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Waiting for the Great Martian Movie

We watch all the movies about Mars so you don’t have to

9 min read
Waiting for the Great Martian Movie
Image: David Appleby/Carolco/Tri-Star/The Kobal Collection

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.

imgPhoto: Fox Films/The Kobal Collection

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.

img of invaders from mars poster

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.”

imgPhoto: JPL/NASA

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.

Eventually, six more Mars movies come along: Total Recall in 1990, Escape From Mars in 1999, Red Planet and Mission to Mars in 2000, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars in 2001, and Stranded in 2002.

In this, the most recent cycle of movies, the pseudoscientific backdrop is terraforming, the theory that humankind could change, radically and globally, the environment of a planet in a short period of time. It shouldn’t seem too implausible if, say, you liked Al Gore’s movie. In Ghosts of Mars, terraforming is just a piece of backstory that lets the actors, notably former supermodel Natasha Henstridge, run around on Mars in tight sweaters (that is, we’re back to the 1950s again). But terraforming is an integral part of the plot, albeit a contrived one, in Total Recall, Red Planet, and Stranded. Whether the whole terraforming thing has any more cinematic life in it is now moot.


Today, seven years since the last significant Mars movie, there are a couple more of them in the works. John Carter of Mars, a version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, is scheduled for release by Walt Disney Pictures in 2012. It is to be directed by Andrew Stanton Jr. (Finding Nemo, Wall-E ), so it will probably be entertaining, at least. But given the source material, it will almost certainly be a fantasy vehicle rather than sci-fi. Disney is also reported to be working on an animated movie for children based on the Berke Breathed book Mars Needs Moms. It’s difficult to imagine it being compelling for adults.

Sobchack would love to see a great Mars picture, but she isn’t, uh, holding her breath. “We live in a science-fictional culture, and it’s hard to come up with something truly strange or novel,” she says. In the science-fiction movies of the 1950s, she adds, “there was a fascination with the science itself that gives them a kind of gravitas. But nobody cares about that anymore.

“Plausibility has always been an issue in sci-fi,” she continues. Even in the best of the 1950s pictures, you could usually count on a scientist character at some point to spout “some gobbledygook that quite literally rationalized what was going on.

“But when you live in a science-fictional world, sci-fi is not going to knock your socks off,” she adds. “You want fantasy and comic-book movies in which you can put whatever you want to zing audiences. It’s called ‘wish fulfillment.’”

Seen in this light, the quest for the great Martian movie is up against two major obstacles, Sobchack explains. One is the general trouble with sci-fi movies set on a planet: the tendency for them to degenerate into chases or orgies of extraterrestrial homicide. The other obstacle is the general decline of movie sci-fi and its replacement by fantasy and comic-book movies.

Still, there are reasons to hope that a great Mars movie will get made some day. Start with this one: If NASA is serious about going to Mars, it’s hard to imagine it happening without the kind of mass public enthusiasm that movies are good at nurturing and even better at exploiting. Then, too, there’s that rich and untapped body of Mars literature.

imgPhoto: Random House

The movies have been kind to Philip K. Dick— Total Recall, for example, was based on his short story ”We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”—but his best two works about Mars, Martian Time Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, have yet to get cinematic treatments. Time Slip, in particular, intrigues sci-fi scholars. “It would be a great movie about the ‘Other’ with a capital ‘O,’ ” says Jorge M. Martins Rosa, an assistant professor at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, in Portugal. In Time Slip, “the Martians are just like primitive people, being subjugated by this corporation. It could explore issues of colonialism. It would be a fantastic movie, if properly done.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, whose trilogy on Mars is considered one of the best works ever about the planet, is the other novelist most frequently cited by wistful sci-fi cineastes. The cable channel AMC announced last October that it had begun working on a TV series based on Red Mars, the first novel in the trilogy. No release date has been set. From the same general period as Robinson’s books (the 1990s) came many other worthy novels, including ones by Greg Bear, Ben Bova, Paul J. McAuley, and Gregory Benford.

Maybe the best reason for hope is Mars’s clear appeal to something deep in us. Having emerged from our myths, it still feeds our fantasies. It’s the most interesting motif left in archetypal dreams of escape and adventure in strange, vast realms, of human rejuvenation and transcendence through exodus and hardship.

“A lot of it, for me, just comes from the idea of a group of people getting together and doing something incredible: building a spaceship to go to another planet,” says Williams, whose personal collection of Mars-related movies runs to 154 titles. “The actual going is the awesome part for me…and when they get there, that feeling that, ‘My God, we’ve made it to another world.’ ”

The Red Planet isn’t home to charismatic life. But maybe it will be when our descendants, having conquered it, discover that it has transformed them into something new.

Favorite Mars Movies
Glenn Zorpette, executive editor, IEEE Spectrum

  1. Total Recall 1990, Paul Verhoeven
  2. Red Planet 2000, Antony Hoffman
  3. Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964, Byron Haskin
  4. Aelita: Queen of Mars 1924, Yakov Protazanov
  5. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars 2001, John Carpenter

Favorite Mars Movies
Gerry Williams, The Mars Movie Guide

  1. Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964, Byron Haskin
  2. Total Recall 1990, Paul Verhoeven
  3. The Angry Red Planet 1960, Ib Melchior
  4. Flight to Mars 1951, Lesley Selander
  5. Conquest of Space 1955, Byron Haskin

Favorite Mars Movies
Vivian Sobchack, former associate dean of UCLA film school; author of Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film

  1. Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964, Byron Haskin
  2. Total Recall 1990, Paul Verhoeven

Worth watching for its bizarre cultural perspective on 1950s U.S.A.

  • Red Planet Mars 1952, Harry Horner

Favorite Mars and Mars-related Movies
Jorge M. Martins Rosa, assistant professor, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, in Portugal

  1. Total Recall 1990, Paul Verhoeven
  2. Watchmen 2009, Zack Snyder
  3. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars 2001, John Carpenter
  4. Red Planet 2000, Antony Hoffman

Favorite Mars-related movie in which no one actually goes to Mars

Capricorn One 1978, Peter Hyams

And don’t miss…

“Where the Buggalo Roam” 2002 (Episode of TV series ”Futurama”)

Favorite Mars Movies
Steven Cherry, senior associate editor, IEEE Spectrum

  1. Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century 1953, Chuck Jones
  2. Total Recall 1990, Paul Verhoeven
  3. Red Planet 2000, Antony Hoffman

Favorite Mars-related movies with no action on Mars

  1. Mars Attacks! 1996, Tim Burton
  2. War of the Worlds 2005, Steven Spielberg

For more articles, go to Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

To Probe Further

For more on movies from Mars, see the slideshow “Mars movies: the good, the bad, the ridiculous

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