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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Red Planet, Part 2 (originally published 4/00)

The decade of the Fifties saw a boom in the production of science fiction films. This sudden interest in science-based stories was in large measure the result of our having been thrust into the atomic age, ready or not, by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Waking up one morning to find ourselves living in a new and more frightening world, we looked to our storytellers for help in making sense of it all, just as we have done since ancient times.

Not surprisingly, among the most popular stories they told us were tales of exploration in the form of space travel, especially when the destination was the perennially fascinating planet Mars. As we saw last week, there was no shortage of movies about traveling to Mars even before the Fifties boom. Nor has our interest in such stories been dampened by the real-life pictures sent back by the Mars Pathfinder lander, as the recent release of "Mission to Mars" attests. Here are some additional titles about the manned exploration of Mars to look for on home video.

"It! The Terror From Beyond Space" (1958). Producers of Hollywood monster movies have always had a weakness for dopey titles. Sometimes the movies to which the titles were attached were equally silly, but in other cases the ridiculous titles were hung on pictures that really deserved better. This is one of the latter cases. Scripted by science fiction writer Jerome Bixby, it tells the story of a manned mission to Mars that is plagued by a series of grisly murders. As crew members keep turning up dead, the survivors become convinced that they have a psychopathic killer among them, and indeed they do. But it isn't human. The idea of a spacecraft with a dangerous alien loose on board had long been common currency in science fiction literature, culminating in A.E. Van Vogt's novel, "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" (1950), but it may well have been this modestly produced but well scripted little movie that served as a seminal influence on "Alien" (1979), the most successful cinematic realization of the theme to date.

"The Angry Red Planet" (1959). Like the Flash Gordon film we looked at last week this low budget potboiler can hardly be regarded as great cinema, but, when approached in the proper spirit of fun, can be very entertaining. It has, in fact, developed something of a cult following over the years. The story is a straightforward one in which the first spaceship from Earth to land on Mars is met with unrelenting hostility in the form of a succession of monstrous creatures. The film's main visual gimmick is a process referred to as "Cinemagic," which gave the scenes a pinkish tint to underscore the setting on the Red Planet.

"Robinson Crusoe on Mars" (1964). Here again is film that deserves a better title. The problem actually is not so much the sheer silliness of the title as the fact that it tips its hand needlessly. As the title indicates, the story is about a spaceship crewman who is shipwrecked alone on the incredibly inhospitable surface of Mars. Intelligently scripted and well acted by Paul Mantee as the marooned main character, this is one of the better science fiction films of its time.

"The Martian Chronicles" (1980). One of the most enduring fictional works on the exploration of Mars is Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (1950). Because Bradbury's book was a collection of short stories, not a novel, this acknowledged classic of the genre has resisted all attempts to fashion it into a traditional movie. It fell to Richard Matheson, another legendary science fiction and fantasy writer, to attempt a script, interweaving some of Bradbury's stories into a coherent whole, for a television miniseries. Although the result is not entirely satisfactory, I don't find it as bitterly disappointing as some others have. Think of it as an introduction to Bradbury's Mars, then go and read the book.

No one knows for sure exactly what the first manned mission to Mars might encounter, although we are fairly certain that they won't be met by Martians. Still, in time we will almost certainly colonize the planet. And then, as Bradbury foresaw, we ourselves will be the Martians. Though I won't be around to see it, I can't help wondering what sorts of movies those Martians will make about Earthlings.

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