Quick, now: What planet in our solar system has had the most movies made about it? Okay, obviously the answer is Earth. Coming in a distant second–but still considerably ahead of the other six (sorry, Pluto, you don’t count anymore)–is our cosmic neighbor, Mars. Beginning with the 1910 fantasy A Trip to Mars from Thomas Edison’s studio, the red planet has been featured in various ways in nearly 200 feature films and short subjects. It’s been visited by everyone from Buster Crabbe (Mars Attacks the World) and Lloyd Bridges (Rocketship X-M) to Tim Robbins (Mission to Mars) and Pam Grier (Ghosts of Mars), and by such cartoon characters as Koko the Clown, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny. Meanwhile, a galaxy of actors–among them Leonard Nimoy (Zombies of the Stratosphere), Hazel Court (Devil Girl from Mars), Tommy Kirk (Mars Needs Women) and Christopher Lloyd (replacing TV’s Ray Walston in My Favorite Martian)–has played Martians who come to Earth for reasons peaceful or sinister. With this week’s release of Disney’s CGI sci-fi/comedy Mars Needs Moms, it seemed like a good time to look at my choices for the five best, five worst and five oddest cinematic depictions of life on and off Mars.
Invaders from Mars (1953) – Dubbed “a nightmarish answer to The Wizard of Oz!” for reasons I won’t spoil by divulging here, this B-studio gem starred Jimmy Hunt as a young boy who tells his disbelieving parents that he saw a spaceship crash into a sandpit behind their home, then must flee from his folks and the police when they’re taken over by the invading aliens (tiny antennae on the backs of their necks are the telltale clue). It’s up to Hunt, doctor Helena Carter, and astronomer Arthur Franz to learn what the Martians’ plans are and get help from the military. Director/production designer William Cameron Menzies’ Impressionistic sets–often filmed at a child’s-eye perspective–add to the eerily off-putting quality of this cult favorite thriller, which also featured some nifty Martian monsters, from the silent, bug-eyed mutants to their tentacled, glass globe-enclosed “head man.”
The War of the Worlds (1953) – Producer George Pal’s Cold War-flavored updating of H.G. Wells’ seminal sci-fi novel is still considered one of the great genre outings. Oscar-winning special effects depict the Martians’ magnetically levitating warships in action as they devastate locales across the globe, leads Gene Barry and Ann Robinson are fine as scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and love interest Sylvia Van Buren, and the shots of disintegrated bodies from the Martians’ “heat ray” and the tantalizing glimpses of the squat, “one-eyed” aliens were scary to many a young viewer. Still, it was a shame that Pal couldn’t use the giant walking tripods described in the book (more on this to come).
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) – Taking the basic elements of Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century adventure yarn and moving them to 20th-century outer space may have sounded like a risky venture, but this indie picture (directed by Byron Haskin, who also helmed War of the Worlds) managed to effectively combine the two. Paul Mantee is the title Earth astronaut who survives a crash landing on the red planet (shipmate Adam West, pre-Batman, isn’t so lucky) and learns to fend for himself in the hostile environment (yes, there are explanations for his air, food and water). Mantee’s Crusoe finds his Man Friday when he rescues a humanoid alien (Victor Lundin) from “spacemen from the constellation Orion” who use slave labor to mine the planet’s surface. Oh, and Mantee’s other companion is a woolly monkey named Mona.
The Martian Chronicles (1980) – By and large, the writings of sci-fi/fantasy icon Rad Bradbury have not been particularly well served on the big screen (as in the case of François Truffaut’s sterile 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, 1968’s The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger, or Peter Hyams’ 2005 mangling of A Sound of Thunder). Television, strangely enough, better handled the author’s work twice: in the 1985-92 cable series The Ray Bradbury Theater, and with this 1980 NBC mini-series. Several of Bradbury’s tales–“Ylla,” “Mars Is Heaven,” “The Long Years” and “The Million-Year Picnic” among them–from his interlinked 1950 short story collection were woven together by veteran The Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson into three parts: “The Expeditions,” “The Settlers” and “The Martians.” Bringing the trilogy to life was a cast that included Bernie Casey, Rock Hudson, Roddy MacDowall, Darrin McGavin, Bernadette Peters and Fritz Weaver. The on-screen look of the planet’s surface and environment stayed faithful to the book’s fanciful and not-particularly scientifically accurate (even by ’50s standards) depictions, and while each episode tends to sag under the sheer weight of its multiple storylines (Bradbury himself called the mini-series “just boring”), it nonetheless works as both science fiction and drama.
Total Recall (1990) – Okay, so it’s not exactly on a par with its source novelette, Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. Director Paul Verhoeven’s hyper-violent futuristic thriller, in which construction worker Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes convinced his life is a series of false memories and that his true identity is somehow linked to an Earth colony on the planet Mars, is an enjoyable romp that features an estimated body count of 77, some vintage Arnold witticisms, a fight between Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin, and some patented corporate villainy from Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. For this list, however, the key component is the wonderful subterranean Martian sets, complete with robot taxis, giant air delivery systems and mutated workers.
Robot Monster (1953) – To be fair, this film may not really qualify for my roll call, since it’s only the alternate title Monster from Mars that mentions the planet (the title villain refers to his home world as “Ro-Man”). Still, director Phil Tucker’s low-budget sci-fi turkey needs a shout-out if only for having one of the most ludicrous-looking aliens in screen history: a gorilla suit topped by a spaceman helmet.
The Wizard of Mars (1964) – So, remember what I said earlier about how taking the themes of Robinson Crusoe and moving them to Mars made for a fairly entertaining movie experience? Well, that wasn’t the case here. In case you haven’t guessed from the title (or if you saw this film under its aliases Alien Massacre or Horrors of the Red Planet), The Wizard of Mars is indeed an outer space rendition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as a scientific expedition from Earth consisting of three guys and a gal named Dorothy crash lands on the red planet. With food and air supplies in jeopardy, the foursome finds a golden road that leads them to a city and its dormant inhabitants. The Martians, whose group consciousness takes the form of the giant disembodied head of John Carradine, enlists the astronauts’ aid in helping free them from some sort of “temporal captivity.” I don’t want to give away the twist ending, but if you’ve ever seen a certain 1939 musical with Judy Garland, you can probably guess what it is.
Invaders from Mars (1986) – Whatever charms were found in Menzies’ 1953 fantasy were lost in this 1986 remake from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper. While it holds closely–perhaps too much so–to the storyline of the original, a bigger budget didn’t improve on the effects or the aliens (the Martian leader bears a striking resemblance to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bad guy Krang), and a cast that included Karen Black, Timothy Bottoms, Louise Fletcher, Laraine Newman, and child “star” Hunter Carlson either underplays or hams up their roles. In one of the film’s sole pluses, ’50s Invaders juvenile lead Jimmy Hunt makes an appearance as the police chief.
Mars Attacks! (1996) – While it may be the best movie ever based on a series of bubblegum cards (apologies to The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) and did feature some great CGI-created Martians (“Ack, ack ack ack!”), Tim Burton’s cheerily goofy ’50s space film satire is still an over-bloated mess that depends too much on some unfunny star turns (did we need two Jack Nicholsons or even one Martin Short or Danny DeVito?) and a “secret-weapon-to-save-the-day” gimmick that was lifted without so much as a by-your-leave from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Tom Jones was, however, very effective playing Tom Jones, and any film that features Sarah Jessica Parker’s head transplanted on her pet chihuahua’s body can’t be all bad.
War of the Worlds (2005) – When mega-director Steven Spielberg decided he was going to take a crack at filming the Wells story for 21st-century audiences, fans assumed he would overload it with his trademark touches: an adult trying to connect with children in their care, kids with “daddy issues,” people standing in the midst of chaos and screaming for no good reason, and the like. Sadly, that’s just what came to pass, and Wells’ solitary English protagonist morphed into divorced New Jersey dockworker Tom Cruise, schlepping offspring Dustin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning across the apocalyptic landscape to ex-wife Miranda Otto in Boston. What’s more, the aliens in the film apparently aren’t actual Martians, but extraterrestrials from some unknown world who have been lying in wait deep below the Earth’s surface for millions of years. What, Steven, you think moviegoers will accept alien invaders, but not ones from Mars? Oh, well, at least this version did have the kick-ass tripods that special effects crews circa 1953 couldn’t have achieved.
Red Planet Mars (1952) – The key word here is “Red.” Many sci-fi pictures from the Cold War period dealt with subtle, and often not-so-subtle, anti-Communist themes, but few tackled the subject with such (literally) evangelical vigor as this B-studio opus. Husband-wife scientists Peter Graves and Andrea King receive radio transmissions that appear to be from a Utopian society living on Mars. The alien broadcasts cause a panic in American business markets, but when they take on religious–Christian, of course–tones (“It’s the Sermon on the Mount…from Mars,” says King), the resultant global fervor leads to revolutions behind the Iron Curtain and the establishment of a Russian Orthodox theocracy, complete with a patriarch who looks a little like the Ayatollah Khomeini. So, are the Martian messages really from the Almighty? I’m not saying.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) – The title for this Space Age comedy starring Universal’s famed funnymen sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? There’s just one problem; Abbott and Costello don’t go to Mars in the movie! Oh, sure, Bud and Lou wind up in an experimental rocket that’s supposed to travel to Mars, only they land first in New Orleans, then on a Venus populated solely by beautiful women. Why not just call the furshlugginer picture Abbott and Costello Go to Venus? One letter too many for the marquee?
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) – Baby Boomers will “fondly” recall this unfunny holiday Saturday matinee staple in which Kris Kringle is abducted from his North Pole toy factory by green leotard-clad Martians, who bring him to their planet so that their chronically depressed children (among them a young Pia Zadora) can have Christmas presents and learn the joys of consumerism just like Earth boys and girls. Movie FanFare’s resident specialist in off-the-wall cinema, Dr. Strangefilm, offered up his diagnosis of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians here.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) – Like the earlier Robot Monster, this interplanetary atrocity merely mentions the red planet in its alternate title (which is–no kidding–Mars Invades Puerto Rico). And like Robot Monster, nowhere in the film do villains Princess Marcuzan (Marilyn Hanold, made up to resemble Liz Taylor in Cleopatra) and her bald-pated chief scientist Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell) identify themselves as actually being from Mars. They’re simply from an war-ravaged alien world and have come to America’s Caribbean playground in search of, as the princess puts it, “breeding stock.” This, of course, entails spacesuit-clad henchmen using Whammo Air-Blasters (also seen in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) to abduct bikini-clad babes right off the beach. The Frankenstein in the title is a NASA android whose artificial features are scarred by the invaders and who battles them and their lizard/bat/newt Space Monster. As if the bad effects, hammy acting and beach beauties didn’t already add up to a bizarre experience, the heroic NASA scientist who gets the girl at the end is none other than B-movie stalwart and beloved Pathmark supermarkets spokesman James Karen.
The Night That Panicked America (1975) – This is perhaps the strangest Martian invasion movie ever made…if for no other reason, than because there are no Martians in it. This acclaimed made-for-TV drama actually recounted the 1938 Halloween radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater players of an adaptation of War of the Worlds, set in contemporary New Jersey and New York. Because many people missed the introductory explanation that it was a radio play, thousands across the country were convinced that Martians had actually landed and were taking over the country. A great examination of America’s pre-WWII apprehensions, the film starred Tom Bosley, Will Geer, Vic Morrow, John Ritter, and Paul Shenar as the young Welles.
NOTE: This article merely scratches the surface of fourth-planet film fare. More a more comprehensive (Martian) chronicle, be sure to check out the Mars Society website’s list.