Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Martian Death Trip (or: “Mars Gratia Artis”)

“The Martians are always coming.”
--Philip K. Dick

“One of my earliest memories is reciting the 23rd Psalm in church when I was three. That line, ‘He leadth me beside the still waters,’ terrified me. I thought it was about Martian canals.”
–Michael O’Donoghue (
Mr. Mike, pg. 16)

Red Planet (released November 2000)

Directed by Antony Hoffman
Written by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin
Story by Chuck Pfarrer

This review is adapted from one originally written in November 2000 for a now-long-dead website called Plasmotica
when Red Planet was first released.
It seems like Red Planet is up for a Blu-Ray release (scheduled for July 27),
so I thought I’d say:

Something this bad is all the worse because, just by looking at it, you know the filmmakers had more than enough money to do it right.

The sets, costumes and visual effects are all essentially flawless, and let’s hope the technicians responsible all took home fat paychecks.
But what the filmmakers in charge have done with all that wonderful work is another matter entirely.

No movie should not be this soulless, boring, humorless and illogical.
Because it is so wasteful, Red Planet (cue the voice of the Marvin the Martian) makes me sooooo very angry!

The premise (pollution has turned Earth into such a shithole that planetary migration is the only answer, but long-distance terraforming experiments to turn Mars into a habitable planet have failed, and a team is sent to Mars to find out why) is a combo of several basic old-school sci-fi themes, and has lots of potential.

Many sci-fi/horror flicks have used the “find-out-what-happened-to–the-previous-expedition” plot to get the ball rolling (It! The Terror From Beyond Space or Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, for example), and sometimes modern classics have been churned up (like Alien).

And while the sort-of recommended, similarly-themed space-fright flick Event Horizon (1997) is about as smart as a bag of hammers, it at least has the savvy to keep things moving and give the audience a few good scares.

However, Red Planet is not action-packed or crazy enough to be fun, with characters that are grim and unlikable—the usually awesome Terence Stamp is good, but never given enough to turn it into anything.

This movie is a series of half-baked almost-ideas strung together in a slipshod and tedious fashion.
That’s what really makes me sooooooooo angry!

There are almost half a dozen decent almost-ideas that, had they been expanded in a thoughtful and witty manner could’ve made a good movie on their own.
Check it out, my sad little green brethren:

--A sole-survivor female astronaut trying to save herself on a crippled starcruiser.

--After crashing, astronauts fight with their formerly friendly robot for survival—they need its battery pack to survive, but it doesn’t want to die for them; the robot wants to survive, too.

--A Twilight Zone-like morality tale about killing your fellow man to survive.

--The scientist and the holyman cross a wasteland arguing theology versus scientific rationality, using the alien landscape around them to prove various points.

--Stranded astronauts find themselves not alone on a supposedly uninhabited planet (and the aliens don’t necessarily have to be hostile killing machines or even particularly sentient—they could even be really small).

Any one of these ideas is enough to make an interesting flick, but the ball is routinely dropped.

Released around the same time as Red Planet,
Pitch Black is another space-fright flick that swipes a pack of already-used sci-fi and horror ideas, but because the director and screenwriters have a sense of style and genre, they carry it off.

If you’re in need for a dose of Martian madness, Red Planet will bum you out.

[I realized I haven’t seen Brian De Palma’s much maligned Mission to Mars—it’s now at the top of my Nflixx list, so let’s see if I see it before I feel the urge to publish.
The majority of critics have taken a hot shit on M2M, but I’m a longtime De Palma fan (while recognizing his flaws—I’m looking at you, Redacted and The Black Dahlia!), and tend to like some of his flicks that others do not (like Snake Eyes and Raising Cain), so who’s to know how I react to Mission to Mars?]

I am however a big fan of Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One.
This “faking of the Mars landing” is a fast-paced thriller of better-than-average intelligence, with the proper balance of humor, conspiracy, 1970s guest stars (Telly Savalas is always welcome!) and sci-fi. Quibble over small points (like instantaneous radio transmission to Mars), but the movie is a damn fine 1970s entertainment, with a rousing and exciting Jerry Goldsmith score.

A Veteran of Several Martian Expeditions

Old School Hollywood director Byron Haskin (what a great name!) has been involved with the angry red planet plenty of times.
Haskin was a veteran special effects man and cinematographer, so when he made the jump into the director’s chair, he wound up with many projects that were very special-optical-effects-oriented.

Producer George Pal hired Haskin many times, including Pal’s Mars-related flicks, the indomitable classic The War of the Worlds (1953) and the essentially awful Conquest of Space (1955—more on that in a moment).

Haskin was a supervising director/consultant for the superlative sci-fi anthology TV show The Outer Limits, and directed many of its best episodes, like “The Architects of Fear” and “Demon With a Glass Hand.” Haskin also directed the mediocre, but often goofball episode “The Invisible Enemy,” set on Mars, with astronauts fighting muppet SandSharks (an Ivanlandia fave).

And then there is what I feel is Haskin’s magnum opus: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).
Ignore the silly title, it’s a straightforward—although very now very dated—adventure story about a stranded astronaut.
Y’know what? Had the flick been called Robinson Crusoe on Planet X, it would not have been so easy to dismiss.
By the time RCoM was released, early exploration of the solar system gave absolute proof that no planet except our own had a breathable atmosphere—nor were there the other quaint items that the film’s lonely and intrepid explorer encounters ever to be found in our specific galactic zone.

But it’s still a rollicking and smart adventure that sticks with, and expands upon its source Dafoe novel.
Written by John C. Higgins and Ib Melchior (author of the story for Death Race 2000 and writer-director of the Mars-overload flick The Angry Red Planet (1959)), RCoM’s not perfect—but keeps a very steady tone: it remains true to itself, especially in depicting loneliness in a harsh environment—and the resulting conversations about the nature of a deity, and that is to its benefit. It sticks to its philosophical guns.

Honestly, don’t let the title fool you: it’s not just a kid’s flick.

Technically, the flick’s awesome for the early 1960s: plenty of swell Albert Whitlock mattes, some decent—if obvious—miniature and optical work, and a welcome return of the manta-shaped death machines from The War of the Worlds. Their streetlamps have been removed and they’ve gotten a silver paint job, but they move in a very spooky way, zipping along and stopping on a dime—very unnerving! (see above)

BTW, I almost feel that RCoM is Haskin’s attempt to make amends for the turgid theological muddle of Conquest of Space, which, while directed by Haskin, was produced and overseen by producer Pal.

Conquest of Space is a really bad movie--but there’s about 15 to 20 minutes of really cool stuff, especially if you love beautiful 1950s production design, are an astronaut fetishist, or are a big fan of old school special effects.

This flick used to be a staple on the NYC ABC-TV afternoon “4:30 Movie” in the 1970s, and it was actually much better back when shown in its truncated edited-for-time format.
From the get-go, the major characters are either hard-noses or jerks, and the dialog is atrocious.

If you must rent Conquest of Space--and it is often a visually fascinating flick--be prepared to fast-forward through most scenes to get to the choice stuff. (However, there’s a great “cameo” by Rosemary Clooney that provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the flick.)

Despite its plethora of scientific inaccuracies, director Byron Haskin’s later flick Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a much better tale of survival on the red planet (and much better than Red Planet).

This means that Byron Haskin is an Agent of Mars, spreading Martian propaganda among the humanoids!!! Hooray!
(You have been WARNED!)

My Favorite Martian
While I’ve never actually seen an episode of the mid-1960s TV show My Favorite Martian, I do love the title.
[It was never on in NYC in syndication, not that I can remember…]

But my favorite Martian is Marvin.
I love him because he is thwarted superego.

Not that Bugs and Marvin don’t, eh, hit it off as well, but the fact that Daffy (thwarted id) is Marvin’s most prominent nemesis is appropriate.
Their humor balances.

There is absolutely no way Marvin’s hyperlogical superego can “win” against Bugs’ Zen anarchy.

But when it’s Daffy vs. Marvin—well, sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit, Mar-Shan, the whole universe could end up as a smoking hole in the ground, y’know? Just as it should be.


  1. Ricky Rodine The OriginalJune 2, 2011 at 12:08 AM

    As a kid i thought of Mars as a big, menacing planet; God of War, Martians are coming, and all that. Martian was the default term for 'alien' back then. Then i came to find that it's a relatively puny planet, but has a cooler name which lends itself to scary threats.

    My Favorite Martian was a decent show, but not on my top ten sixties shows. Maybe i'll check on Nutfux and give it a serious appraisal.

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars was a favorite of ours as kids. It came on a lot in the afternoons and the late nights.

    On a slightly off-topic note, the short documentary ROVING MARS is a fantastic little glimpse of the Mars Rover missions. Saevar and I have watched it three times! check 'er out.

  2. Wow... I've never seen any of these except for Marvin, of course.