ambitions, plus a lot of filler (→ Fallout). It’s as American as Conquest of Space: the US flag set up above the lone astronaut’s cavern entrance is nothing compared to the domestication of a space-native Friday (“If you can make sounds like that, you can make English sounds” – and soon they bond over God), and the assurance that all problems can be “licked”. Yet the hare-brained is successfully intertwined with the glorious, not only in the matte artwork (whereas the special effects are colourful but crude, though they could probably enchant flawlessly back then): Scenes like the lone astronaut parading on Mars with his makeshift bagpipes are indelible, and the Adam West apparition is a moment to behold, or as the French would say, anthologique. I saw this on my 50th birthday and felt like a child again.
4 The Cold War
Nebo zovyot (The Sky Calls, Mikhail Karyukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, 1959)
Battle Beyond the Sun (Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Karyukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, 1959/62)
Mechte navstrechu (A Dream Come True, Mikhail Karyukov, Otar Koberidze, 1963)
Queen of Blood (Curtis Harrington, 1966)
Time to peek behind the Iron Curtain (and how the cinematic Mars exploits of the Soviets were inevitably reworked for audiences on the other side). The two films co-directed by Karyukov immediately captivate with a solemnity and gravitas about the possibilities of space exploration that was lost on the Americans (except Pal, who, after all, was born Marczincsak György Pál, near Budapest), even as the gorgeous Sovcolor hues do have a touch of Cinecolor about them. Also remarkable is their progressive political vision, proposing international cooperation in ways anathema to the ‘free’ West (the capitalist perspective is parodied quite amusingly, and accurately, in Nebo zovyot).
When Roger Corman managed to buy the rights for these films on one of his European sojourns, he quickly had them reworked by budding filmmakers, destroying the message along the way – even as much of the beautiful imagery remained, not to mention the valuable effects that Corman knew were a sales guarantee once the Soviet origin was disguised (much effort was invested in this, down to the helmet inscriptions, although occasionally a Cyrillic flash amusingly betrays the truth). Coppola, for his part, first eliminates the politics from Nebo zovyot, then inserts a couple of ridiculous (and ridiculously sexual) but delightful space monster shots, and finally makes sure that the message about becoming a better person by overcoming prejudice is eliminated, and so emerges with Battle Beyond the Sun, a unmemorable low budget exploitation distinguished by better looks and effects.
Mechte navstrechu, the other movingly heroic cosmonaut saga, fares little better in its American transliteration, even as Harrington, who already had notable work under his belt, is given much more time and budget to shoot scenes with fine actors (including Basil Rathbone, his old pal Dennis Hopper, John Saxon and Czech/French emigre Florence Marly as the titular Queen of Blood). In fact, Harrington’s efforts at seamless integration of the original material are impressive from a technical standpoint (he even includes some effective shots from Nebo zovyot again) and what emerges is an acceptable space-horror outing – though, again, the results are the total opposite of the original’s humanist, cosmopolitan vision. Let’s console ourselves with an image from one of its poetic songs: “Apple seeds will be in flower on Mars.”
Mars (Pavel Klushantsev, 1968)
All of the ‘science faction’ films by Klushantsev I’ve seen are among the great marvels of cinematic space exploration (although Western audiences might only have encountered his name via Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, another Corman-produced crime, this one perpetrated by Peter Bogdanovich, who makes mincemeat of Klushantsev’s Planeta Bur). For his Mars sojourn, in between his patented beautiful speculative visions of a future encounter not-yet-but-almost-within-grasp, he questions all kinds of experts and inserts cartoon explanations, culminating in a crazy animation robot worthy of the Looney Tunes and, finally, an evocation of Aelita’s castles, after the film has thoroughly undermined any probability of their existence. It ends, appropriately and gloriously, with the dawn of a new era both highly anticipated and impossible
Mars XX (Irina Gurvich, 1969)
Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecie (The War of the Worlds: Next Century, Piotr Szulkin, 1981/83)
Although dedicated to H.G. Wells and Orson Welles, this Polish dystopia is less a riff on The War of the Worlds and more an uncredited extrapolation on the Strugatsky brothers’ The Second Invasion from Mars, in that the Martians have already arrived and are trying to extract human juices (though in the movie, they vampirically crave blood, like Wells’ invaders, and not gastric juices). Szulkin, specialised in couching social satire in sci-fi, portrays their rule as an English-language police state in which the Martians pretend to have friendly intentions, forcing the hapless protagonist – a balding newscaster who puts on a blonde wig for his transmissions – to collaborate, which brings on its own kind of catch-22. Deliberately grim instead of funny, Szulkin’s pointed satire was rightfully considered an affront by the Polish regime at the time, but might just as well annoy the powers-that-be pretty much everywhere today. The Martians themselves are far less worrying than the humans: One unlucky specimen – they’re purposely ridiculous little people in metallic paint – utters his last words as he’s dying in a public toilet, battered to death by the no less doomed anti-hero: “They promised us candy.” Far from the uplifting science fiction of previous decades, the 1980s warrant the acerbic tone and increasingly worried philosophical outlook in the Eastern production, mirroring different forms of devaluation in the West (→ Fallout).
Budet laskovyy dozhd (There Will Come Soft Rains, Nazim Tulyahodzhayev, 1984)
Veld (The Veldt, Nazim Tulyahodzhayev, 1987)
Trinadtsatyy apostol (The Thirteenth Apostle, Suren Babayan, 1988)
Ray Bradbury’s fix-up novel The Martian Chronicles was turned into a US-British television miniseries by the same name (Michael Anderson, 1980) that was deemed “just boring” by the author, but it isn’t known whether he ever saw these unsettling adaptations made towards the end of the Soviet Union. Both Trinadtsatyy apostol and Veld meld stories from Bradbury’s book in their ambitious portrayals of crumbling worlds and dark insinuations. Babayan’s film veers more towards existentialist self-laceration, while Tulyahodzhayev weaves a dark tapestry of fantastic motives, conjuring a universal bitterness he had previously hinted at, with a lighter poetic touch, in the animated short Budet laskovyy dozhd – which takes one of writer’s most pointed tales (he himself deemed it “the essence of Ray Bradbury”) from the same collection: a chronicle, fashioned as a lyrical little dance of despair, about a civilisation’s automated leftovers uselessly, absurdly continuing to fulfil their duties after catastrophe has wiped out human life,. Some ideas are eternal and speak to all nations.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)
The camp you don’t want to be in. Cf. too a much lesser offender, the mirthless transposition of Oz in The Wizard of Mars (David L. Hewitt, 1965).
Il disco volante (The Flying Saucer, Tinto Brass, 1964)
Italy’s contribution to science fiction includes two notable Mars entries. The first is a series of films by “Anthony Dawson”, in which Mars appears in a role that is, alas, negligible, barely qualifying as a cameo,which doesn’t really align with the purposes of this piece. (I guess the one outstanding recent science fiction film, James Gray’s Ad Astra, from 2019, deserves passing mention here exactly for that reason.) Much better than the Italo-Martian space opera quartet – Space Men (Assignment: Outer Space, Antonio Margheriti, 1960), Il pianeta degli uomini spenti (Battle of the Worlds, Antonio Margheriti, 1961), I Diafanoidi Vengono da Marte (War of the Planets, Antonio Margheriti, 1966) – is Il disco volante. It may not be quite up to the gold standard of Italianalien visitor films as social satire (cf. Ugo Gregoretti’s Omicron), but then again, what is? Nevertheless, there’s that early Brass edge, acquiring an almost surreal quality with the sightings of Martians – greeted with the unforgettably subservient phrase, “I know you are superbeings” – and producing something like collective hypnosis through all social strata in a small Venetian village, unveiling the darker aspects of the social fabric. The real highlight of this concoction is that almost every other role is played by Alberto Sordi (most hilarious as the town’s policeman, a failed writer who complains about the haughty Roman circles ignoring him in favour of the Pasolinis and Moravias out there) and of course there can never be enough of that, since the star’s face represents the Italian everyman par excellence, his charm and his failures.
Mission Mars (Nicholas Webster, 1968)
Its only outstanding aspect is the credits song by Mediterranean psych rockers The Forum Quorum, which makes you yearn for the perfectly pitched musical orchestration of Brian De Palma, who, in a similarly titled film decades later, will blast Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” into antigravity.
Zhan shen (War God, Hung-Min Chen, 1976)
Worth mentioning as an outlier only: This is Mars kaiju on the level of Inframan, just not as elaborate. In short, irresistible for a certain viewership (you know who you are), yet also interminable. The same applies to a much more prestigious animated short, Wakusei daikaijû Negadon (Negadon: The Monster from Mars, Awazu Jun, 2005)
Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1977)
Spoiler: They never leave Earth.
Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
Looking back at the history of Hollywood genre production, it turns out that a Dutchman would be the one to bring it full circle: With his bold, honest iconoclasm, Verhoeven found a way to have his cake and it eat too, subverting popular cinema by stretching it to breaking point. For science fiction (and many other things), he spoke the last word with Starship Troopers, whose nth spinoff is the animated Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (Matsumoto Masaru, Aramaki Shinji, 2017) – although the only film that tries something with its concept (by ‘bugging’ the humans) is Miike Takashi’s wonderfully wacky gun-for-hire Terra Formers (2016), a manga adaptation that is arguably as much animation as it is live action and which takes place on Mars to boot.
With his earlier Martian excursion Total Recall, Verhoeven made one of the few worthy adaptations of Philip K. Dick, giving the wholesale blockbuster approach another round of his characteristic tongue-in-cheek/thorn-in-side spin, upending much of the Mars movie mythos along the way, even if the focus lies elsewhere. But just think of the beginning, in which Schwarzenegger finds himself in a supposed Martian paradise, only to be instantly confronted with the nightmare of his head ballooning from sudden decompression – or the ending, which finally makes good on the revolutionary tangent seeded by Aelita, mutants and all – or does it?
Spaced Invaders (Patrick Read Johnson, 1990)
The kind of irony-dripping homage – Welles’s War of the Worlds radio-play is the first of many victims – that cancels out its own goodwill, unless you’re very young or very naive. You can see that their Johnson et al.’s is in it, but not necessarily the viewers’. A stretch in every sense, and (from a very different corner) a reminder of all that is good about Mars Attacks!
Species 2 (Peter Medak, 1998)
This film doesn’t work on so many levels it almost commands respect. There’s a moment of promise in the vision that the carrier of an alien killer infection might become the President of the United States – call it The Martian Candidate – but otherwise it’s just a braindead brew of movie clichés – further proof how cheap genre cinema lost its minor charms through decadence, from silly dialogue to absurd narrative shortcuts, all of which might have been endearing in a 1950s Z-picture. (Medak’s occasional and increasingly desperate attempts at directorial grandstanding prove sadly detrimental as well.) 100 million years of biological contamination can’t be wrong, you’d think, and yet once more this is testifying to the artistic extinction of a species that, onscreen, inexplicably manages to save the day yet again in the face of inanity. “When did you start smoking?” “Just now.” As I approach the close of this century of cinema, I find myself increasingly exhausted.
Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000)
But – just when you’d think that was it for Mars filmmaking, Brian De Palma of all people makes this irony-free and quite touching Mars saga. This film brings home everything the 1950s seeded.
Red Planet (Antony Hoffman, 2000)
Recall once again Hollywood genre cinema’s dedication to the as near-concurrent as possible release of two movies on the same subject: with Red Planet, the competitor also tries to bring home everything the 1950s seeded – and finds only the bad parts. If I hadn’t seen it back then, this film would join this sad roll call of more recent stuff I sought out for this article and couldn’t bring myself to finish. Some, like The Martian, have sneakily already been inserted above – and then, there were: Stranded (María Lidón, 2001), Fascisti su Marte (Fascists on Mars, Corrado Guzzanti Igor Skofic, 2006), Doom (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005), Christmas on Mars (Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury, 2008), Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009), The Last Days on Mars (Ruairí Robinson, 2013), Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017), 2036 Origin Unknown (Hasraf Dulull, 2018), Settlers (Wyatt Rockefeller, 2021), and Good Night Oppy (Ryan White, 2022), a piece of desperately anthropomorphic self-congratulatoriness that I wouldn’t want as an end-point for this list. So , I’d like to point out that I did finish with great interest one made-for-TV mid-length documentary: To Mars by A-Bomb: The Secret History of Project Orion (Christopher Sykes, 2003).
Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)
The last entry should belong to one the genre’s masters. Given what has come of the dreams associated with outer space, one feels all the more sympathy for this little-liked and curiously dreamlike horror film, which is all the more curious given that it finally brings Carpenter’s Quatermass-y nightmares full circle (→The Golden Age). In some respects Ghosts of Mars feels, if not exactly unfinished, then unfashionable, even untimely. But already back then I thought it was a subversive masterpiece because it conjured a universe in which the 1980s apparently never ended, since all the zomboid creatures wear some kind of Kiss make-up: The escalating madness on a planet ruled through the exploitation of labour seemed a belated anti-capitalist complement to They Live. Now even that pessimistic view seems unduly nostalgic to me, like so much of the Red Planet cinema canon – but its utopian spirit lives on, flowering like those apple seeds on Mars.
Christoph Huber is a curator at the Austrian Filmmuseum. He graduated in Physics at the Technical University of Vienna in the year 2000 and has been working as a film critic and programmer since. European editor of the Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope, co-author (with Olaf Möller) of books on Peter Kern and Dominik Graf. Ferronian.