Our Ten’s List
In anticipation of this weeks big release, The Martian, I’ve decided to comb the old memory banks and pick out my ten favorite films about Mars or Martians. Not ten good films about Mars or Martians. Not even ten of my favorite films, that just happen to have Mars or Martians in them. Just ten films about Mars, and the order in which I think they are increasingly watchable…cause believe me, they’re not all great. Put on your helmet and fire up your death rays, this ride is going to get a little bumpy!
My Favorite Martians
10. Santa Clause Conquers the Martians
Martian society is just no fun. Everybody receives their instructions from a machine, and personality and fun are not part of the training program. When the Martian leaders learn about Santa Claus (from observing television signals from the blue planet) they decide he’s just the thing they need to spice up their lives and give their children a chance at having fun, and decide to kidnap him. Apparently they never read my list on the horrors of Rankin and Bass holiday specials, or they’d know that inviting the Christmas Spirit into their lives is going to be a terrible idea!
This film is fun…if you watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. If you don’t, God help you, because this movie is perennially high in the running for worst film ever made.
9. The Last Days on Mars
A manned mission to Mars is in the books, and the triumphant space explorers are packing up to go home when they make the discovery of a century: microbial life exists on Mars. What does this life-form mean for mankind? Buy a shotgun, that’s what, because this little Martian bug causes people to become mindless brain eating zombies. Of course it does.
Do you like horror movies set in space? Do you like zombie movies? Apparently the directors of this flick said yes to both, and hoped it would end up like the discovery of chocolate and peanut butter. Well…this film ain’t no Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I can tell you that. It is, at least, some brain dead fun with zombies, and the first half of the film tries to capture the wonder of traveling to another planet. The cinematography isn’t half-bad either. Too bad this turns out to be fairly generic horror once the brain eaters arrive.
8. Mission to Mars
An international mission to Mars is destroyed by a suspicious storm, so a rescue team, captained by an astronaut who was cut from the first mission due to emotional issues, saddles up and heads to the red planet in order to discover the fate of the first crew…and possibly to uncover the mystery behind the giant face on Mars.
Starring Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, and Tim Robbins, this film sure wasn’t lacking top notch talent. It manages to be an excellent space thriller for most of the run time, and the visuals (despite having some decidedly dated CGI) are quite often excellent. The reason to scrub this mission is the final reveal, which naturally goes full conspiracy theory and involves aliens. Goddammit aliens, you ruin all of my favorite space movies!
7. Robinson Crusoe on Mars
A manned fly-by of Mars ends in disaster when the vessel crash lands on Mars. Only one astronaut (not named Robinson or Crusoe, strangely) and his science monkey (once again, not named Robinson Crusoe) survive the crash. Learning to adapt the Martian ecosystem to accommodate terrestrial life, our adventurers set in for a lonely stay…until they discover that they are not alone.
You have to be in a certain mindset to enjoy this film. The effects are hardly better than an episode of Star Trek..original Trek…with the giant green lizard-man suit Trek. So not great. The film attempts to create some scientifically believable explanations for our heroes continued survival, which I really appreciated, though of course it is horribly dated and laughably wrong. The alien angle is just absurd, really. So why do I still enjoy this film? Well, maybe because I saw this on television on Saturday as a young lad, and the survival elements (and obvious aping of the story of Robinson Crusoe) really caught my imagination. At the heart of it, we get a story of the human spirit, overcoming ludicrous hurdles, using nothing but our big old brains to eke out an existence in a harsh wilderness. Get past the camp, and this film has some wide-eyed wonder to impart…just don’t try to breath burning Martian rocks, OK. You’ll end up dead.
In a darkly totalitarian alternate history, super heroes have given American complete dominance over international affairs. This lopsided state of affairs actually makes the cold war deadlier, as nukes are the only weapon capable of hurting a super-empowered USA. Conventional masks (heroes) are outlawed, and only those that serve the government still function. When one of the government’s agents is killed, it sets off a race to discover a killer who is targeting former heroes, with a possible motive of launching a terrifying strike upon the world.
Visually and stylistically, Watchmen is one of the best super-hero films ever made. The noir atmosphere, interesting characters, fiendishly convoluted mystery, and twist ending are all pretty legendary. It is a good movie…and would be higher on the list, except exactly 30 seconds of the film takes place on Mars. Sorry, Watchmen, think of this as an honorary mention.
5. Capricorn One
An insurmountable defect in the Mars lander leads a desperate head of NASA to attempt the con of the century: faking not only the Mars landing, but the months long journey to the red planet. Using an abandoned air force hangar, a long and nerve racking shell game is played, with the compromised astronauts reluctantly playing along, since the future funding of NASA hangs in the balance of their deception. Things go from bad to worse when NASA decides that dead men tell no tales, and decides to off the crew.
This film works as both a tight thriller and a definitive answer to conspiracy nuts who believe we faked the landing on the moon. How can you pull off a hoax of this magnitude? Answer: you can’t, there’s just too many people who would have to compromise themselves, and that would lead to a fatal leak to the media, or a lot of “disappeared” NASA employees. But the tin-foil hat looks good on you, so it’s not a complete loss.
4. War of the Worlds
Anyone not see this film? Anyone? Mars versus Earth, the grudge match, now starring bacteria. This is the progenitor of nearly every alien invasion movie ever made, right up to Independence Day. Just make sure you see the original. Sure, it has less Tom Cruise Running From Things, which is a shame, but it is a classic, and has plenty of horror moments to compliment it’s iconic sci-fi elements.
3. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
A terrorist attack on the fully terraformed and densely populated capital of Mars leads to a sky-high bounty to be paid to anyone who can take down the provocateurs. Enter our lovable crew of the Bebop, a rag-tag bunch of misfit bounty-hunters with a sordid past, looking for a big enough payday to escape their respective demons. As they race against government factions and other heroes-for-hire, they learn about some nasty secrets that Martian government has been keeping, and find they may not be working for the good guys after all.
Fans of the series got an excellent movie, capturing some of the best elements of the beloved show. The setting blends European film making sensibilities, notably noir and expressionism, with well conceived sci-fi trappings, spiced up with a great cast, all focused around a tight Geo-political thriller. Each character is given enough stake in the story, though as always Spike is the center of the action. The action, by the way, is fluid and terrific. If you’ve never seen a Cowboy Bebop fight scene (or an episode, for that matter) this stand-alone movie is a great introduction to series that really pushed the envelope of animated story-telling.
2. Mars Attacks!
Martians have decided to colonize Earth, and our response to the threat is less than perfect. The president and the military continue to fumble the ball, watching as Washington DC and Las Vegas are torched by the rampaging aliens, until two lowly humans discover the alien’s weak spot, but can they put a stop to the invasion in time?
I’m tempted to call this Tim Burton’s last good movie. His gonzo, demented style is on full display here, and his demonstrated misanthropy and dark humor fit the story beautifully. This isn’t a tragedy, like War of the Worlds where humans just barely squeak by despite their best efforts, and it isn’t a chest-thumping action film, like Independence Day, where human pluck overcomes all odds. It’s a farce, where everyone is a clown, bumbling and stumbling through the apocalypse. The cast is top to bottom great, from seasoned actors like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Anette Bening, and Pierce Brosnan, to great comedians like Martin Short and Danny Devito. Its a great send-up of the old school alien invasion genre that dominated the 50’s and 60’s drive-in theater circuit.
1. Total Recall
A mild mannered (and totally shredded) construction worker decides to indulge in a stay-cation, thanks to the latest fad: Recall. Recall will implant any memory you wish into your head, giving you the perfect vacation memories, complete with fake souvenirs! Our hero opts to have a fantasy of being a Martian spy, traveling to exotic places on the recently colonized red planet, wooing beautiful women and foiling a sinister government plot. Unfortunately, he wakes up raving that he really IS a Martian super spy who has had his mind wiped, and he’s got to get back to Mars to woo beautiful ladies and foil an actual sinister plot.
You better get your ass to Mars! You knew this was going to top the list…Arnold Schwarzenegger spits one-liners and bullets all film long. The espionage thriller at the heart of the story is respectable, though some of the gadgets our super-spy uses ends up being a bit…theatrical. It’s got action and intrigue in spades, and the nature of the Recall service and implanted memories mean you can view this film from many different angles. Was he really a brain-washed spy? A sleeper agent? A clueless lunk who had his brain fried and none of this ever happened. The film gives each aspect enough credibility that you’ll want to see it multiple times…oh, hell, you’ll really just want to see Arnold kicking ass and the three-breasted lady again, but you can gin up the “multiple realities” argument when your roommate catches you obsessively pausing the film at certain scenes…