In one of two blockbuster adaptations to showcase his shining star this year (the other being the inexplicable feature-length translation of a little game called Battleship), Taylor Kitsch leads the weekend as the title character in John Carter, leaping miles in a single bound and surely climbing the box-office charts too. John Carter’s action, of course, unfolds on Mars, Earth’s ever-cinematic neighbor. What other films have seen their heroes roam the red landscape or tussle with its residents? From buddy comedies to creature features to—wait for it—holiday fare, turns out there are quite a few.
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on March 9, 2012.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
A veritable masterpiece alongside ugly CG ducklings like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton’s gonzo rendering of a 1960s trading card series is the blackest of sci-fi satires, its goodies ranging from the prescient merger of Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with the body of a lapdog to the unabashedly abrupt vaporization of Jack Black. Sylvia Sydney, rest her dear soul, put the cherry on the cake with her immortal line of demented glee: “They blew up Congress! Hahaha!”
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
A well-regarded film that holds a spot in the Criterion Collection, Byron Haskins’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars saw the sci-fi maestro follow his War of the Worlds and The Outer Limits with a picturesque Techniscope adventure, wherein a U.S. astronaut (Paul Mantee) crash lands on the red planet with a monkey as his ally. Bonus points galore for the presence of Adam West.
Red Planet (2000)
Part of the rush of Mars films that accompanied Y2K, the seemingly slick but instantly forgettable Red Planet featured Val Kilmer and red-hot Matrix maven Carrie Anne-Moss as Earthlings of a not-too-distant future, where the destruction of our world sets humanity’s eyes on Mars. The astronauts don their spacesuits to investigate the terraforming colonization project underway on the neighboring planet, and though things, inevitably, go terribly wrong, at least the effects look polished.
Predating, by one year, his popularity peak in There’s Something about Mary and Half-Baked, RocketMan gave comedian Harland Williams an out-of-this-world Disney vehicle, which shot his character, a nerdy NASA designer, off to Mars for the first manned mission. The film was a disastrous flop, so much so that even the home video was out of print for a long stretch. Ironically enough, direct-to-video is about the only work Williams is getting these days.
Invaders from Mars (1953)
The 1950s marked the heyday of astro-paranoia, and among the many memorable genre films to be born out of the era was William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders from Mars, which starred Helena Carter and Jimmy Hunt and bowed just before the initial explosion of 3-D. Billing itself as “A nightmarish answer to The Wizard of Oz,” the movie includes ambiguous dream elements and centers around a boy who finds out Martians are getting up in people’s heads, y’all.
Another fine piece of filmmaking on our ever-prestigious list, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Doom brings the original first-person shooter to the screen with the video-game experience intact, letting the viewer feel like he is right at home, fiddling with his joystick. The movie stars The Rock and Karl Urban, and hell, the only reason it’s here is because its slimy baddies get blown to bits at a Mars research facility.
Mission to Mars (2000)
Underrated, if not wholly embraceable, Brian De Palma’s other millenial Mars movie was actually loosely based on a Disneyland attraction, making it the unlikely precursor to the Pirates franchise. Hit with nearly as much vitriol as Red Planet, Mission to Mars saw Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, and Connie Nielsen set out to rescue fellow Mars explorer Don Cheadle, and in the process, discover the origins of our species.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Reportedly a common presence on “Worst Films Ever” lists, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians got a lovely resurrection in the 1990s after appearing on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and earning regular play on Comedy Central. What’s it about? Need you ask? It’s actually terribly convoluted, so let’s just say the man in the red suit hangs out with the folks from the red planet.
Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Released just last year, this Robert Zemeckis-produced mo-cap disaster, which nodded to 1967’s Mars Needs Women, is currently logged as the biggest box-office flop in history, reportedly losing more than $136 million. Also dropped in the critical toilet, its voice cast includes Joan Cusack and Seth Green, whose young boy learns to better love his mama after she’s beamed up to space.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001)
A better-than-average outer-space horror fest, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars makes for a great Saturday morning sit, if nothing else, offering you a cast that includes Ice Cube, Pam Grier, Natasha Henstridge, and a pre-fame Jason Statham. The sky-high concept is thin and stupid, but the film’s exciting, and it evokes the director’s Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.
Martians Go Home (1990)
The hits just keep on coming, don’t they? If Randy Quaid has a high point as a thespian, it ain’t present in Martians Go Home, a half-assed adaptation of a Frederic Brown sci-fi novel. Quaid is a songwriter who suddenly summons oodles of Martians to Earth, all of them played by comedians of the era. They proceed to piss people off. Meta!
My Favorite Martian (1999)
Not your mama’s sitcom, this Disney rendering of the ‘60s series sees Christopher Lloyd step into the beloved Ray Walston role, playing the titular alien who makes friends with, and trouble for, Jeff Daniels’s newsman. Despite its colorful supporting cast, which featured Daryl Hannah, Elizabeth Hurley, and Walston himself, the film didn’t perform well with critics or audiences, crash landing with a 12 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
After they met Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Captain Kidd, Abbott and Costello accidentally wound up on a ship bound for Mars, only to, in turn, accidentally wind up at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Playing on the popular adage, the pair also make a stop at Venus, which is populated entirely by women. This endearing comedy is the only film on the roster that’s ultimately Mars-free.
Total Recall (1990)
One wonders what pop auteur Paul Verhoeven thinks about his 1990 Philip K. Dick-inspired classic being remade in 2012. Because, while greater originals have sat helpless while being shamelessly regurgitated, this is one that certainly needs no overhaul. One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s better films, Total Recall, of course, stars the action hero as Doug Quaid, who struggles with uncertain realities and memory-implant procedures, and may just be a Martian warrior.
War of the Worlds (1953)
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake surely has its fans, but since we’re already on a kick with Byron Haskin and the 1950s, let’s keep on our purist path and end with Haskin’s version, whose imagery alone is unquestionably more indelible and iconic than Spielberg’s. The fascination with H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel seems rather limitless, capable of yielding an interpretation for every subsequent era. When one thinks of mid-20th century sci-fi, Haskin’s take on the invasion thriller rushes to mind.