These days, we know more about Mars than ever before, thanks to the work of NASA and other space agencies. But science fiction movies have been fascinated with Mars for decades—giving rise to big-screen portrayals of the Red Planet that are often fantastic, insane, and sometimes ridiculously fun. And so, so wrong.
(A note before we begin: Rather than focus on the many Martians who come to Earth, as in Mars Attacks!, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, or Invaders from Mars, we wanted to specifically focus on the strangest depictions of the planet and its native inhabitants. Also, no movies showing Mars in the future, a la Total Recall and Ghosts of Mars, since they are not technically inaccurate... yet.).
This 1959 American International Pictures entry, directed by B-movie favorite Ib Melchior, is one of those “an Earth mission returns home from Mars Martian-mission-returns-to-Earth” tales. But it’s mostly taken up with an extended flashback to what happened on the alien planet, a place where the resident mutant plant-things and animal/insect/monster-things don’t take kindly to visitors. (The title is a big tip-off to this plot development.) The special effects were created using a mix of live action and hand-drawn animation, with everything saturated in an appropriately garish shade of red-orange.
No, not Mission to Mars, the one with Don Cheadle (that’s coming up, though). Mission Mars was released in 1968, the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with a fraction of that film’s budget—evident in its fondness for stock footage—and story sophistication.
A trio of astronauts, whose uniforms resemble unitards and whose helmets are unsealed on purpose, travel you-know-where, trailing a trio of cosmonauts who’ve already discovered the truth about Mars. Get ready, because it’s populated by weird glowing spheres that emit a lot of bleep-bloop scifi sound effects and have sinister designs on the men.
An extremely low-budget scifi film inspired by The Wizard of Oz, except that it takes place on a version of Mars that makes even the most the surreal aspects of Oz look more boring than Kansas. “Enter if you dare, the haunted Martian city of the dead!” Challenge accepted. John Carradine, patriarch of the great acting family, plays the title character, during an era of his career that also included films like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, and The Astro-Zombies.
Because “alone on Mars” really means “alone on a planet frequently visited by aliens and their mining-operation slaves.” This Mars is a cruel place, but it has some amazing things: rocks that help you breathe, hidden water sources, and very weird yet edible plants.
Dig this trailer that touts the film’s incredible commitment to scientific accuracy. In keeping with the source material, the stranded Earth astronaut (Paul Mantee) befriends an escaped slave he nicknames “Friday” (Victor Lundin, who’d later play one of Star Trek’s very first Klingons). The rest of the cast includes Adam “Batman” West, and a chattering, wooly monkey named Mona.
The much earlier and more famous B-movie Mars Needs Women actually takes place on Earth. This 3D motion-capture animation dip into the uncanny valley, however, is about a kid who travels to Mars to save his mother, who’s been abducted so that her mom-ly essence can be drained to enhance the planet’s next generation of nanny-bots. Since this is a Disney film for kids, not a horror movie, there are cute aliens and “butt blaster” jokes to undercut all the eerie machines and parent-nappings.
Fondly remembered as one of Disney’s most painful flops ever, this 2012 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation does have one thing going for it (besides star Taylor Kitsch’s lovingly photographed torso): eye-poppingly lavish Martian visuals, including giant cities, four-armed green warriors, airships, and much, much more.
The year 2000 boasted two big-budget ensemble movies about Mars (the other, Red Planet, takes place in 2056). This one, on the other hand, is set in 2020, which is the future without being THE FUTURE, so it counts. Mission to Mars was directed by Brian De Palma and stars Don Cheadle as an astronaut stranded solo on the planet after a mission goes awry. Specifically speaking, a giant vortex gathers itself from the surface and proceeds to either vacuum up or dismember all of Cheadle’s crew mates, before the dust settles and reveals this curious formation:
When the rescue mission (led by Gary Sinise) arrives, they learn what this proto-Matt Damon has already discovered, which is rather compelling evidence that human life on Earth originated on Mars. At the end of the movie, the astronauts discover a room filled to the brim with exposition, and an alien materializes to literally diagram the whole thing out for them.
As it turns out, that room is actually a spaceship poised to blast out of the face-on-Mars’ forehead, and Gary Sinise gets to tag along to the aliens’ new post-Mars home world. It gets very touchy-feely at the end.
Kids on Mars become obsessed first with Earth TV, then with the idea of Santa Claus, so Martian leaders kidnap St. Nick from the North Pole and force him to set up a toy workshop on Mars. The planet looks suspiciously like a cheaply-constructed soundstage with occasional smoke-machine flair; its residents dress in green, offering a festive contrast to the landscape. Once heard, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ holly-jolly theme song (“Hooray For Santy Claus”) will burrow into your brain for all eternity. Appropriately, Mystery Science Theater 3000 enshrined this nugget of cinematic weirdness into cult status forever.