Mars in Movies

Original post date: March 2015, Update: October 2015

I probably mentioned before that I love reading and watching true Sci-Fi stories. The ones that have legacy in old Jules Verne fiction. The ones that predict the future and might be real some day. The red planet is no exception - when I see a title with "Mars" in it, I eagerly read the teaser, secretly hoping for a two hours of entertainment if it is a motion picture or two days if it is a book. Right at this moment, I am holding "The Martian" by Andy Weir*, the novel I was waiting to come into book shops for months. Especially when it was announced that Ridley Scott is taking the director's chair for the upcoming movie, later this year. This month, the crew should be located within one of the only places on Earth that resembles Mars perfectly. "Wadi Rum", a valley in southern Jordan, also known as "The Valley of the Moon" is currently a home for many trailers, including the one occupied by Matt Damon, who's playing Mark Watney, the main character from the Weir's book. If you read this post to the end I will put my thoughts about the book and I am sure that this story will get at least one update after the movie visits the closest cinema in October 2015.

Mars on Earth - "Wadi Rum" in southern Jordan 1

But before short "The Martian" review let's see which ones were my favorite movies with Mars in lead role. And to be fully precise, when I say "Mars in lead role", I mean it literally - if you were expecting mentioning of "Total Recall" or "War of the Worlds" kind of stories with hypothetical Earth-like colonies on Mars (including chicks with three boobs) or evil invaders from Mars along with horrifying horror creatures, there will not be any of those in this post. Instead, these five films make the list with true Sci-Fi stories of potential near future exploration toward red planet with intriguing scripts of course. These are: "Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)", "Red Planet (2000)", "Mission to Mars (2000)" and "The Last Days on Mars (2013)". Including upcoming "The Martian", three of them were using Wadi Rum to film Mars' landscapes and scenes from Martian surface.

Scientifically speaking, 50 years ago, when "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" hit the theaters, not too much was known about Mars. The canals on Mars, observed and theorized by Percival Lowell in the beginning of 20th century, supposedly artificial in origin, were significantly discredited by the scientific community at the time of the movie, but still beside that little was known for certain. Lots of probes sent by former Soviet Union and United States during 60ies experienced failures during launch or to establish successful orbit and we first learned more about Mars, when in 1965, Mariner 4 sent first images of the surface along with first data about temperature on Mars, atmospheric pressure and no evidence of protective magnetic shield. However, this movie, which I saw for the first time today, impressed me a lot. Not only that for the time when it was filmed it was way ahead of it's time with it's bold predictions related to life support and ways of solving air, water and food problems for one estranged astronaut, but the entire script with hostile aliens, slavery and connections to Defoe's original tale and Robinson Crusoe, gave me genuine Sci-Fi entertainment. In a way this movie stands shoulder to shoulder to next two projects in my list filmed decades later.

Paul Mantee as cmdr. Christopher 'Kit' Draper2

More than 30 years passed, after Draper's adventure, until Hollywood dared to go to Mars again with true Sci-Fi movies. And in the year of 2000 theaters were hit with two pretty good stories: "Red Planet" and "Mission to Mars" signed by Antony Hoffman and Brian De Palma. The plot in the latter was centered in the middle of Mars' legendary Cydonia region with famous face on Mars and several structures that resemble pyramidal shapes. For years, and probably still ongoing today, conspiracy theories about Mars installed it's passed and current intelligent life just there and this is exactly the main theme in the "Mission to Mars" as well. All in all, despite criticism, Brian De Palma made great film centered on aliens and I also liked interplanetary spaceship with gravity wheels and special effects at the end. "Red Planet" is a little bit different and little bit more plausible. It was about terraforming Mars and what might get wrong in the process. Like in previous film, "Red Planet" also deals with aliens but little bit more unfriendly and more likely to really be found within some alien planets in the future. What I really liked about this one is usage of descend technology already proven on Mars within "Mars Pathfinder" and "Mars Exploration Rover" programs and plot that is, with exception of military robot misbehavior, not filled with too much drama and too heavy twist. In a way this is what gives this extraordinary movie, in my opinion, great value. Not to mention "Trinity" in the orbit the whole time. "Red Planet" is also filmed in "Wadi Rum" as well as the "The Last Days on Mars" which is my next pick.

Mars Pathfinder site in Red Planet3

"The Last Days on Mars" perhaps doesn't deserve to be in this list as it's genre belong more to all those horror based "Alien" type of movies than pure Sci-Fi, but still I decided to include it for two reasons. The obvious one is because of plausibility and real danger of future manned missions toward Mars and other planets and moons. The probability to encounter dangerous, incompatible, microbiological life on such missions is hugely higher than the chance that we will be faced with friendly little green men. I am not saying that we should be afraid of instantly becoming planetary food for microbiological life on Mars or Europa or anywhere in future exploration of Solar system planetary bodies but still I will be extra cautious in space suit outside Earth. I have that feeling that astro-biology will be one of main interplanetary sciences when humans leave the Earth. Second reason for me picking this little movie is less obvious - actually this horror film for the first time in history, hosted a Serbian astronaut and a man on Mars. At least when it comes to Hollywood productions ... and at least until "Marko Petrović", mission microbiologist, didn't turn into first Serbian zombie and started to kill his fellow scientists. I have to admit that I couldn't watch it to the end simply because I really don't like horror scenes and this kind of movies in general but still Serbian flag on Marko's suit looked very nice for a change among tons of American and Russian flags in space in long history of Hollywood Sci-Fi movies.

Goran Kostić playing first Serbian on Mars4

Finally, at the end of this chronological order of Mars movies, naturally comes.. well ... the book. I truly hope that upcoming movie will be at least a small hint of the book, because if it does, it will be the best Sci-Fi movie, well, ... ever. "The Martian" is, in lack of better words, and to use cliche, a gem among Mars exploration stories and for the best part, it is not even a fiction. The "Fi" part form the genre, in this case, is there only because the scientific endeavor described in the novel is not done yet. I tried very hard to find futuristic tool in the story or procedure or technology or anything at all and couldn't find any. Well, I am not really the expert but perhaps, the only fiction in Andy Weir's perfection is use of nowadays edge technology that is not fully tested or used much before. With enough money, the "Ares" expeditions toward Mars, are really possible. The only thing I would change in the story are Mars locations for the scientific exploration. Maybe a way better place to build a hab is next to some mountain formation with more interesting geological origin to include more real speleology and paleontology in the background. Let's face it, Mars on the ground is boring, we need to get inside.

Matt Damon in 'The Martian'5

"The Martian" requires certain background in science to read it with full understanding. Simply, if you don't know anything about Mars, basic physics and chemistry and if you don't own at least a teeny-tiny nerd within your inner being maybe it is better for you to wait for the movie. I am positive that it will be adapted for a wider audience and with the breathtaking imagery. However, if you do that, what you are going to miss is one and only Mark Watney. This guy is one in the million and when I read the very first couple of lines in the book I knew this will be one great story. To be perfectly honest, I have little fear for Matt Damon. His real challenge in the lead role of the next Ridley Scott master piece is not how to be Mark the botanist/engineer but rather how to present Mark, the stand-up comedian. Simply put, "The Martian" is not just a Sci-Fi novel. It is equally a comedy embedded so perfectly into foreground story and I would really love to see this in the movie as well. If you don't believe me, just ask the rest of my family, who always looked at me strangely every time when I had to break the reading due to small or big laughter, especially after Pathfinder's chats between Watney and people on Earth.

----- Update, October 1st, 2015 ---

Finally, and as promised, in today's update, I am concluding this post with impressions from the movie just couple of hours after we watched it in the theater. Visually and overall, I can only confirm all my hopes I had at the beginning of this post in March. It is definitely another Ridley Scott's master piece including amazing performance of entire cast. Yes, and as suspected, scientific aspect from the book is reduced due to the specific media format but the message is still intact. And I hope it will reach the wider audience and not only nerdistic souls like mine. Hopefully, in not too far future, Hermes and Ares will become reality and this movie and the book are both, a glimpse of our next manned endeavours in space and also a warning what might go wrong on the way.

Two deep impressions I carried these days and especially after today's projection. First and positive one is impact of the movie in media and especially the internet with NASA involvement and numerous conventions and presentations like the one from this year Comic-Con panel about journey to Mars from the point of view of NASA engineers and astronauts (attached below). On the sad side the premiere projection of the movie today counted only three visitors - nobody but us today watched the film. Not entirely surprising considering all the social inconsistencies and superficiality of a life in Serbia these days and years, but still the lack of even medium interest for this kind of literature and science background is a little worrying from my point of view.


Before the end and as a hint for upcoming middle season, SyFy is preparing a TV show made after "The Expanse", novel series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck and if you are eager to read little bit more about "The Martian" and my thoughts after finishing all five books please go to the post "Martian vs Expanse".

Anyway and to conclude with some wisdom, Mars is definitely our next destination after the Moon. I was one year old when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the LEM and truly hope that I will not have to wait another four decades to see first step on Mars.
Image credits and refs:

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_Weir_novel
1 http://wadirum.jo/ ;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadi_Rum
2 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058530/
3 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0199753/
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Days_on_Mars
5 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3659388/