Mars in cinema

As the Curiosity rover beams back remarkable pictures from Mars, Ryan looks back at the history of the red planet in cinema...

Viewed from one perspective, our history with the planet Mars is filled with disappointment. Giovanni Schiaparelli’s canals turned out to be a misreading of natural channels criss-crossing the Martian surface. Nikola Tesla’s claim that radio signals were emanating from the planet was eventually debunked.

Like a mirage, the possibility of intelligent life on Mars has faded into the distance as science has approached, and the various pyramids, giant face sculptures and other supposedly artificial structures have all proved to be geological phenomena.

And yet, viewed from another angle, our history with Mars is also filled with optimism and constant fascination. We’ve been keenly observing the red planet for centuries, and repeated launching various probes, landers and rovers at the place for over 40 years. With seemingly boundless enthusiasm, scientists have spoken of the possibility of colonising Mars, or the chance that somewhere, we may still find evidence of life on the planet – more primitive than HG Wells and other fiction writers suggested, and possibly extinct, but evidence, nevertheless.

The same sense of disappointment and optimism can be seen in cinema, along with a keen sense of dread. Movies such as Invaders From Mars (1953) and War Of The Worlds (also 1953) saw Earth invaded by marauding aliens from the red planet. The former were a gang of Martian communists who lurked under ground and enslaved humans with a tiny piece of paraphernalia injected into their neck. In the latter, the Martians were mechanised imperialists, intent on colonising Earth before their own planet shrivels up and dies.

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Martians were a common sci-fi fixture throughout the 50s, cast as scripture-spouting debunkers of communism in 1952’s very odd Red Planet Mars, to long-extinct creators of the human race in the classic Quatermass And The Pit – first a BBC television serial, then a 1959 Hammer film.

Although scientists such as Alfred Russell had insisted since the 19th century that Mars’ atmosphere was too thin to support life, it took the first Mariner missions in the 60s to finally prove that the planet’s surface was, in fact, bereft of anything approaching an intelligent civilisation, living or dead.

In recent years, the term ‘Martian’ has taken on a rather kitsch dimension, and the mention of the word is more likely to conjure up mental images of poorly-shot B-movies than the terrifying war machines of HG Wells’ fiction, or the broad-chested romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series.

Mars has become such a cliche in science fiction that Hollywood has become reluctant to even mention its name. John Carter Of Mars was abbreviated to simply John Carter, purportedly because Disney’s Mars Needs Moms was such a dismal flop. The name change didn’t do much to attract mass audiences, and may have done more harm than good – after all, Burroughs’ novels have always been pulp romances first and foremost, and Mars’ name is all part of that wistful sense of the romantic.

Nevertheless, Mars has remained a persistent fixture in sci-fi movies, both good and bad. Red Planet and Mission To Mars (both 2000) saw humanity explore the Martian surface for the first time, the former laden with disaster, the latter depicting a contact between humans and a long-departed alien intelligence, who, like the creatures in Quatermass And The Pit, kick started life on Earth.

Extinct alien intelligence of varying kinds was also encountered in Total Recall (1990) and Ghosts Of Mars (2001) by Martian colonists; living on Mars, it seems, is fraught with danger.

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Species II (1998), meanwhile, sees a group of astronauts infected by ancient DNA picked up from the surface of Mars. Although the notion of little green men is no longer taken seriously by most sci-fi writers, it seems that we just can’t help thinking of new ways to work Mars into our nightmares.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is that Mars is our nearest planetary neighbour, and we’ve culturally invested it with a mysterious, almost magical quality in our literature and movies. As scientist and author Carl Sagan once pointed out, the crimson surface of Mars has become a blank canvas for our hopes and fears; even armed with all the knowledge modern science can provide, we can’t help but look at photographs of the Martian landscape and see mysterious faces, as captured in images of Cydonia and Libya Montes. With our own planet so thoroughly mapped and explored, our preoccupation with undiscovered lands has moved elsewhere in the solar system, and Mars, the angry red planet, is the prime destination for most.

The history of Mars in cinema is a call and response between science fact and science fiction. The possibility of intelligent life on Mars was once a topic of serious debate, and that fed directly into stories such as War Of The Worlds. When that possibility receded, scientists suggested that life might exist in a far simpler form – bacteria, perhaps, lurking in the soil. This in turn fed back into the B-movie premise of Species II mentioned earlier.

And with the latest Martian rover, Curiosity, touching down on the planet’s surface earlier this week, it’s likely the remarkable stream of images coming back to Earth will trigger a new wave of speculative stories in literature and cinema.

It’s currently thought that a manned mission to Mars may take place at some point after 2030, and some scientists have proposed that permanent colonies may be set up, where pioneering explorers will be sent to the planet and left to fend for themselves, never to return.

Total Recall, Red Planet and Ghosts Of Mars have all depicted what a Martian colony might look like, some realistically, some fancifully. And who knows, maybe the science fiction will one day cross over into science fact.

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As Carl Sagan once wrote, in moving words captured over at io9, exploration is as ingrained in our species as Mars is engraved in our culture – and that’s why we continue to look to the red planet with a mixture of fascination and hope.

“Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9 per cent of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

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