Percival Lowell was an interesting cat. A devoted observer of Mars for most of his life (1855-1916), he transformed Martian studies from the province of baroque fantasy and unfettered speculation into a legitimate scientific discipline while also leaving a lasting mark on popular perceptions of the planet that persist to this day. He doubted the existence of large bodies of water on the Martian surface, but he believed unswervingly in the existence of “canals” described by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaperelli several decades earlier. Schiaperelli himself treated his belief in canals with extreme caution, emphasizing that what he thought he observed as dark streaks on the planet could just as easily be the result of natural processes like erosion as the work of an intelligent race.
Lowell, however, was fixed on the idea that the canals were part of an immense irrigation system devised by a technologically advanced race to restore their arid home with water diverted from melting polar ice caps. Many contemporary scientists scoffed, arguing that to be seen from Earth the canals would have to be dozens of miles wide, but Lowell saw supporting evidence for his “vegetation-fringed canals” in massive public-works projects on Earth, like the 363-mile Erie Canal and the 100-mile Suez Canal. Ensconced in his private observatory in the American Southwest, Lowell spent his last 20 years peering at Mars through a 24-inch refracting telescope, mapping its features and waiting patiently for signs of life.
Meanwhile, as Mars and the tantalizing notion of life on Mars began creeping into the popular imagination, the planet began replacing the Moon—now widely suspected to be incapable of supporting life—as the most popular destination for literary travel. Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, wrote a popular series of novels featuring the heroic John Carter in a variety of adventures and moral dilemmas on a Mars distinctly colored by the theories of Percival Lowell. Burroughs’ Mars was in a state of perpetual war between rival kingdoms battling desperately over dwindling natural resources—an early ecological dilemma that would resurface many times in subsequent literature and movies.
H.G. Wells was another writer informed by Percival Lowell. War of the Worlds, published in book form in 1898, reflects a growing awareness of the side-effects of mass industrialization, tempered by the author’s own religious beliefs and a keen interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Though intended as a satire of British society and colonialism, Wells’ account of Martians descending on England in enormous rocket capsules is a good deal more optimistic in its human outlook than previous novels like The Time Machine. Its popularity also inspired a hasty, unauthorized sequel: Edison’s Conquest of Mars, as the name suggests, inexplicably finds the Wizard of Menlo Park invading the Angry Red Planet with disintegrator beams and antigravity weapons, precipitating a war that melts the polar ice caps and drowns the unfortunate Martians.
The idea of hostile Martians is a persistent one in early science fiction, with armed conflict between Mars and Earth a predictable enough outcome. It’s a testament to our enduring fascination with Mars that we still rarely read of Plutonians, Venusians, Jovians (is that what you call someone from Jupiter?) or inhabitants of, ahem, Uranus with hostile designs on Earth—a preference noted by Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos. Changes in attitudes and perceptions concerning Mars are reflected at nearly every point in the history of cinema as well, generally coinciding with new discoveries and voyages of exploration, but also colored by politics and other social developments.
Like the Spirit rovers, whose recent exploits we salute this week, we’ve been to Mars—many times. And we’ve brought back samples. So enjoy the ride as we take you through 100 years of Mars in the movies.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
Stage illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès had expected to make a fortune in America with this marvelous adventure, which pairs fanciful sets with innovative special effects for thoroughly charming results. But his hopes went up in smoke like so much decaying nitrate when the fortune went to someone else: Edison technicians pirated the film under the title A Trip to Mars. Edison made a fortune from the pirated film, while Méliès stopped making movies and went broke shortly thereafter. All but forgotten until his work (he made around 500 films!) was rediscovered by the Surrealists, the man Charlie Chaplin called “the alchemist of light” was finally found selling toys and candy in a Parisian kiosk.
Message to Mars (1913)
Sir Charles Hawtrey (commemorated in the spoken-word intro to the Beatles’ “Two of Us”) was a popular Victorian-era actor in light stage comedies. He made his film debut in this 1913 comedy about a rich, self-centered jerk (and amateur astronomer) who gets shown the error of his ways by a visiting Martian. Disappointingly, the Martian looks exactly like a 1913 English gentleman. The whole thing turns out to be a dream that Hawtrey’s character had after reading about the possibility of life on Mars right before bedtime—a sort of early sci-fi Christmas Carol. It was remade in 1921. A script, published in 1913 and illustrated with stills from the film, might be the first example of a movie-book tie-in.
Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)
Given the political climate in which he was working, it’s not surprising that Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov’s Mars was a propagandistic vision of a twin-Earth—a totalitarian capitalist state whose worker-drones are put in cold storage when they aren’t needed. What is surprising is how imaginatively realized this Mars is: a world of huge Expressionist sets and abstract-sculpture telescopes, hooped bubble-skirts and elaborate headwear. Based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy (a distant cousin of Leo), the film is set in the tumultuous first years of the New Economic Policy. Rebuilding is a major theme, as is the establishment of a socialist paradise, helped along by a scientist and a revolutionary who travel to Mars together to foment a proletarian uprising.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1934)
The ’20s were a time of great popular interest in Mars, with a number of shorts, animated shorts and feature films produced to succor the movie-going public’s imagination. In 1926, the first edition of Amazing Stories was published by Swedish eccentric Hugo Gernsback, ushering in the age of the sci-fi digest and the pulp novel. Many characters from pulp sci-fi (comics, too) went on to have successful movie careers—including Buck Rogers, who made his big-screen debut heading off a Martian invasion in this first episode of a serial watched by millions of American viewers. Also known as An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars, the film depicts a war between Earth and the warlike Martians whose king breaks treaty and threatens to attack. Earth would be successfully defended again four years later by rival pulp hero Flash Gordon, who, with help from Dale and Dr. Zarkov, successfully foils Ming the Merciless and his fiendish plan to siphon off our precious nitrogen in Flash Gordon: Mars Attacks the World.
War of the Worlds (1953)
Mars got too close for comfort on Oct. 30, 1938, when Orson Welles famously panicked coast-to-coast listeners with a dramatic radioplay version of the H.G. Wells story. Despite numerous announcements during the broadcast and a hasty disclaimer at the end stating that the program was simply a dramatization, millions were duped—and totally freaked out.
With war already looming in Europe, it was apparently no stretch for many Americans in 1938 to believe they were under sneak-attack by an opportunistic neighboring planet. By the time an excellent film version of Wells’ novel was released 15 years later, the Cold War had begun. It’s intriguing to note that right around the time War of the Worlds was released, more aliens started assuming human form to carry out their anti-American activities in movies including Invaders from Mars (1953, remade in 1986) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, remade in 1978). Fear of outright invasion had given way to fear of infiltration. Forty years later, Tim Burton would capture something of this campy ’50s flavor (especially the Plan 9 from Outer Space-style spaceships!) in Mars Attacks!
Mars Needs Women (1966)
Of course it does—they all live two planets away, on Venus (though it would be another 27 years before that book came out). Life on Mars got pretty silly in the ’60s, starting with 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, starring Pia Zadora and future “Klinger,” Jamie Farr. In the movie, Martians kidnap Santa to prevent Earth kids from being so dad-blamed happy all the time.
Mars didn’t seem so terrifying in the “person” of Marvin the Martian, either. The joyless little space-nebbish with the red bodysuit, green skirt and scrub-brush helmet made his Looney Tunes debut in 1948, created by Chuck Jones and voiced by Mel Blanc. Like any good Martian, though, Marvin still has it in for Earth—because it blocks his view of Venus. His chosen weapons are the ACME Disintegration Pistol (for close-quarters combat) and the Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator (for its “Earth-shattering boom”).
Capricorn One (1977)
Another turning point for Mars in the movies: post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism. OJ Simpson, James Brolin and Sam Waterston star as a trio of astronauts picked for the first manned Mars landing, but find themselves marked for death when the mission is aborted at the last minute on account of a faulty life-support system—and subsequently faked to avoid a massive scandal. Cynical and conspiratorial from beginning to end, the movie was made with full NASA cooperation despite its implication that the agency is equally capable of doctoring the results of real failed missions more to its liking.
The cover-up depicted in Capricorn One has an interesting parallel in the real controversy surrounding the so-called “Face on Mars.” On June 25, 1976, as Viking Orbiter 1 was scouting potential landing sites for Viking Lander 2, it photographed what appeared to be a humanoid face in the planet’s mountainous Cydonian region. Since then, NASA has been periodically dogged by accusations of conspiracy, fakery and disinformation by groups who believe the face on Mars is an artifact left by previous visitors or inhabitants, presumably to communicate with us—and that NASA doesn’t think we can handle the truth.
Mission to Mars (2000)
Interest in Mars was whetted to a 20-year peak in the late ’90s, with a number of headline-making developments unfolding. In 1993, a chunk of rock called ALH 84001 was reclassified as one of 16 meteorites thought to be of Martian origin. Three years later, public enthusiasm was further aroused when NASA announced the discovery of “nano-fossils” in ALH 84001, the first scientific proof of life originating elsewhere in the cosmos. New probes produced dazzling new images; within a month of the Pathfinder landing in July, 1997, NASA websites received half a billion hits—an Internet record.
And a new crop of Mars movies went into production, most of them burdened—in the way previous Mars movies never were—by a new trend toward technical realism informed by fresh discoveries about the planet. Mission to Mars, directed by Brian DePalma, stars Connie Nielsen and Gary Sinise as members of a rescue party who discover a very frazzled Don Cheadle cowering in a swanky hydroponic bachelor pod and then bicker over whether or not to check out the alien “face” that wasted the other crew members. Red Planet, also released in 2000 but set in 2025, depicts Mars as the next stop for a human race that has poisoned its own planet (science fiction often reflects contemporary worries and preoccupations) and needs a new place to hang out
The distant third finisher in the 2000-2001 trifecta is John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, easily the worst Mars movie ever. At this point in the still-unfolding Mars saga, it’s just bad. But it might be seen as good bad at some point in the future—when it’s the only thing in the proposed Mars colony’s DVD library that inhabitants haven’t seen a thousand times.