The central idea behind Brian De Palma's new space epic Mission to Mars -- that the red planet is the source of all earthly life -- is being treated in the ads like a revolutionary, provocative sci-fi concept. Yawn. Hardcore enthusiasts of '50s-era arcana have been there and done that.
Every once in a while, I have to pull Red Planet Mars off the shelf and watch it, just to convince myself that, yes, the movie really is for real. If you've never seen this 1952 artifact, and you suspect that anything I'm about to describe is apocryphal, I can only advise you to check it out for yourself -- it's readily available, on MGM/UA Home Video. You'll see I'm not making it up -- it may well be the most flat-out weird piece of McCarthy-era propaganda ever produced in any medium.
Okay, get ready, here's the plot: Peter Graves plays a radio scientist who has started receiving communications, seemingly from Mars. The messages describe Martian society as a pure, blissful, technocratic Utopia -- everyone has plenty, nobody has to work, life spans are 300 years long. The implications of this news send Earth's economy into an immediate and terrifying spin. Anarchy looms.
Admittedly, the speculation that this would happen doesn't really seem all that much less obtuse than most economic predictions. But the plot twists, dreamed up by screenwriters John L. Balderston (co-writer of the original New York stage version of Dracula) and Anthony Veiller, from a play by Balderston and John Hoare, are just starting.
The initial messages, as it turns out, weren't really from Mars at all. They were actually an anti-capitalist scheme masterminded by an ex-Nazi who's now a zealous Commie. This rara avis, played by the legendary acting teacher Herbert Berghof, has been gleefully broadcasting the messages from his hideout in the mountains of South America, precisely because he knew the economic effect they would have -- although with instincts like that, he should be working for the Fed, not the Kremlin.
The screenwriters have one more twist in store for us, however. Graves starts receiving new messages that truly are from Mars. The texts of these communiqués are variations of the Sermon on the Mount, calling for a spiritual reawakening. These turn out to be from none other than God Himself, who seemingly is now headquartered on Mars! Mars, it turns out, may be a red planet, but it's not a "Red" planet.
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The unusually malleable Earthlings promptly start pouring back into churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Catholicism reasserts itself in the Soviet Union, and after a few nasty martyrings, the Orthodox Church is running Russia. The Nazi-Commie makes a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of goodness, but Graves and his strident wife (Andrea King) sacrifice themselves to keep him from destroying everybody's shallow new faith. While the Eisenhowerish-looking president eulogizes our heroes with "well done, thou good and faithful servants," the words "The Beginning" appear onscreen to close the film.
Either Red Planet Mars is meant to be taken seriously, or it's a lost classic of deadpan comedy. Either way, this handsomely produced film is hilarious. And if you can get past the risibility, it's also touching, because it demonstrates that the Brave New Peaceable Kingdom, which we were recently promised by both fundamentalists and New Agers with the turn of the millennium, is a perennial human appetite.
My favorite moment in Red Planet Mars is a quick glimpse of a headline from a French newspaper, after the source of the authentic Martian messages is revealed: "Dieu Parle De Mars." The French edition of the Weekly World News would probably do well with that one.