Mars in Pop Culture: Film
Astrobiology Magazine — The latest movie incarnation of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” hits theaters today. Steven Spielberg’s version of this classic tale is sure to scare (or at least entertain) millions of people as they watch aliens try to invade Earth.
Early movies relied on our nearest neighbors ““ Mars and Venus ““ to supply a steady stream of aliens that, one way or another, sought to conquer our world. But scientific findings in the later half of the twentieth century showed that these nearby planets had little prospects for advanced life forms.
Thus, in more recent movies like “Alien” and “Independence Day,” the aliens have had to come from further afield to be seen as credible threats by moviegoers. While Mars may not be the dangerous source of villains it once was, it is still a source of inspiration for many modern films.
This overview looks at how Mars and Martians have been represented throughout the history of the cinema. For a comprehensive list of Mars-related movies, see the Mars Movie Guide.
“John Carter of Mars.” In Production for a 2006 release.
Plot summary by the Internet Movie Database: “Civil War vet John Carter is transplanted to Mars, where he discovers a lush, wildly diverse planet whose main inhabitants are 12-foot tall green barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, who is in desperate need of a savior.” Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
“War of the Worlds.” Release date Wednesday, June 29, 2005.
As Earth is invaded by alien war machines, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) must fight for his family’s survival. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Ghosts of Mars (2001). Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham.
Set 200 years in the future, a police unit must transport a dangerous prisoner from a Martian mining outpost. But when the team arrives they find more than they bargained for.
Red Planet (2000). Directed by Anthony Hoffman. Starring Val Kilmer, Benjamin Bratt, Carrie-Anne Moss, Simon Baker, Tom Sizemore.
In the future, pollution and overpopulation are making the Earth uninhabitable. Humanity’s only hope is to colonize the planet Mars by using algae to produce oxygen, but when the algae mysteriously disappear, a group of astronauts are sent to Mars on a mission to learn why.
Mission to Mars (2000). Directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Jerry O’Connell, Connie Nielsen.
When the first manned mission to Mars meets with a catastrophic and mysterious disaster, a rescue mission is launched to investigate the tragedy and bring back any survivors.
Mars Attacks! (1996). Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Annette Bening, Danny Devito, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones.
Martians rocket across space and invade Earth. Humanity is corralled and subjugated in horrible conditions. Atrocious acts of brutal violence are witnessed. Slavering bug-eyed monsters are sighted pillaging the countryside. But have no fear! Eventually, the people of Earth defeat the Martians. Finally, the movie ends with Tom Jones jigging about to “It’s not Unusual” and the Mars Attacks are clearly over, even though you wish they would start up again at this point.
Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sharon Stone.
Douglas Quaid (Schwarzeneggar) is haunted by the same dream every night about a journey to Mars. He hopes to find out more about this dream and buys a vacation at Rekall Inc. where they sell implanted memories. Unfortunately, something goes wrong with the memory implantation and he remembers being a secret agent fighting against an evil Mars administrator, Coohagen. So the story begins, and what follows is a rollercoaster ride until the end of the movie, when atmospheric gases and water are liberated from sub-surface rocks of Mars.
Alternatively the plot goes something like this: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man with big muscles; there are special effects and gratuitous violence; the end.
“Total Recall” is based on a short story by sci-fi cyberpunk author Philip K. Dick entitled, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” only twenty pages long, and set entirely in two small rooms in New York City. The story is complex and alien – a painful, detailed examination of a man recovering suppressed memories, and the reactions of those involved in his “therapy.” Dick himself was in therapy at the time of writing the story. Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” inspired the film “Blade Runner” (1982).
Lobster Man from Mars (1989). Directed by Stanley Sheff. Starring Tony Curtis, Deborah Foreman, Patrick Macnee, Anthony Hickox.
A comedy. A young film student tries to sell his weird movie to a desperate film producer who is looking for a tax write-off. The producer screens the film “Lobster Man From Mars.” A “film within-a-film” send-up follows: Mars suffers from the loss of its atmosphere, and the Martians send the evil Lobster Man to Earth to steal its air. A mad scientist, a girl, and an army colonel foil the alien plot. The producer buys the movie, but it makes a huge profit and he is sent to jail. The film student then takes his place as the studio hot shot.
Invaders from Mars (1986). Directed by Tobe Hopper. Starring Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms.
In this remake of the classic 50s film, a boy tries to stop an invasion of his town by aliens who take over the the minds of his parents, his least-liked schoolteacher, and other townspeople. With the aid of the school nurse the boy enlists the help of the U.S. army.
T.S. Eliot once described the science fiction genre as a “product of the pre-adolescent mind.” This is an unfair comment for genuine works of literary quality (e.g. by Wells and Bradbury), but probably wholly deserved for some of the movies that follow.
Planet of Blood (1966). Directed by Curtis Harrington. Starring Dennis Hopper, John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith, Florence Marly.
An expedition to Mars finds a crashed alien space ship. They bring back the only survivor; a green skinned, glowing eyed, bloodsucking, female alien who preys on the crew members.
Mars Needs Women (1966). Directed by Larry Buchanan. Starring Tommy Kirk, Yvonne Craig, Byron Lord
The title says it all. Tommy Kirk leads his fellow Martians on an interplanetary quest for females. Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig is a scientist chosen by the invaders.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Directed by Nicholas Webster. Starring John Call, Pia Zadora, Jamie Farr.
Santa is captured by Martians to stop Earth kids from being cheery. But once on Mars, Santa teaches those little Martian brats the real meaning of Christmas. Quite possibly the silliest movie ever made. The most excruciating and cringe-inducing moment is at the end when the Martians, who are a bunch of kids attired in green stockings, sing “Hooray for Santy [sic] Claus.”
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Directed by Byron Haskins, who also directed War of the Worlds. Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, and Adam West (“Batman”).
This movie follows Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe plot, but without the fear-factor of footprints from the original story. Commander Christopher Draper (Mantee) must survive on the barren planet accompanied only by his pet monkey, Mona. Draper discovers minor plant life in the “canals” of Mars and bakes Martian rocks to release oxygen in an otherwise oxygen-poor atmosphere. Eventually a Man Friday appears and the trio ends up being chased by flying saucers to one of the polar icecaps. Some uncharitable people have said that the best acting in the movie is by Mona, the pet monkey. Many scenes were shot at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley.
The Angry Red Planet (1959). Directed by Ib Melchior. Starring Gerald Mohr, Nora Hayden, Les Tremayne.
A group of astronauts land on Mars. They then have to put up with continual battles against aliens, a giant amoeba, and the dreaded Rat-Bat-Spider thing (see picture). Colored lenses give a sickly pink hue to all the Mars sequences.
Devil Girl from Mars (1954). Directed by David MacDonald. Starring Patricia Laffa, Hazel Court, Hugh McDermott, Adrienne Corri.
Not the kind of girl you really want to get involved with: pouty, leather-clad alien Patricia Laffa journeys to Earth in a giant spaceship (accompanied by the obligatory killer robot) to bring back men for breeding purposes. Very camp.
The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Starring Gene Barry as Clayton Forrester.
A film adaptation of H.G. Well’s classic novel best understood if you bear in mind that it was made at the height of the Cold War – i.e., replace Martian with Russian. The residents of a small town are excited when a flaming meteor lands in the hills. Their joy is somewhat dampened when they discover it has passengers who are not very friendly. Won an Academy Award for special effects.
Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Starring Arthur Franz, Helena Carter.
Little David MacLean has a problem — all the adults in town begin acting strangely shortly after he sees strange lights settling behind a hill near his home. As more and more adults are affected, he must turn to the pretty Dr. Blake for protection. Eventually, he must confront his fears in the unusual conclusion. Remade in 1986.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). Directed by Charles Lamont.
Lester (Bud Abbott) and Orville (Lou Costello) accidentally launch a rocket which is supposed to fly to Mars. Instead it goes to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They are then forced by bankrobber Mugsy and his pal Harry to fly to Venus where they find a civilization made up entirely of women, men having been banished.
Red Planet Mars (1952). Directed by Harry Horner. Starring Peter Graves, Andrea King, Morris Ankrum.
A lame, anti-communist movie made under the influence of McCarthyism. Communications from Mars establish that the planet is almost a utopia ruled by a supreme authority. News of this somehow topples Russia and sends the world on to a new higher plane of existence.
Flight to Mars (1951). Directed by Lesley Selander. Starring Carmon Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Marguerite Chapman.
A team of scientists and a newspaper reporter fly to Mars only to find that Martians look identical to humans. Mars is running low on an important natural resource called Corium (whatever that is), so the Martians plan to steal the Earthmen’s rocket and conquer Earth. Fortunately, a sympathetic Martian underground helps the Earthmen foil the dastardly plan.
Rocketship X-M (1950). Directed by Kurt Neumann. Starring Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O’Brian and Morris Ankrum.
Five astronauts set off to explore the moon but due to a malfunction they end up on Mars (so annoying when that happens!). There they find evidence of an advanced civilization that has mostly perished in an atomic holocaust. The few Martian survivors now live like savage cavemen. After two of the astronauts are killed, the remaining three attempt to return to Earth.
Flash Gordon: Mars Attacks the World (1938) (a.k.a. Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, Deadly Ray from Mars). Directed by Robert F. Hill. Starring Buster Crabbe, Charles Middleton, Jean Rogers.
A feature-length (badly edited) abridgement of the 15-episode serial, “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.” Flash Gordon, his lady love Dale Arden, and scientific genius Dr. Zarkov blast off for Mars, where a mysterious force is sucking the nitrogen from the Earth’s atmosphere. They hope to determine the source of this power and destroy it. The villain behind the Earth-threatening scheme is none other than “Ming the Merciless,” who also foments a deadly feud between Prince Barin of the planet Mongo and the Clay People of Mars. Ming hopes that this battle will allow him to conquer the universe in the confusion. But the Clay People ultimately align with Barin and Flash Gordon, and Ming is defeated.
Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924). Director: Jakov Protazanov.
A silent Soviet propaganda film: a comparison between 1920s Russia and a capitalistic planet, Mars. Engineer Los is building a spaceship to reach Mars. He kills his wife, Natacha (a refugee care worker), flees to Mars, and falls in love with Aelita, the Queen of Mars. But it’s all a dream, thank goodness.
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