This weekend Mars Needs Moms, but all we really need is Mars. The red planet has been a subject of fascination for centuries, and for some reason whenever aliens land on Earth (in fiction, anyway) everyone always assumes they’re from the fourth rock from the sun. Hollywood’s had a long-standing love affair with Mars, and Crave Online takes this opportunity to look at ten… well, technically twelve of our favorite films about the apparently Mom-less world. Some are classics, and some are just awful, but they’re all well worth watching.
War of the Worlds (1953)/War of the Worlds (2005)
In his incredible documentary F for Fake, Orson Welles talked about his famous War of the Worlds broadcast and suggested it would never work outside of radio because it would look too damned silly. A lot of filmmakers have tried to prove him wrong, including The Naked Jungle director Byron Haskin and that living legend, Steven Spielberg. Haskin’s 1953 film has aged badly, with wooden acting and awkward moralizing stealing far too much screentime from the still-nifty special effects, but Spielberg’s version is a harrowing tale of a normal family struggling to survive the unbelievable massacre of the human race… until a pat ending kind of derails it. War of the Worlds always had a pretty hefty deus ex machina, but that was the point: humanity was helpless against an alien aggressor and only survived by blind stupid chance. Making that cynical ending ‘happy’ was a mistake, but just about everything preceding it is pure Martian gold.
Total Recall (1990)
‘Get your ass to Mars.’ Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic tells the story of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a normal albeit muscle-bound joe who just wants to take a vacation on Mars but can’t convince his girlfriend (Sharon Stone) to join him. So he goes to Recall, a company that installs all the memories of your dream getaway without all the fuss. At least, that’s the idea. The memory implant doesn’t take because Quaid’s already been implanted with fake memories… of being Douglas Quaid. It turns out he’s actually a master criminal who tried to save the red planet before his enemies erased his identity… or did they? Cynics believe that the entire film isn’t real and that Quaid spends the whole action-packed film in a chair, happily lobotomized. Frankly, it works either way. Total Recall is one of Schwarzenegger’s best and smartest films, with special effects that inspire awe to this day and, oh yeah… a triple-breasted space hooker. You can’t go wrong with a triple-breasted space hooker, can you?
Capricorn One (1977)
Capricorn One is unique on our list since none of the characters actually get to Mars, but that’s actually the concept: a NASA mission to Mars is abandoned at the last minute, and the government concocts an elaborate ruse to fake the historic event instead. Conspiracy theorists have believed that the moon landings were phony for years (some even think the footage was filmed by Stanley Kubrick), and writer/director Peter Hyams did a splendid job of dramatizing those supposed events as our not-quite-astronaut heroes – James Brolin, Sam Waterson and O.J. Simpson (we won’t say anything if you won’t) – run for their lives in a mad dash to prove they’re still on Earth before the government can silence them… permanently. Elliot Gould rounds out the cast as a reporter uncovering the cover-up in this fine – albeit very 1970’s – thriller, which also boasts one hell of a car chase.
Mars Attacks (1996)
This mean-spirited lark from the mind of Tim Burton didn’t exactly please fans of Independence Day, its crowd-pleasing cousin released earlier in 1996 on… hang on let me check… Yup, Independence Day. But this star-studded indictment of the human race, in which practically every member of its sprawling cast is a total bastard (including Annette Bening, Jack Black, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jack Nicholson in a dual performance for some reason), was never going for the same audience. Unfortunately, cynical hipsters hadn’t really solidified as an audience by the mid-90’s, and even today would probably have had trouble mobilizing for this string of violent gags in which Martians attack the Earth for no better reason than because they’re apparently total jerks. Knocking over Easter Island’s stone heads with giant bowling balls and gate-crashing Tom Jones concerts makes for hearty laughs, but in retrospect spending $70 million on what amounts to little more than an ultraviolent in-joke was probably a stupid idea. Whatever. It’s Burton’s meanest, funniest movie… even though it’s hardly his best.
Red Planet (2000)
Another Mars movie that was overshadowed by a bigger production in the same year (in this case Brian DePalma’s forgettable Mission to Mars), this glorified B-Movie starred Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Simon Baker as astronauts stranded on the Red Planet after their mission goes horribly awry. Oh yeah, and the helper robot that crashlanded with them? It’s malfunctioning and determined to kill them all. Essentially a claustrophobic thriller in which the confined space is an entire planet, Red Planet was ignored upon its initial release but deserves a second look: it’s a well-acted and smartly directed movie from Anthony Hoffman (who never made another film), even if it was a little stupid of the heroes to bring a robot into space without erasing its homicidal military programming. Huh. We thought NASA had checklists for that sort of thing…
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is exactly what it sounds like: Robinson Crusoe, but on Mars. It is not, however, as bad as it sounds. Paul Mantee stars as Commander Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper, who finds himself stranded on Mars after an accident kills his co-pilot, played by a pre-Batman Adam West. He struggles to find food, air and bromantic companionship with a Martian native before a big finale in which Martians just plain attack the hell out of him. War of the Worlds director Byron Haskin directed this silly concept with a straight face, going out of his way to live up to the film’s tagline which boasted that ‘This film is Scientifically Authentic… It is only one step ahead of present reality!’ And it was damned authentic indeed… based on what scientists knew back in 1964, which it turns out was absolute bupkis. Hindsight is 20/20 foks. Co-star Victor Lundin wrote a great theme song for the film, a music video for which is included in the Criterion Edition DVD and Blu-Ray (and above).
Invaders from Mars (1953)/Invaders from Mars (1986)
The original Invaders from Mars actually predates the original War of the Worlds movie by several months, and it’s clearly the superior film. Young David (Jimmy Hunt) is awoken one night by a Martian spaceship landing behind a hill in his backyard. He gets his Dad to check it out, but when Dad comes back he says nothing’s there… and he’s not David’s dad anymore. Before long all the adults in town are taking a trip behind the hill only to return as Martian zombies, and although only David can save the world nobody believes him because he’s just a little boy. Directed by former production designer William Cameron Menzies (a rare promotion indeed), Invaders from Mars is a sci-fi/horror classic with a unique, dreamlike atmosphere and an absolute shocker of an ending designed to give kids nightmares until the end of their days. In comparison, Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake is fairly straightforward but does feature (slightly) less goofy monsters, and is a decent-but-somewhat-inferior substitute if you can’t find the original on DVD.
Spaced Invaders (1990)
A group of Martians are confused by a transmission of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and assume the invasion of Earth is finally under way in this quirky family film from Patrick Read Johnson, who also helmed the fine coming-of-age movie Angus. The concept isn’t terribly unique anymore, and was also used in a much darker but still very clever episode of the new(er) Outer Limits (which we also recommend checking out). The aliens are cute little guys who just want to conquer the Earth, damn it, but their plans are constantly foiled by their own stupidity, like when they try to blow up a ‘missile silo’ that’s actually filled with maize, resulting a popcorn bonanza to rival Real Genius. A clever little film – we really like the part where the Martians get a ticket for having no license, no registration, no headlights, no taillights, no wheels and going 2,945 miles over the speed limit – and a spiritual precursor to the similar but better known Nickelodeon series Invader Zim.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
John Carpenter got a lot of guff for many of his later films, but Ghosts of Mars gets a bit of a bad rap. A team of police officers goes to a remote outpost to transfer a dangerous prisoner, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), only to discover that all the inhabitants are all dead or possessed by the spirits of the original inhabitants of the red planet. They’re pretty cheesed off, and the body count skyrockets quickly. Carpenter’s film isn’t among his best but it’s hardly Village of the Damned either, and boasts some neat ideas that are never really fleshed out, like the concept that the future is a matriarchal society in which homosexuality is the norm, and a heroine (Natasha Henstridge) who is an outcast because, damn it… she just likes having sex with men. Among the men is Jason Statham, years before he really broke out. He’s miscast as a hero, Ice Cube is miscast as an amoral badass, and if you ask us they really should have switched places. It’s too late now, but we can dream. Ghosts of Mars is fun pulp nonsense.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
A bad film, but at least an astronomically bad film, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians finds Kris Kringle (John Call) kidnapped by Martians who need him to save their children from premature maturity. But not all of the Martians are eager for their kids to cavort around with toys, and Santa has to use all of his powers and wits to stop their efforts to destroy Martian Christmas. It’s actually dumber than it sounds, with embarrassing special effects (the polar bear is about as convincing as a strip-mall Easter bunny), an appearance by a pre-teen Pia Zadora and perhaps the most annoying comic relief sidekick in history: Dropo (played by Steel Magnolias’ Bill McCutcheon). More famous these days for the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that presented it, it’s still one of the weirdest family movies ever produced all by its lonesome, and highly entertaining in an extremely stupid way.