Film Reviews

My Favorite Martians

Regarding last week's announcement that Meteorite ALH84001 may have been crawling with Martian germs: What's the big deal? Science may consider this the first sign of Martian life, but we moviegoers have always known that Mars was a jumpin' place, teeming with everything from snarling monsters to Ruritanian civilizations of people in tights. Mars, our second-nearest planetary neighbor, is the great sci-fi planet.

Probably the first vision of Mars in the movies was in French film pioneer Georges Melies' 1898 short The Astronomer's Dream, where an astronomer looks through his telescope and spots an enthroned Mars on the planet named for him.

The first space voyage, also by Melies, was to the moon, but films were taking trips to Mars by at least 1917 with the Danish film Himmelskibet (Heaven Ship). There's a Martian flight in the 1930 musical Just Imagine, and the second of the three Flash Gordon serials (condensed to feature length in 1938 as The Deadly Ray From Mars) was set on the Red Planet, which, like Flash's usual, apocryphal hangout Mongo, was a feudal society of petty tyrants guarded by embarrassed-looking guys in helmets.

But the first remotely serious American science-fiction film about an Earth-to-Mars jaunt, albeit an accidental one, was 1950's Rocket Ship X-M, starring Lloyd Bridges. The following year, Cameron Mitchell made the trip in Flight to Mars. Abbott and Costello landed a rocket at Mardi gras and mistook it for Mars in 1953's Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.

Martians and earthlings visited each other's turf regularly, though not often amicably, in the movies throughout the '50s and into the '60s, until real-life astronomers made it clear that the surface of Mars may not have been quite as hospitable as Bourbon Street the day before Lent. Among the more memorable such trips were the 1952 Republic serial Flying Disc Man From Mars, 1959's The Angry Red Planet, 1962's The Day Mars Invaded Earth, and, of course, 1964's notorious kitsch classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which features Pia Zadora as a Martian child.

Best of all, perhaps, was 1968's Five Million Years to Earth, about the discovery of an ancient--but still dangerous--Martian ship buried beneath the streets of London. Moody, tense and intelligent, it may be the best of all British sci-fi films, yet it does not appear to be available on video.

Here, however, are a few of the many, many films set on, or concerning visitors from, Mars that are available on home video and/or laser disk:

Aelita: Queen of Mars--(Kino Video) Yakov Protazanov's epic Soviet silent of 1924 is one of the earliest cinematic trips to the Red Planet. Detailing the turbulent love affair between a loyal Earth Bolshevik and the Queen of a strife-torn Mars on the verge of revolution, the film is half gushy melodrama, half party line, but the expressionistic sets are visually stunning.

Red Planet Mars--(MGM/UA Home Video) The other side of Martian political drama, this 1952 artifact is a must--probably the most thoroughgoingly bizarre of all "Red Scare" films of the '50s. Scientist Peter Graves is receiving messages, apparently from Mars, detailing a society of such technological and agricultural advancement that their implications send the economy into a spin. It turns out the messages are actually an anticapitalist hoax, perpetrated by a communist ex-Nazi (????) played by the great acting teacher Herbert Berghof. But there's a final twist: Real messages, calling for spiritual reawakening, turn out to be from none other than God Himself, who has taken up residence on the Red Planet--but not the "red" planet. Don't believe me? Watch the movie.

Invaders From Mars--(laser disk only, letterboxed, from ELI) The script of this 1953 nightmare/fairy tale about green Martians taking over the minds of people in a small town isn't much less pedestrian than most sci-fi films of the period, but director William Cameron Menzies' compositions chillingly isolate the little-boy hero (Jimmy Hunt), who can get no one to believe his story. Probably because its real subtext is the childhood terror of not being able to trust adults, this one has haunted many a boomer kid's dreams. With Morris Ankrum.

The War of the Worlds--(Paramount Home Video) This 1953 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel of a Martian campaign against human civilization, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, has little of the terror of Howard Koch's great radio adaptation with which Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air scared the bejesus out of the country back in the '30s. Still, the film, which transplants the story to California, is lushly produced and entertaining; with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, it was the major influence on Independence Day.

Devil Girl From Mars--(Rhino Home Video) At least as sexy as Aelita, and an even bigger bitch, the DGFM, played by Patricia Laffan in leather dominatrix gear, lands on the Scottish moors near an inn full of stiff-upper-lip Brits who don't take kindly to her talk of world domination. Hazel Court and Adrienne Corri are among the Earth women she shows up for style in this 1954 British oddity.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space--(MGM/UA Home Video) Widely believed to be the inspiration for Alien, this grim 1958 space opera concerns a hulking, murderous Martian (Ray "Crash" Corrigan) wreaking havoc as a stowaway on a return flight to Earth. At the end, we are warned, "Another name for Mars is Death!"

Robinson Crusoe on Mars--(laser disk; The Criterion Collection) Paul Mantee played the title role, a marooned American astronaut, in this 1964 update of the Daniel Defoe novel. Vic Lundin plays Friday, here an escaped alien slave. With future Batman Adam West and a monkey.

Mars Needs Women--(Orion Home Video) So, you may ask, what makes Mars a special case? This 1968 cheapie from Texas schlockmeister Larry Buchanan had a Martian envoy (Tommy Kirk of Old Yeller) arrive on Earth in search of a few good women for breeding purposes. Yvonne Craig, better known as TV's Batgirl, is the Earth gal with whom he falls in love.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead