This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
Let’s get this up front: The best Mars movie is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall . The 1990 sci-fi thriller stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a former counterrevolutionary who’s had his memory erased and is trying to figure out who he is and who his enemies are on a Mars wracked by revolution. Like all of Verhoeven’s movies, it is compulsively watchable and has creative if often gratuitous violence and sleaze—and also Verhoeven’s obligatory femme fatale, in this case played by Sharon Stone.
The film explores issues of identity, as in this exchange between Schwarzenegger’s character and Stone’s, just after they’ve tried to kill each other:
Schwarzenegger: ”If I’m not me, who the hell am I?”
Stone: ”Beats me. I just work here.”
Sure, the movie’s good. But is it really the best movie ever made about Mars?
Consider the competition. And when doing so, be sensible and define a movie about Mars as one in which at least part of the plot takes place on Mars . Dozens of movies meet that criterion, but dozens more with the word Mars in their title do not. Of the ones that do, maybe five or six at most are worth watching. Yep, a century of Mars movies and you have barely enough for a one-day film fest (see the accompanying tables of ”Favorite Mars Movies” at the end of this article).
It’s puzzling. Mars has fascinated Earthlings for millennia, ever since sages saw the pink dot in the night sky and wondered why it wandered. The ancient Greeks, seeing red and thinking blood, named it after their god of war, Ares; later the Romans just substituted the name of theirs: Mars. The body of literature about Mars is rich [see ”Kim Stanley Robinson’s 10 Favorite Mars Novels”], and a reasonable portion of it is intellectually stimulating.
The movies, not so much. One of the earliest was A Trip to Mars , a 4-minute kinetoscope produced in 1910 by one of Thomas Edison’s movie companies. A magical powder enables a professor to float to Mars, where he is attacked by aggressive trees and tumbles onto the lip of a giant Martian creature. It can’t be called an auspicious beginning.
In the decades that followed, motion-picture directors used Mars and Mars voyages as a backdrop for adventures that could have been set just about anywhere, and also as a contrivance to develop themes that would resonate. That’s what directors do, after all. In postrevolutionary Russia, for example, a visit to Mars depicted in the film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) became an occasion to demonize capitalism and glorify bolshevism.
In the United States, where the vast majority of these movies have been made, Mars changed with the times. In the 1930s, it was an alternative to the American West in cheesy serials featuring sets more exotic than cowpoke towns, and villains more exotic than unshaven men in black hats.
An exception is Just Imagine , one of the oddest films of cinema’s adolescence, the brief transition between silent films and talkies, precode and postcode. Released in 1930, Just Imagine is a talkie, but it has intertitles, like a silent movie. The plot is wispy: A young man needs to impress government officials to marry the woman he loves. So he goes to Mars with his best friend and, it turns out, a stowaway who seems to have wandered into the movie from a vaudeville show. Upon arriving, the three immediately encounter Martians, who seem to differ hardly at all from Earthlings. The female Martians, in big hair and shiny two-piece bathing suits, seem to be what on Earth 25 years later will be called Vegas showgirls. The acting is terrible and the dialogue is unbearable at times. But the art deco sets, [see our accompanying slide show, "Mars Movies: The Good, The Bad, The Ridiculous"] effects, and costumes are all stunning for their era.
Mars then basically disappears from cinema for about two decades, reappearing in the golden age of sci-fi motion pictures, the 1950s. The best of those sci-fi films are either paranoid fever dreams inspired by Cold War dread ( Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space ), or they’re moralistic melodramas tinged by an infatuation with technology and/or a vague sense of wonder at the cosmos ( Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still ). Unfortunately, none of the Mars movies of the 1950s fit into either category.
Flight To Mars (1951) was shot in five days using borrowed costumes, sets, and even sounds. ”Cameron Mitchell, who stars in it, barely remembers it,” says Gerry Williams, who maintains The Mars Movie Guide and organizes the Mars Society San Diego chapter’s monthly Mars movie nights. Flight follows the standard trajectory: Earth ship with attractive coed crew lands on Mars and finds a civilization with people who look exactly like Earthlings and even speak English. But beneath their padded tunics, these Martians harbor Earth-invasion plans, because their world is dying.
Much of the plot and dialogue is so ridiculous that the film is surprisingly enjoyable today as an unintentional parody of ’50s sci-fi pictures. The movie has precisely one clever touch: The Martian heroine is named Alita, an apparent homage to the Russian movie’s Queen Aelita.
Invaders From Mars (1953), a compelling piece of Cold War paranoia rendered cleverly in primary colors, doesn’t really have anything to do with Mars. The Martians might as well be Venusians. Ditto Red Planet Mars (1952), a story about rival Cold War radio engineers, one of whom makes contact with a Martian civilization. It starts promisingly but degenerates abruptly into inanity when viewers are asked to accept that God has chosen Mars from among the universe’s many celestial bodies to be His base from which to proselytize by radio. At least the inanity is revealing: ”It’s mind-boggling from a cultural perspective,” notes Vivian Sobchack, a former associate dean of the film school at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (Rutgers University Press). Time.com recommends the movie ”as a rear-view mirror into the roiling national psyche of the ’50s” U.S.A.
In the early 1960s, the surging U.S. space program rejuvenated interest in Mars and helped spawn two striking yet meandering exercises, each based on a well-known fable. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and The Wizard of Mars (1965) are interesting partly because they were the last gasp, so to speak, of the cinematic Mars where people could walk around in light clothing, breathe through compact thingamabobs, and happen upon complex life.
Crusoe , in particular, is still very fondly regarded by cinephiles. ”It uses the landscape as something more than a setting for chases,” says Sobchack. ”It’s about survival. A use of the landscape as this strange and hostile place. It’s beautiful.”
In July 1965, the U.S. space probe Mariner 4 flew by Mars and began sending back the first close-up pictures of the planet. They showed a cratered world that was airless, waterless, canal-less, and devoid of the sort of life that could green-light a script.
From that point onward, strolling around on Mars in street clothes became a no-no. Also out: Martians that seem distinguishable from humans only in their more-daring fashion choices.
Mars movies pretty much disappear again for the next 25 years, except for a few cinematic curiosities and a couple of TV series. The unintentionally funny 1967 throwback, Mars Needs Women , is about a dying race that needs nubile Earthlings with whom to breed.
In 1976, the U.S. Viking landers do their thing, and interest in Mars resurges hugely. But not a single decent Mars movie comes out of it. In fact, Viking’s sharp images of beautiful, barren Martian plains probably did more harm than good, Sobchack says. After Viking, the fake Mars images of cinema lost much of their power to captivate. Or even to be taken seriously. ”There was this feeling that, ’Okay, we’ve seen it. So?’ ”
To sum up: no agreeable environment; no plausible indigenous antagonists. ”So now what?” asks Sobchack. ”If you go there with your script, what do you do? There seem to be two choices: some sort of a chase, or you have your crew killing each other off for various reasons.”
In the 1970s, writers and directors of serious science-fiction films weren’t much inclined to do either. They were too busy grappling with earthly social issues in high-concept movies like Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Silent Running , and A Clockwork Orange . The only notable motion picture with any connection to Mars is Capricorn One (1978), a post-Watergate conspiracy-theory vehicle centered around U.S. officials faking a trip to Mars to avoid national embarrassment. Nobody goes to Mars. In fact, that’s the point.