History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

December 25

Today may be the day that Jor-El sent his only son, Santa Claus, to crash land in Bethlehem, or whatever it is exactly people believe, but talking about Christmas movies and S-Cla’s yearly Earth-constrained voyages seems quaint and boring when we could be jetting off into outer space!

On December 25, 2003 the Mars Express Orbiter entered orbit around Mars and released the British built Beagle 2 landing craft to fulfill its mission on the angry red surface of the planet. Mars Express was/is a venture of the European Space Agency (ESA). It was the ESA’s first planetary mission attempt and initially everything went swimmingly, the Mars Express more than living up to its name, reaching Mars just six months after its launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (Cosmodrome? Sorry, America, the Soviets gave their launchpad a way studlier name than we did). But the infamous “Mars Curse” that befell countless mission attempts over the decades soon set in when the Beagle 2, named after the HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin around the world, disappeared on Christmas Day. The Beagle 2 was expected to land on Mars’ surface several hours after being released from the Orbiter, but it was never heard from again and its remains have never conclusively been located since. Dun dun dunnnn! According to Transformers (2007) a Decepticon destroyed Beagle 2 seconds after it landed. Totally plausible, I suppose, though presumably its landing parachute malfunctioned and it simply became a $40 million pancake.

Unfortunate waste of $40 million? Sure. But today it has inspired a selective look at cinema’s own ventures to the “red planet.”

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

Based on a 1923 novel of the same name by Russian author Alexei Tolstoy (not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) – which is something of a knock-off of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ then recent John Carter story, A Princess of Mars – this film directed by Yakov Protazanov was one of the first major efforts of Soviet cinema. The story follows Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), a young scientist who builds a rocket and flies it to Mars, where he discovers a race of Martians divided sharply between a posh ruling class and a subjugated working class. And the Soviet Revolution allegory begins! The film’s impressive sets, done in the new Soviet Constructivist style, surely influenced the look of numerous other films, especially the mammoth sets of Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi work. 1951’s Flight to Mars, starring schlock veteran Cameron Mitchell, has many story similarities with the film.

Rocketship X-M (1950)

This MST3K fodder stars Lloyd Bridges as Col. Floyd Graham, the pilot of the Rocketship X-M, which experiences a malfunction on a mission to the Moon. This somehow causes the ship to completely stop moving. In space. When they reignite their engines the crew accidentally blows off course and crashes onto Mars (that makes sense). On the planet they discover the remnants of an ancient civilization and a population of hostile cavemen. The film was hustled through production to beat the bigger budgeted Destination Moon to theaters, which forced the filmmakers to omit several planned scenes and replace some of the model work with ill-fitting stock footage. The film’s rights fell into the public domain, and that allowed a fan of the film named Wade Williams (not to be confused with the current actor of the same name) to do reshoots in the 70’s to replace some of the omitted or botched scenes.

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)

One of the last films starring the famous Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy team (they split up in 1957, then Costello died in 1959), despite the title the film is actually about Venus. Costello plays Orville, the oldest orphan in an orphanage, who through wackiness winds up under the employ of Lester (Abbott) at a rocket facility. Orville accidentally launches the rocket with the two men inside and they land in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Being idiots, they take the drunken revelers to be Martians, freak out, and head back to the ship, where they cross paths with two bank robbers. They launch again and this time actually leave the planet, landing on Venus, which is inhabited entirely by sexy ladies (including La Dolce Vita bombshell Anita Ekberg). One has to wonder why they didn’t just call the film Abbott and Costello Go to Venus.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

This sci-fi take on Daniel Defoe’s castaway classic from director Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds, Disney’s Treasure Island), begins when Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee; do you think his favorite animal was the manatee?) and Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) are forced to eject from their probe orbiting Mars and escape down to the planet’s surface. Batman dies, leaving Draper alone with his pet monkey, Mona. As in Defoe’s story, Draper soon discovers that Mars isn’t as deserted as he thought. There are other aliens who visit the planet, and Draper gets himself an alien slave sidekick whom he names Friday.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Another MST3K-mocked classic. This absurdity tells the story of the people of Mars’ attempts to bring Xmas to the red planet. Momar (Mom Martian) and Kimar (King Martian) notice their two children, Girmar (Girl Martian) and Bomar (Boy Martian) watching an interview with Satan Claus (the real Santa Claus) on Earth television. Advised by a Martian sage, Momar and Kimar decide to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars to spice shit up. They succeed. But not all Martians love this idea. Another Martian named Voldar thinks Santa will poison their traditional Mars society and sets out to murder St. Nick.

Capricorn One (1977)

Inspired by the ludicrous and bizarrely enduring conspiracy theory that the Apollo moon landing was faked using a TV studio, Peter Hyams’ film tells the story of a faked mission to Mars. NASA’s manned space program is in dire straights (still topical!) and they need a hit, badly. So when they discover that a fault in the Mars project’s spacecraft will likely kill the astronauts once they leave the Earth’s surface, the powers that be determine that they’ll just have to make the whole thing up, as shutting down the mission will destroy the program entirely. The ship’s crew, played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and future murderer O. J. Simpson, are covertly removed from the ship before take off and whisked away to an Air Corps base where a Mars set is built on a TV stage. Things progress according to plan until a journalist played by Elliott Gould starts sniffing around. Hal Holbrook, Karen Black and Telly Savalas co-star.

The Martian Chronicles (1980)

This NBC mini-series was adapted from Ray Bradbury’s seminal book by fellow horror/sci-fi literary luminary Richard Matheson and directed by Logan Run‘s Michael Anderson. Beginning in the distant future of 1999, the story concerns the troubled attempts to colonize Mars. The Martians aren’t too keen on Earth’s desires to form a colony so they kill the first two crews that land on the planet. When the project’s leader, Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson), arrives leading a third crew they discover that all the Martians have died of chicken pox. Yay! Oh wait, the Martian ghosts are still haunting the planet. Shit. Roddy McDowall, Darren McGavin and Bernadette Peters co-star. Bradbury apparently found the series, “Just boring.”

Total Recall (1990)

“Get yoh ass to Mars.”

Speaking of adaptation. Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon adapted Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” for this Paul Verhoeven classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a man living in 2084 who dreams of having an adventure on Mars. When Quaid visits Rekall, a company that implants faux memories of a virtual vacation in your brain, he accidentally unlocks a dormant part of his personality and finds himself the target of a Mars administrator named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), whom Quaid used to work for before his memory was erased. Evading capture from Cohaagen’s goons, Quaid travels to Mars to get some answers about his former identity, along the way becoming part of the Mars’ colonies rebellion against Cohaagen and discovering a hidden secret involving an ancient alien civilization. In 2012 a remake directed by Len Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell will be released.

Red Planet | Mission to Mars (2000)

Every few years we get a pair of “twin films” mining a similar premise. 2000 was the year of Mars films. Despite sharing some inevitable similarities in their set-ups (both films even use the name Mars I for the ship), the films are actually quite different in their approaches. Red Planet is more of a B-movie thriller. Helmed by cinematic nobody Anthony Hoffman (this remains his sole credit), it stars Val Kilmer, Carrie Anne Moss and Tom Sizemore as a crew monitoring the attempt to terraform Mars. After accidentally crashing on the planet, they find themselves menaced by their own malfunctioning helper, AMEE (Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion), a refurbished ex-military robot, as well as a population of flesh-eating bugs created by their terraforming process. Mission to Mars was inspired (very loosely) by the now defunct Disneyland attraction. Directed by Brian De Palma and written by Jim and John Thomas (creators of Predator), the film aims for slightly lofty things, big metaphysical ideas in a blockbuster package. It stars Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O’Connell as a NASA rescue crew sent to investigate the disappearance of a previous crew led by Don Cheadle. They find Cheadle still alive but a bit crazy. All sorts of whacky pseudo-spiritual shenanigans ensue. Both films came with hefty price tags and both underperformed at the box office, though only Red Planet would be called a true “flop.”

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Like Total Recall, this John Carpenter film features a Mars that has already been successfully colonized. Police officers Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) and Sergeant Jericho (Jason Statham) arrive on Mars to transport a prisoner dubiously named Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). When they arrive they find the mining colony where Williams is being held completely deserted. Turns out the miners discovered some manner of ancient Martian doorway and have all become possessed by Martian ghosts. Now the cops need to team up with the criminal to get shit done.

Christmas on Mars (2008)

This Ed Woodian musical oddity is the brainchild of Wayne Coyne, frontman of the psychedelic alt-rock band The Flaming Lips. Coyne described the film as such: “It’s sometime in the future, Mars has been sort of conquered and there’s a space station on it but the space program has gone into decline and these people are kind of stuck up there. They’re in the process of converting the spaceships that took them there into a place to live in and that process doesn’t go too smoothly. The whole thing ends up very dilapidated, very un-futuristic, un-‘2001’. There’s an element of confidence among the scientists, but the overall view is that things seem kind of doomed.” Coyne and the rest of The Flaming Lips star in the film (as does Fred Armisen), and the film’s sets were mostly built in Coyne’s own home. The film’s soundtrack was released as an album of the same name.

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