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March/April 2016
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by Kathi Maio


MARS HAS always fueled the imagination, and fears, of Earthlings. This is well evidenced in our film history. Thomas Edison produced (and Ashley Miller directed) a short in 1910 entitled A Trip to Mars. Some consider it the first American sf film. At the very least, it is one of the earliest. In it, a scientist in modest digs discovers a powder that reverses gravity. After floating a chair, he covers himself with magic dust and flails his way up to Mars where the natives look like scary trees, and one gruesome, pointy-eared fellow rolls our hero up in a snowball before huffing and puffing him off on his "journey"—consisting of more thrashing about—back to Earth. Safe in his lab, he flips the room as a final trick.

The movie was (for that time) a bit scary and totally dependent on special effects for its entertainment value. And the same can be said for the majority of American Mars-themed films over the years. On the other hand, an early Danish film from 1918—also called A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet)—is much less about special effects.

Although the six-part feature does boast several impressive effects of space flight, as well as a depiction of the spirits of the dead, it is really a social message movie. In it, an adventurous young man leads a trip to Mars, where he encounters peaceable vegan inhabitants who look amazingly like humans except for their white toga and bishop robe outfits. While the human crew exhibits the violent tendencies they brought along for the ride, the Martians encourage them to mend their ways through "self-knowledge." And when the Earthlings do return to their planet, it is with a new resolve toward peace and harmony. (The film's message is not surprising, considering it was released in the final months of World War I—a conflict during which Denmark maintained a difficult neutrality.)

The Danes might have been happy to see Martians as a superior, pacifist race. Others have been less eager to do so. In movies in which Martians come to Earth, the great majority have depicted the aliens as aggressors—sometimes with (intentional or not) hilarious results. Cheesy films like Devil Girl From Mars (1954) set the dubious standard, with its patent-leathered dominatrix title character who tries to bring a few fertile Scotsmen back to her Amazonian planet. In his glorious homage to the bad sf films of the mid-twentieth century, the Tim Burton-directed (Jonathan Gems-written) 1996 flick, Mars Attacks!, played the loony action for intentional laughs.

Still, most movies about Mars have tried to keep a straight face, just as the majority have been about Earth's exploration of our neighbor planet rather than Martian invasions. During the Cold War era, before NASA became a household word, these cinematic missions—often secret in nature—were led by the Pentagon. In 1951's Flight to Mars, a crew that includes a female space engineer with an unrequited crush on her boss crash-lands on their target. There, they are greeted by inhabitants dressed a bit like Teletubbies. They seem friendly enough. They also seem to have an advanced underground culture where women are freed from household chores to pursue careers in satin mini-skirts. Unfortunately, it turns out Martians have depleted their resources and their civilization is dying. So they hope to hijack the Earthling spaceship for a takeover of our planet. Their plot, of course, fails.

Angry Red Planet (1959) features another Earth launch to Mars, where the crew (which again includes a single female scientist) meets no one looking at all like a human…or like a Teletubby. Here, green slime and fabulous predators that look like Venus flytraps with octopus tentacles, or that resemble a cross between a bat and a spider, try to pick off the human explorers. When survivors finally launch back to Earth, it is with a warning—conveniently in English—not to return to Mars, where its strange citizenry are prepared to destroy all inferior Earthlings.

The special effects have improved over the years, and the rocket ships and astronaut garb have developed to mimic the reality of existing space programs. But in most cases, Mars movies in the last fifteen years aren't that much different from their campy predecessors. For example, there was a spate of competing Mars movies released in the 2000-2001 movie season. These included the European entry Stranded, starring Vincent Gallo. Also in the mix: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars was a low-budget throwback to the gorefest action sf of the sixties. In the bigger budget category, two of the Mars films that year hoped for more serious attention—and box office.

The first out was the ambitious (and therefore all the more disappointing) Brian DePalma helmed Mission to Mars. When the Mars One crew meets with a body-ripping sandstorm while trying to radar an unusual section of the landscape, a second mission is sent to the rescue. They, too, face a mid-flight tragedy before they land to find a single survivor (played by Don Cheadle) at the Mars Station. He believes he was allowed to survive to unravel the secret of a sound sequence and the giant stone face uncovered by the deadly sand storm. Already by turns schmaltzy and dull, the movie strays into self-important preposterousness as the crew approaches, anew, the giant face and enters the structure for an alien-led light show of planetary history and Earthly evolution.

The production values of Mission to Mars are certainly passable, as are the game performances by the somewhat bewildered looking cast (that included, besides Cheadle, Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins). But despite the repeated sentimental trope of true loves lost, the film loses its simple humanity along the way, and it never fills the void with either the action or humor that have long been the saving grace of filmic space operas.

Red Planet, released later in 2000, doesn't do much better. But at least it comes off as a bit less pretentious—despite a theologian crew member (Terence Stamp), mercifully killed off right after a very rough landing. In this film, an Earth facing ecological ruin is hoping for a new home. After attempting to start algae fields on Mars to create a breathable atmosphere, a first manned mission is sent to the planet to evaluate the viability of the place. Things start going wrong before arrival, so that the mission's commander (Carrie-Anne Moss) is forced to remain on the crippled, or worse, mother ship, while her male team proceeds to Mars. But when it turns out the atmosphere is not breathable and they find their habitat base destroyed, things look very bad for the four remaining crew (Val Kilmer, Benjamin Bratt, Tom Sizemore, and Simon Baker). When a murderous confrontation takes out another, it seems as though this is becoming a last man gasping storyline. And, indeed, it is. Besides a lack of supplies and oxygen, the men must contend with a robotic animal (designed to provide assistance, but damaged into attack mode), in addition to a species of little critters that view algae and human flesh as equally tasty sustenance.

There are plenty of elements to the story, and it even manages to throw in a shipboard romance before the credits roll. But more plot frippery does make for a more hospitable Red Planet.

An Irish/British film from a couple of years back, Last Days on Mars (2013), has a simpler plot with a much smaller Martian foe—a virulent bacteria that turns cranky human astronauts into raging zombies. With a lead played by Liev Schreiber, there is a satisfying moodiness to this modest film even before the undead start clamoring for fresh blood. Although not a great movie, this one might please Living Dead fans…and a few more viewers besides.

But where is the Mars movie, of the dozens and dozens (and dozens) that have been made over the last century, that can satisfy fussy film critics plus audiences of all ages and tastes? We finally have such a film. And you will not be surprised when I identify it as The Martian.

If you wrote down the plot on paper, it might seem doubtful that The Martian would both charm critics and draw a massive audience. There are no aliens, no zombie-fying bacteria, no flesh-eating nematodes, no warfare or violence—and only a couple of explosions. What kind of movie is this? It is a film that celebrates human ingenuity and collaboration, as well as the power of science and mathematics.

It all comes back to the source material; a marvelous novel written by software engineer and self-proclaimed "lifelong space nerd" Andy Weir. Mr. Weir glories in space and in the nitty-gritty of science, and before a major publisher released his bestseller, the author published it as a kind of online serial on his own website. As a novice novelist (but a total math and science geek), this gave him immediate feedback from experts and other like-minded folk. The author told Science Magazine that he greatly benefited from the "crowd-sourced fact checking" he received from online readers.

This attention to accuracy and detail actually made his final novel about an astronaut abandoned, wounded but alive, on the hostile surface of Mars all the more riveting. But when faced with the Hollywood treatment, fans of the book might well have despaired about all the ways a major studio might corrupt the story on screen. Luckily, screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil) knows and appreciates science, as well as sf and fantasy. He came at his adaptation from "a place of love and protection." And although there was a need to streamline some of the minutia of the plot, the movie is refreshingly faithful to the novel.

Although Drew Goddard was originally slated to direct the movie, too, helming duties eventually went to master sf director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner). Scott, who has characterized himself as a science fiction fanatic, brought a career's worth of skill to his directing. But just as crucial as the writing and directing was the casting of the protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney. And, when looking for a scrappy, capable everyman, you couldn't do much better than Matt Damon.

There's no need for me to provide a blow by blow of the plotline of The Martian, nor detail all the ways in which the resourceful Watney (who, conveniently, was both a mechanical engineer and a botanist) kept himself alive and aided in his own rescue. Chances are, you've seen the movie already. And if you haven't seen it, it's time to catch up, gentle reader!

It is worth extolling the importance of this film, however. Here is a handsomely mounted movie where realistic science and mathematics are essential elements, but where the human scale of the story is never lost. Problem-solving prowess is essential to Mark Watney's survival on Mars. But his resolve and humor are equally important in facing his many travails as a Martian castaway.

And Watney is no lone-wolf superhero. He can work to stay alive. But he cannot save himself. The challenge to (as the poster proclaims) "Bring Him Home" requires the expertise and strenuous efforts of his fellow astronauts, as well as the best and brightest scientific minds back on planet Earth. That is one of the real delights of the movie; to see the collaborative nature of solving problem after problem in pursuit of a common goal play out on the big screen.

Real-life NASA was roundly—and rightfully—criticized for the kind of "groupthink" that contributed to the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. But while there is much cooperation and dedication to a common goal in The Martian, there is certainly no groupthink in this story. Even after a rescue plan is devised, an Aspergian math whiz (Donald Glover) plots a better way of getting to Watney in time. The compassionate flight director of the mission (Sean Bean) does end-runs around his boss, NASA's Director (Jeff Daniels), to communicate essential information to his crew in space. And the other astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, et al.) actually commit a mutiny to save their comrade.

The Martian is a story about people working together but thinking for themselves. It is also a first class piece of cinematic entertainment that doubles as one of the best promotional tools for STEM education that has ever been devised. All good reasons to applaud this movie.

Can I just say that I am feeling more hopeful about quality science fiction film than I have in a long time? The last three autumns have brought us Gravity, Interstellar, and now The Martian. Let's hope these three fine, successful movies constitute a trend.

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