Return To Mars: Why The Red Planet Fascinates Us So Much

No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…

martian-floating-city

“We can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space” – H G Wells.

Allegedly straight lines on the equator of Mars were first termed: “canali” (canals) by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who observed and illustrated them in 1877. Even Percival Lowell – the esteemed astronomer who discovered Pluto – weighed into the controversy, claiming that the canals could only be “the work of some sort of intelligent beings.” 

For any canal to be visible from the Earth, the notion of engineering involving extremely implausible Amazonion proportions only fuelled the Martian-believers hopes even more. Such a gargantuan feat of engineering could only be the work of a highly sophisticated race.

By the time the far-fetched canals of Mars theory could be scotched, it was far too late. An enthusiastic and optimistic Victorian society had accepted the prospect of galactic neighbours, albeit with some considerable trepidation. From this age of astronomic madness emerged one of the enduring classics of science fiction. The War of the Worlds was first published in Pearson’s magazine in the Spring of 1897.

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“I had a dream aboutman. He is not from our world. He came down from the sky and spoke to me. He said we are from the third planet… We come from Earth” – Ylla.  

“They live in a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars, by the edge of an empty sea. In the evenings, when the Fossil Sea’s warm and motionless, Mr. K sits in his room, listening to his book.” 

So says the narrator over the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles: my introduction to the impressive work of Ray Bradbury; also, it marked the first time that Mars made an impression on me.

It was memorable for being so downright creepy. The theme music was unforgettable. Reviewing it thirty years later, the poor special effects look more dire than ever. However, the screenplay by Richard Matheson is still quite affecting even now. Perhaps the most outstanding scene ever to take place on Mars can be seen here. It is a brief, yet magical, moment – one of my all-time faves.

total-recall

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“There’s what they call the ‘Mars curse’ in the movie industry. I think the last time there was a significant commercial success that took place on Mars was Total Recall” – Andy Weir.   

Ever since, though, it has been difficult to find that many films relating to Mars that are actually worth sitting through. Oddly enough, the first two Mars-related movies that spring to mind are the eerie Invaders From Mars (1953) and the hilarious Mars Attacks! (1996) but these two classics deal with the Martians on Earth. 

One of the earliest film forays onto the red planet was the distinctly baffling Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which featured Adam (Batman) West. It is one of those obscure 60s oddballs that – let’s face ithasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in the blogosphere all this month. Here is the trailer in case you were wondering whether such a bizarro movie exists!

Total Recall (1990) was based on a 1966 short story: “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. This Paul Verhoeven-directed sci-fi action adventure pic starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker who learns that his life is merely an implanted memory, and must travel to Mars to learn the truth. The movie became intriguing once it revealed subterranean engineering works constructed by a long-since-vanished alien civilization.

2000 was a diabolical year for movies set on Mars. Both Mission To Mars and Red Planet proved to be critical and commercial flops. For the purposes of this Post, the former was selected for a viewing mainly because Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins seemed like a less sufferable option than Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. 

It all started so well: we get acquainted with the mission’s personnel at a back garden barbecue while Zydaco music plays over the opening credits. Poor Don Cheadle: while investigating an abnormal feature in Cydonia, his crew are wiped out and he has to fend for himself on the red planet for a whole year before the aforementioned pair can come and rescue him. Hmm, he did well cultivating plants and a formidable beard; he could teach Matt Damon a thing or two. Rather than create a gripping adventure, the film sinks into a botched and far-fetched denouement. Surprisingly, the score was composed by the one and only Ennio Morricone, but for once, his sweeping strings do not fit, or lift, these insipid images.

Then, of course, 2011 brought the most disastrous animated movie ever: Mars Needs Moms. There is absolutely no reason to sully this finely cultivated blog by analyzing this crap, but you can’t help wondering who pitched this disturbing premise: mother abduction as family entertainment. And how did it get accepted?!  

In view of this appalling track record, by the time John Carter of Mars (my particular favourite Mars movie) was brought to the big screen in 2012, the “of Mars” segment of the title was dropped, most likely to avert the dire repurcussions of the Mars curse. Nobody knew who John Carter was – it bombed anyway. 

So, next week we will know if Ridley Scott has redeemed his career and successfully banished the curse of those movies to be set on Mars. 

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mission-to-mars-face

A
A “map” of Mars created by Eugene Antoniadi in 1894.

Cheers!

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15 thoughts on “Return To Mars: Why The Red Planet Fascinates Us So Much

  1. Great post! I’m very excited about “The Martian” and I’m glad to see it’s getting good advance reviews from critics. I think the planet Mars fascinates us because it’s one of the closer planets yet still seems mysterious and unreachable. We’ve been to the moon but the dream of humans landing on Mars remains out of our grasp, at least for now.

    • Thanks for th Comment, Ashley!
      Big fans of Matt Damon in this house, so we’ll definitely b watching The Martian in th next few days.
      Yes, relieved to hear about those good advance reviews – have been wondering whether Ridley Scott was losing his touch bt this looks like an encouraging return to form.
      My review should b up by this time nxt wk!
      Cheers!

  2. Nice post, though you made some factual mistakes. Lowell did not discover Pluto. He was dead by then. Clyde Tombaugh did, though he worked at the Lowell Observatory. Also, Robinson Crusoe on Mars can hardly be said to be “one of the earliest”. Hollywood has made features about Mars since at least 1930 (Just Imagine) and the rest of the world began in 1918 (Himmelskibet, Denmark). You can read about (and download) some of the earlier films, such as Rocketship X-M and Flight to Mars, at my blog Silver in a Haystack:

    https://silverinahaystack.wordpress.com/tag/mars/

    By the way, I fancy John Carter too, though my favourite Mars film is probably Aelita from 1924. Perhaps The Martian will take over that place?

    • Thank u for pointing out th errors, sir!
      Of course, there are much earlier egs such as Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938), but I was pushed for time and words.
      Looking forward to going thro some of your other Posts!
      Cheers!

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