Mars: A Planet in Sci-Fi
Mars is a planet that has fascinated humans for millennia. Shining as a big red dot in the sky, many ancient cultures saw Mars as representing a god of warfare. Telescopes made some astronomers believe there were canals on the surface, supporting a dwindling desert population. With the arrival of the space age, we realized that Mars was more of a dusty, windy planet than a location for possible sentient aliens, but the Red Planet still fascinates in science fiction. Here are some of the more prominent Mars movies over the decades, to encourage you to keep exploring.
FIRST STOP: A Trip to Mars
A Trip to Mars (1910 and 1918)
The 1910 movie is one of the more obscure inventions by the Edison Manufacturing Company (yes, the company named after famed creator Thomas Edison). A professor discovers that combining two powders create a "reverse gravity" that allows objects to float freely, independent of the laws of gravity. He makes a powder demonstration and accidentally spills some, sending him on a trip to Mars. It's not a Mars surface that is very realistic by today's standards (for example, he goes into a forest), but it's still an entertaining early look at Red Planet fiction. You can watch the 4-minute film here at Archive.org. A Danish film of the same name was released in 1918.
NEXT: Aelita, The Queen of Mars
Aelita: The Queen of Mars (1924)
This Soviet silent film was based on an Alexei Tolstoy novel with the same name. Most of the story focuses on how people lived in the Soviet Union at the time, but what we're interested in is the adventures of Los, a young man who goes to Mars on a rocket ship and induces the locals to rebel against their leaders. Funny enough, Queen Aelita on Mars already did know of Los, because she saw him through a telescope and was madly in love with him.
NEXT: Just Imagine
Just Imagine (1930)
Mars isn't exactly the star of "Just Imagine," but it's still amusing because it shows what the filmmakers thought New York City would look like in the year 1980. (Too bad those elevated roads still aren't a thing.) Mars comes up towards the end of the film, when a rocket sends a crew to Mars. There, the crew meets up with Queen Looloo and King Loko, and attends a Martian opera complete with Martian orangutans.
NEXT: Rocketship X-M
Rocketship X-M (1950)
The Internet tells us "Rocketship X-M" is the first space film after the Second World War; while we can't vouch for the accuracy of that, it's still worthy of our list because it's a Mars film. In fact, the crew was planning to head to the moon, but they accidentally land on Mars through a colossal navigation error. Naturally, the crew isn't alone when they land on the Red Planet; they encounter a sharply reduced Martian civilization dealing with the after-effects of atomic war, a real worry of the era. The trip back to Earth doesn't go very well, either, but the message of the film is that exploration will continue regardless of the obstacles.
NEXT: The Angry Red Planet
The Angry Red Planet (1960)
Legend says "The Angry Red Planet" was produced in just over a week, with a tight production budget, and the result is ... interesting. The first crewed mission returns to Earth from Mars, with only two of the original four astronauts surviving. The astronauts had a terrible time on the surface, we learn, which includes being attacked by the fauna on the surface as well as some spider-like creatures. The Martians are so unimpressed by Earthlings that they ultimately threaten catastrophic consequences if any people from our planet deign to return. If nothing else, the special effects in this movie are amusing, combining live action sequences with hand-drawn animations.
NEXT: Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
"Robinson Crusoe on Mars" takes the classic Daniel Defoe book to Mars, with U.S. Navy commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) forced to the surface in a one-person lifeboat after their spaceship has a bad encounter with a meteoroid. Like the classic Robinson Crusoe, Draper must live off the land and battle hallucinations, aliens and other dangers while waiting on a rescue from Earth.
NEXT: Total Recall
Total Recall (1990 and 2012)
The original "Total Recall" (1990) — somewhat based on a short story by Philip K. Dick – previewed the dangers of brain implants, a technology that is still in its infancy today. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) voluntarily submits to memory implants and in a complicated series of plot twists, finds himself advised to "get your ass to Mars" to figure out an espionage ring. The movie's special effects were noteworthy for the 1990s and are still fun to watch today. The movie was subsequently remade in 2012, starring Colin Farrell. The sequel didn't get a lot of critical acclaim, but still has good acting and action sequences to move the story along. Unfortunately for Mars fans, though, Farrell's dystopian adventures remain on Earth.
"RocketMan" is a sci-fi comedy that shows viewers the consequences of trying to fix one problem in a crewed Mars mission, which quickly leads to other issues. NASA discovers a problem with the computer navigation software to get its spacecraft to Mars; through a series of unfortunate events, their commanding astronaut gets a skull fracture and they decide to seek a replacement astronaut, Fred Z. Randall (Harland Williams). Randall is a little frightened of going, but is convinced to – although maybe he should have stayed home. His hibernation chamber malfunctions, he eats most of the crew's food, and his crew faces a sandstorm on the surface. But being a Disney film, all turns out relatively well for Randall and his crew.
NEXT: Mission to Mars
Mission to Mars (2000)
In "Mission to Mars," a crewed mission to Mars runs into some serious trouble, American astronaut Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) races to the rescue along with a brave crew of other astronauts. To say the least, the rescue mission doesn't go as planned. Some people get last along the way, and then McConnell finds himself confronted with a strange structure on the surface – one that he feels he must explore to better understand the nature of Mars, the Earth and everyone who lives in our universe. Space history geeks should watch for references to the infamous "Face on Mars", a feature in Cydonia that appeared to look like a face. It was actually due to shadows, but conspiracy theorists still think otherwise.
NEXT: Red Planet
Red Planet (2000)
Coming in the same year as "Mission to Mars," "Red Planet" didn't fare nearly so well; it bombed at the box office and also got scathing reviews. This movie follows the fate of Earth in the year 2056, when pollution and a high population force policy-makers to begin terraforming the planet using algae automatically transported from Mars. Naturally, the algae begin to fail, and a crew led by Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) goes to the Red Planet to begin an investigation. The story quickly devolves into a series of gruesome crew deaths and injuries, a robot that goes crazy, and (of course) nasty Martian insects looking to repel any invaders. But there is a cameo appearance from the NASA Pathfinder rover, which is used to construct a radio.
NEXT: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie