Top List Thursdays – Top 5 movies set on Mars

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Ever since we first saw it in the sky and gave it its godly name, humanity has sort of had an obsession with Mars. As our enigmatic celestial neighbour, it’s captured our imaginations and has been at the centre of huge swathes of pop culture, and movies have most definitely not been immune to the red planet fever. (Like, for example, that rather high profile movie releasing this Friday)

Whether we were fighting off little green men from it, exploring it, or sending Santa Claus to it, numerous films over the years have been set on Mars. And here are the five best of them, according to me.

  • John Carter

Acclaimed Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s first foray into live-action filmmaking was a divisive one. Decades-in-development, Edgar Rice Burroughs classic literary character’s eventual arrival on film in 2012 was not as universally loved as Disney had hoped. Some adored its throwback aesthetics and campy, pulpy feel, while others wished it had rather been blasted into space. Clearly, I fell into the former camp, reveling in the swashbuckling space adventure whose original texts actually birthed most of the high profile entries in the genre we know today.

Unfortunately, the movie would eventually become more well known for all the money it lost Disney at the box office than for anything else, but that hasn’t changed all the unbridled love I have for it. And if you don’t agree: Tough luck. You should have made a list yourself then.

  • Capricorn One

So like I said, this is my list and I make the rules here. Which is why I’m slightly breaking them for this entry. Director Peter Hyam’s 1977 controversial-for-the-time thriller may be about the first manned mission to successfully land on Mars, but it’s also exactly not about the first manned mission to successfully land on Mars. Confused? In the conspiracy thriller, minutes before launching, it’s discovered that a faulty life-support system on the Mars spacecraft would have killed the astronaut crew on board. NASA, not wanting to lose public trust in the project, secretly removes the astronauts – James Brolin, Sam Waterston, OJ Simpson – and launches the unmanned craft via remote control.

The astronauts are setup at a studio soundstage made to look like the interior of the spacecraft, and over the course of the craft’s flight, are blackmailed and coerced into staging a massive hoax in which they pretend to broadcast from space as if everything is fine on the mission which “successfully” lands on Mars. But on the return voyage the craft actually burns up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in full view of the public. This makes the astronauts, who threaten the conspiracy just with their existence, expendable security leaks and they have to stay one step ahead of the government goons before they blow the whistle.

Now I have to say that while Capricorn One is a solid conspiracy thriller, it is admittedly not the best in the genre. But it was also one of the initial sparks that led to people questioning the validity of the moon landing, and such had quite the dramatic impact on the cultural zeitgeist. It’s basically like the genesis of internet crackpots.

  • Robinson Crusoe on Mars

No disrespect to The Martian, but 1964’s Robin Crusoe On Mars did it first. “It” being the tale of an astronaut forced to survive on the surface of Mars, finding air, food and water, after a catastrophe befalls his mission. If you’re struggling to differentiate between the two films, it’s simple: This is the one with the pet monkey. And alien slaves. And edible “sausages” growing from the ground. Oh and did I mention that the astronaut here walks around on the surface of the planet in nothing more than a t-shirt and a pair of slacks and only needs to get oxygen every hour? Clearly scientific accuracy was not big in the 60’s, despite the crazy claim at the start of the trailer above!

But even with those elements, which will all be considered incredibly kitsch and campy by today’s standards, director Byron Haskin’s film is still considered a classic for a reason. It’s a surprisingly maturely directed rip-roaring yarn boasting eye-popping visual effects for its time and some amazing cinematography making use of California’s Death Valley to double for the Martian landscape. Forget about the hokey plausibility, and you’re in for a real treat.

  • Total Recall

Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic, about a construction worker who takes a themed virtual holiday to Mars as a spy but then realizes that he’s really there and really is a spy, may only retain very basic similarities with the original Phillip K. Dick story that it’s adapted from, but what the fan-favourite director produced is arguably even better. On the one hand, it’s a violent splatterfest action blockbuster that perfectly suits the bulging biceps and dry one-liners of star Arnold Schwarzenegger, but on the other it’s also a damn good sci-fi tale full of mind-bending plot twists and crazy original characters, all set in a brilliantly imagined future world. A world where sex-workers can have three boobs (12-year old me would just like to say thanks for that eternal visual, Mr Verhoeven).

It was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time of its production, but it paid off with not just a huge take at the box office, but also a Oscar win for its visual effects and two more nominations. Alas, they were not for Ahnuld’s “acting”.

PS: We do not talk about the Total Recall remake around these parts.

  • The Martian

Oh hey, I’m mentioning that movie again! And yes, it’s because director Ridley Scott’s latest, about an astronaut (Matt Damon) who has to survive on the surface of Mars (now where have we heard that before?) after he accidentally gets’ left behind by his crew, is just really that damn fantastic. It boasts totally plausible science, an immensely likeable, often hilarious lead, jaw-dropping visuals and is just an incredibly good time at the movies. Here’s a choice quote from a recent review that sums it up nicely:

“…a wildly thrilling testament to how nothing but hard science braininess can overcome the most improbable odds in our celestial quest… The Martian is a tour de force return to form for the veteran filmmaker, waving the flag of human ingenuity and remarkable inventiveness at every turn. Refreshingly it’s also almost completely free of cynicism, as Mark Watney’s hope-filled yarn stands as a celebration of our ability to overcome any seemingly insurmountable with the right mindset. Oh and a roll of duct tape.”

Man, I wonder which devilishly handsome and clearly skilled writer penned that glowing testimonial?

Last Updated: October 1, 2015

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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