VOL. 13, No. 22
MARTIANS On the SCREEN
What will our latest Mars lander find on the Red Planet?
And will it be friendly?
MARTIAN ROYALTY, 1924
in "AELITA, QUEEN OF MARS"
....Soviet silent sci-fi film of 1924
MARTIAN ROYALTY, 2009
as Dejah Thoris
in " A PRINCESS OF MARS:
Filmmakers found Martians
a long, long time ago!
By RON MILLER
Early next week, if all goes well, NASA's latest spacecraft will touch down on the surface of Mars and resume the so-far unsatisfactory search for life on the red planet. For filmmakers, though, it may be difficult to stifle a yawn. That's because they've been finding lots of life on Mars for nearly a century.
In 1924, for instance, the Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov gave us "Aelita, Queen of Mars," which suggested Mars was quite advanced, boasted of a (surprise!) Marxist form of government and featured a decorating style that may have inspired Palbo Picasso and the Cubist movement. As you can see from the photo above, the boss lady also had a very advanced sort of crown that looks as if it could pick up high definition TV signals, let alone cellphone text messages.
Perhaps because it was named, by earth astronomers, after the mythical God of War, Mars has seldom been portrayed on screen as a very happy or peaceful place. In fact, the earliest fictional tales about Mars suggest it was a planet eager to invade us and do lots of damage or, if we should get there first, to punish us severely for doing what NASA plans to do next week with its meandering lander.
H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" frightened us before the 20th century with Martians hell-bent on conquering Earth, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater used that storyline for his infamous 1938 broadcast of a "War of the Worlds" radio drama and millions of listeners thought it was actually a newscast of a real Martian invasion.
Could you blame Universal Pictures for quicklly re-editing their serial "Flash Gordon's TripTo Mars" (1938) into a feature film called "Mars Attacks the World" and rreleasing it to movie theaters to cash in on the Welles radio pandemonium?
In that black and white serial adventure, comic strip space soldier Flash Gordon discovers that Ming the Merciless, would-be ruler of the universe, had shifted his base of operations from the planet Mongo and had relocated on Mars, which he was using as the launching pad for some deadly rays that were causing havoc on Earth.
So Flash goes to Mars and aborts Ming's nasty scheme just in the nick of time. I saw the film in the early 1950s when sci-fi movies were beginning to surface in much greater numbers than they had in the past, thanks to the coming of the Atomic Age and the sighting of the first batch of flying saucers over America in the late 1940s.
This serial should be an educational film for all future invaders
from Mars, who would learn NOT to built their headquarters in
the crater of an active Earth volcano.
Before 1950, the film world hadn't really done much about reporting on the activities of Martians except in Saturday matinee fare for kiddies. In 1951, Republic released a serial called "Flying Disc Man From Mars" in which a Martian invader named Mota makes a deal with a U.S. scientist to use advanced Martian technology if the scientist will help Mota conquer Earth in the name of the dictator of Mars. Earth is finall;y saved by Mota's stupid decision to locate his headquaarters in a volcano crater before checking to make sure the volcano was extinct. It wasn't.
In the early 1950s, scientists were beginning to believe space travel might nedeed be possible. I had a science teacher in junior high school who insisted we kids stop talking about such things because space travel was clearly impossible since no rocket could ever escape Earth's gravitational pull! I'm happy to report the science teacher eventually stopped teaching and became a dentist instead.
Posters for two early
sci-fi movies from 1951
that envisioned Martians.
That same year, Lippert Pictures came out with the movie "Rocketship X-M," in which astronaut Lloyd Bridges was aboard a rocketship headed for the first Moon landing. Unfortuantley, an accident happens and the rocketship hurtles out of control and lands on Mars instead. How they obtained the extra fuel to make such a long journey was never explained.
But the important part is that the astronauts discovered Mars was still inhabited by mutants created by radiation from the nuclear war that had decimated the red planet generations earlier. This was a sobering lesson for moviegoers who were then living in the Cold War era in which we all feared atomic Armageddon was coming soon.
I guess 1951 was a pretty good year for Mars movies because it also saw the rlelease of "Flight To Mars," a low budget film in color that found Earth astronauts landing on Mars and discovering a civilization still going strong there, although forced to move underground in order to survive. Curiously, the Martians looked exactly like us, which I suppose argued for the notion that the same deity created us all. "Flight To Mars" was neither exciting or credible, even to a kid like me.
By 1953, I guess Hollywood began to assume the flying saucers people were seeing were coming from Mars. At least the new Mars movies were more keen on portraying Martians as hostile creatures who wanted to do us serious bodily harm.
That year brought "Invaders From Mars," which had a larger budget and a stylistic director (William Cameon Menzies) who told his story, in garish color, from the viewpoint of a child. Unfortunately, the child was played by Jimmy Hunt, who was a wimpy little brat I hoped would be eaten by Martians before the first reel was over. In this one, Martians were monsters who followed the instructions of a brain floating in a giant glass tube. I think the whole movie turned out to be the kid's nightmare, but maybe it was really just a bad dream I had. Who cares?
But 1953 also brought the first really professional Mars movie--George Pal's "The War of the Worlds," in which the Martians attack Los Angeles and blow up City Hall while heroes Gene Barry and Ann Robinson took shelter in the ruins of downtown L.A. The Martians were spindly creatures that lived inside giant flying saucer machines, but they finally succumbed to Earth's routine infectious diseases after defeating all the weapons the military brought to bear on them.
The moral lesson Holl;ywood delivered was plain: Have faith in our germs and everything will be O.K. I mean, you just know the outer space invaders will not be smart enough to get vaccinated in advnace.
This is the
saw in the 1953
"War of the
In 2005, when Steven Spielberg got around to remaking "War of the Worlds," he didn't even bother telling us the invaders were from Mars. Perhaps he felt the earlier NASA Mars fly-bys and landers had convinced everybody Mars was vacant and nobody would believe Martians still existed. Charmingly, though, he gave us a gl;impse of the elderly Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 "WEar of the Worlds," as the grandparents of little Dakota Fanning, the juvenile heroine of the remake, which starred Tom Cruise as her alien-battling father.
One of the very earliest literary accounts of Martians was Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel, "A Princess of Mars," published in 1915 before Burroughs dreamed up his most famous hero, Tarzan of the Apes. That novel was the first in a series of books about the adventures of John Carter, an Earthman who was transported to Mars rather magically without the use of a spaceship and found himself battling Martian monsters and villains while trying to save the life and kingdom of Dejah Thoris, the lovely princess of Mars, who looked quite human in form.
Filled with characters and situations that challenged the special effects techniques of filmmakers and protected by the Burroughs estate, notoriously zealous about guarding their literary properties, "A Princess of Mars" was not filmed until it finally fell into the public domain. That first filming was in 2009, under the title "A Princess of Mars," and starred Antonio Sabato Jr. as John Carter. Sabato had been in Steven Spielberg's 1994-95 sci-fi TV series "Earth 2" and had a brief run in "Melrose Place" in 1995 as the character Jack Parezi. The film was direct-to-video and virtually nobody saw it.
The direct-to-video 2009
version of Burroughs'
"A Princess of Mars."
Most notably, though, director Mark Atkins put together some impressive special effects, including former porn queen Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris. In the script, though, this alien planet was identified as a different Mars from the one in our solar system, no doubt to defuse any talk about why NASA hadn't found any porn queens parading around on the red sands by then.
Martian monsters menace "JOHN CARTER" (^^^) in the 2012 Disney
adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Prncess of Mars."
In 2012, Disney studios did their own version of the story, called "John Carter," and filmed it in impressive Imax dimensions with 3-D technology, giving it a mighty effects budget and a big publicity push. Sadly, it turned out to be one of the all-time box office duds and Disney dreams of a new sci-fi franchise obviously sputtered and died.
One of the most curious of all Mars movies has to be the update of Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" made in 1964 as "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" by director Byron Haskin, who directed the 1953 version of "War of the Worlds." In this film, Paul Mantee is an Earth astronaut marooned on the planet Mars, where he faces an uphill struggle to survive. His "man Friday" turns out to be an alien from another planet who also is stranded on Mars.
stranded on the red plaent
in "Robinson Crusoe on Mars."
Though many of the Martians depicted on screen have tended to provoke laughter, mcuh of it unintentionally, some filmmakers have purposely tried to make the Martians behave humorously. First, though, you need to remember that "Abbott and Costello Go To Mars" (1953) has no Martians in it. That's because comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello couldn't do anything right and their speaceraft landed on Venus instead of Mars. Venus was better, I'd guess, since it was peopled by beautiful women.
Probably the most elaborate Mars movie that depicted goofy Martians was "Mars Attacks!" (1996), directed by Tim Burton with an all-star cast and digital Martians whose conquest of Earth was thwarted by the sound of a yodeling country music star, Slim Whitman, singing "Indian Love Call." I believe this was a credible movie since my entire fmaily ran screaming every time I put on my record of Whitman singing "Indian Love Call" in the 1950s.
Of lesser impact were the erstwhile comedies "Mars Needs Women" (1968) in which Tommy Kirk leads a band of horny Martians intent on rounding up Earth women to help propagate Martian life back on the home planet. In the same category, I'd place "Mars Needs Moms" (2011), the animated adaptaton of a childrne's book about a little boy who learns to appreciate his Mom after Martians kidnap her. Ditto for "Martians, Go Home" (1990), in which Randy Quaid accidentall lures a kazillion Martians to planet Earth, most of them played by stand-up comics.
Of all the attempts at Martian humor, though, I imagine the most successful was TV's "My Favorite Martian," a weekly series (1963-66) in which Ray Walston played a Martian who crashes his spaceship on Earth and is adopted by Bill Bixby, who calls him "Uncle Martin" to conceal his identity from the rest of us. Uncle Martin had antennae that he could retract at will. Like, don't we all?
Most of the movies about Martians that have come along since NASA began to map and explore the Martian surface have tried to stick with the latest knowledge we have about the planet. Some have done a better job than others.
John Carpenter, the filmmaker who brought us "Halloween," "The Fog" and other successful modern horror movies, brought us "Ghosts of Mars" in 2001. Carpenter made up for the lack of Martians by suggesting they all died off earlier, but still hang around as ghosts, ready to haunt Earthlings. "The Wizard of Mars" (1964) was a low budget job that had gaunt John Carradine as a leftover relic of an ancient Martian civilization.
Perhaps the strangest of all Mars movies was the cheap "Red Planet Mars" (1952) in which Earth scientists, including Peter Graves, pick up radio broadcasts coming from Mars and conclude they're being made by God! Were the messages really "red" commie propaganda sent by a mad Russian or had the deity really set up shop on the Red Planet? Far be it from me to give away the ending.
That film was rivalled in dumbness by "The Angry Red Planet" (1959), in which Martians unleased a vaariety of monsters to drive away Earth visitors. The film was gimmicked up with a process known as Cinemagic, which was nothing more than a red filter put over the films to make everything look pink. That gimmick was reserved for the time the crew spent on the "red" planet.
CARRIE ANN MOSS
was the sexy space
commander of the
Mars voyager in
Among the more serious recent attempts at Mars movies was Brian DePalma's "Mission to Mars" (2000), which tried to follow NASA protocal about a flight to Mars that included astronauts Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle. Most critics pronounced it to dull to sit through.
My favorite of the more recent Mars films was "Red Planet" (2000) about a voyage to Mars in 2050, commanded by sexy Carrie Ann Moss and an all-male crew that included Val Kilmer. In this storyline, an attempt had been made to re-vitalize Mars in advance by dropping payloads on the planet that would inspire plants to grow and oxygen to be produced. The astonauts are able to breathe Martian ari and things are looking good until they discover that hungry "nematodes" have come to life and, like army ants, are devouring anything edible, including astronauts. Teh astronauts also are being stalked by a NASA robot that has gone lethal on them.
At least the settings on the Mars of "Red Planet" resemble the photos sent back by NASA landers. Meanwhile, there is Carrie Ann Moss to look at, which beats any Martians on the screen before.
If NASA finds life on Mars this coming week, you can be sure it will be boring microbial life, but I'm guessing the future of Mars movies will follow the path cut half a century ago by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, whose "The Martian Chronicles" depicted an ancient Martian race being sent into extinction by Earthlings. Not long after Earth colonizes Bradbury's vision of Mars, all the Martians left on Mars are from our own Earth. How's that for interplanetary justice?
©2012 by Ron Miller. This column first posted July 30, 2012.
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You can comment on this column online via our TALKBACK page. Please address your e-mail message to either "The Editors" or David Zinman at Syndpack @aol.com
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