No planet has proved more fascinating to science fiction than Mars, so we thought it high time to look at some of the prime examples of Martian culture. We’re blabbing about Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Total Recall, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, Doom, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, and The Martian. It’s out of this world! And on a different world. That world being Mars. Naturally. I’m sure you figured that out.

Humans have been mapping ideas and aspirations on to our next door planetary neighbour for about as long as we’ve had ideas and aspirations. Now that we’ve been able to orbit and land there, or at least our robot buddies have, we’ve dispelled the notion of canals and a thriving Martian society that was in vogue in sci-fi for a long time. We’re not going to completely ignore the Barsoom / John Carter-esque era, but for the most part we’re going to take a look at the more modern films that at least take a starting point of being a little closer to what we know about the big red rock. Well, apart from Doom. That’s bananas.

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Speaking of the more fanciful era of Mars, Robinson Crusoe on Mars presents us with a representative sample and also a rare instance of the elevator pitch surviving to become the title of the finished film.

The core attraction for me in this film was a screenshot of Adam West and a monkey, so it’s a bit of a downer to find out that the pre-Batman TV Show West wasn’t a big enough star to make it past the first ten minutes, as his Col. Dan McReady doesn’t survive a crash landing after their vessel takes emergency manoeuvres to avoid a rogue comet and makes an unintended trip to the surface.

All is not lost, as Paul Mantee’s Cmdr. Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper survives the crash, along with ship’s monkey Mona. Don’t ask. Like all good shipwreck survival stories, they must overcome the odds and find at least the first few levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, while recording infrequent logs describing his activities, he goes about trying to find sources of food and water, then starts exploring the surroundings, making a startling discovery that he is not alone on the Red Planet.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars raises far more questions than it answers, or even addresses in any form at all. Why is there a breathable atmosphere on Mars? Why do the the rocks produce oxygen when heated? What’s the deal with these randomly roaming fireballs? Why is there water on Mars? Why is there a race of human slaves on Mars? Who’s enslaving them? Why, when it seems very much like they have more advanced spacecraft, don’t they care that much about humans invading their territory? Why is there a plant on Mars that grows pepperoni sausages? Why are the pepperoni sausages safe if eaten raw but powerful hallucinogens when cooked? Why did they bring a monkey to Mars?

Now, as the film doesn’t seem to spend any time at all considering these questions, I don’t suppose it’s worth our time doing so either. This film very much takes advantage of the question marks over what conditions on Mars were at the time, which is perhaps its greatest failing for modern audiences. If we can politely put these concerns to the side for one minute, perhaps we can see the rationale for putting this in the Criterion Collection…

Nope, this is a boring pile of twaddle that’s aged poorly, and the content has been revisited to better effect in more recent films. Avoid, unless you’ve a thing for the kitsch 60’s adventure sci-fi that’s heavier on the fi than the sci.

Total Recall

I have decided that Total Recall is the best Christmas movie ever. Now, it’s got no reference to Christmas in it at all, granted, but if people are going around seriously claiming that Die Hard is a Christmas movie then I’m going to assume that the barrier for entrance for “Christmas film” is that “it’s a film”. Ergo, Best Christmas Film Equals Total Recall.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid, brother of charisma vacuum Dennis, appears to be a simple, mild mannered construction worker on Earth, but he’s becoming increasingly obsessed with going to Mars, much to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone)’s dismay. There is, however, another way to get the Martian experience – have the Rekall company implant a memory of a perfect two week holiday. Or for a small extra fee, combine it with a secret agent story, where you’re chased across Earth and Mars, fighting the bad guys, saving the planet and getting the girl.

Unfortunately the memory implant goes wrong, seeming to clash with an earlier mind-wipe. The Rekall staff panic, sedating the agitated Quaid, removing any reference to them in his mind and sticking him in a cab home. Puzzled as to how he got there, Quaid doesn’t have time to work anything out as he’s waylaid by a few of his construction worker mates who seem rather disappointed that he blabbed. He blabbed about Mars. The punishment for blabbing? Death.

Being Arnie, that’s not on the table, so after dispatching them with an efficiency that surprises himself he heads back home, only to find his wife part of the conspiracy too! Escaping a trap, now with Richter (Michael Ironside) and his squad of goons on his tail, Quaid is aided by an old Agency buddy, giving him a suitcase containing cash, a tool for removing a tracking device, a useful hologram generator and a video from himself. His past self’s advice? Get his ass to Mars, join up with the resistance and uncover his buried mental treasure to get enough dirt to screw the villainous Vilos Cohaagen, Governor of Mars (Ronny Cox) out of his job and preferably his life.

Quaid sets about doing just that, meeting up with an old flame that he can’t remember, Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and the mysterious psychic leader of the mutant rebellion on Mars, Kuato. Cohaagen’s goons are in hot pursuit, and while Quaid and Melina slip away, Kuato takes a bullet to the head. Well, one of his heads, at least. So it’s left to Quaid to action Kuato’s last agenda items, freeing Mars from Cohaagen’s dictatorship by starting the half million year old alien reactor Cohaagen’s been trying to keep secret, which will either destroy the planet or convert the planet’s ice and precious turbidium ore into a breathable atmosphere.

I love Total Recall, and have since first clapping eyes on it. It’s the perfect combination of Ah-nold’s over the top persona, Paul Verhoeven’s capacity for envelope-pushing and his (or perhaps his second unit’s) imaginative action set-pieces and stuntwork. In this era of PG-13 friendly action, arguable it stands out even more today than it did on its release, and it’s certainly still a very refreshing change of pace from, well, nearly everything that’s not Deadpool.

It’s essentially peak Arnie action, but this time it’s married to a plot that’s actually more than something lazily scrawled on a napkin. While it’s at best very, very loosely inspired by the Phillip K. Dick short story, it’s served to produce an engaging story with enough nuanced to be argued both ways as to whether this is a deranged fantasy of Quaid’s or not. Of course, suggesting it isn’t means placing a lot of trust in the mechanical engineering abilities of half million year old aliens, but if you want to take it on face value you certainly can. However, if you want to look at this through Dick’s recurring questions of what exactly makes up our identity, then you can find this to be an unusually intelligently plotted action film hidden under the camouflaging excess, perhaps rivalled only by Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.

Mention must be made of the performances – while Arnie is, to an extent, Arnie as usual, it’s as close as he’s come to a character with actual nuance, but the supporting antagonists put this over the top, with Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside both being lovably loathsome, and Sharon Stone also given a decent range of

The effects, for the most part, hold up as well as the rest of the film – there’s a few compositing colour artefacts that seem to have been impervious to the HD clean-up, but the scope of the worldbuilding shots still look pretty good. As for Rob Bottin’s effects, including his bulgy-eyed head models, well, they’re pretty much iconic. They still look pretty effective today, although if I say “and as convincing” that’s a bit more of a backhanded compliment, but they still bring joy to my heart.

I don’t know if it’s right to call this the thinking person’s action film, but there’s certainly more here for the thinking person than any of Arnie’s other films. Indeed, there’s more here for any person, regardless of how much they want to think about their films.

For my money the best Hollywood action film to come out of the nineties, and well worth watching today.

Mission to Mars

Mission commander Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) is all geared up to go on the first manned mission to Mars, but has to withdraw after his wife develops a terminal illness. Turns out he’s dodged a bullet, as the replacement crew that go there are almost wiped out by a mysterious force when investigating a possible source of water in Cydonia. When the dust settles, only Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) has survived, and it appears very much like that “face on Mars” structure was debunked in error.

With the destruction of communications equipment leaving mission control in the dark, a new rescue mission is put together to investigate. Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) is commanding, but requests that McConnell (Gary Sinise) be added to the team due to his experience and competence. Rounding out the crew are loosely defined mission specialists Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen) and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell).

They have their own crisis on reaching Mars, as a micrometeorite shower leads to an explosion in their fuel tanks, forcing them to take a dangerous space excursion over to a remote resupply module and use that as a makeshift lander,a journey that claims Blake’s life, and seemingly provided direct inspiration for Gravity.

After reuniting with an understandably distressed Graham, they set to figuring out what’s the deal with this big ol’ face structure and why it’s transmitting a representation of the human genome, leading to a revelation about the origin of life on Earth that has been pulled entirely out of the film’s ass with no set up whatsoever, leading audiences both then and now to make a kind of pffft noise and promptly regret wasting two hours on it before forgetting it forever.

On viewing this, the greatest disappointment came from largely forgetting after ten minutes that this was a De Palma film. After recently revisiting Mission Impossible, I was surprised to see how much of his style he could impart onto major, big budget outings, and was hoping for similar here. However with the exception of one very impressive tracking shot through the crew quarters, there’s not much of his style on display. You could even argue that the shot of which I speak wasn’t much more than an imitation of Kubrick’s in 2001. The rest of the film is largely bereft of any such wizardry.

That’s not to say it’s a bad looking film. It’s always framed well, and the location for the film’s climax is a great example of a simple idea stunningly executed. But it seems the bulk of the budget for visual interestingnicity (a perfectly cromulent work, thankyousoverymuch) has gone to the CG department, and I wouldn’t say they’ve done badly, but time has rendered their work unremarkable.

It’s then largely left to the cast to carry the film with their performances, and looking at the roster you’d think that wouldn’t present a problem. Robbins, Cheadle, and Sinise should be more than capable of the task between them, but for some reason there’s no chemistry between any of them, with a bunch of stiff, almost wooden performances that’s deeply puzzling to me.

All of them are usually incapable of a poor performance even in a garbage role, and Cheadle by himself should have enough charisma to carry it by himself. For all of them to be so… blank, smacks of a deliberate decision from De Palma, perhaps to better reflect the undoubted professionalism and calm under fire you’d need to be on a NASA mission of this magnitude. I’d happy swap this for some more emotion on display throughout the film, rather than in very infrequent thirty second stretches, particularly in the final reels which isn’t much more than Sinise blandly narrating a dated CG showreel of alien holiday snaps.

We’re not big believers in metacritic scores around here, and Mission to Mars is a case in point. A score of 34 / 100 isn’t fair in the slightest, but at the same time, if my preferred rating scheme of watch it fo’ shizzle / maybe watch it / don’t bother, it’s very firmly in the don’t bother category. It’s one of the more slickly produced films in there, but unfortunately it’s just too boring to give it even a guarded recommendation to sci-fi or De Palma fans.

Red Planet

Space year two thousand’s other duelling Mars movie, Red Planet starts with Carrie-Anne Moss’ Mission Commander Bowman narrating the setup for the movie in the first of many of its terrible attempts at exposition. Earth’s natural resources have been depleted, and so an effort was undertaken to terraform Mars by seeding it with oxygen producing algae. However the haven’t been observing the results they’d expected, so a manned mission is sent to work out what happened.

A group of specialists are assembled, however as just about the only time their professions are referred to is in Moss’ monologue, you’ll forgive me if I don’t relay them to you. The exception to this is mechanical systems engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer), who’s duties also extend to shepherding their robotic explorer-bot, reprogrammed from an deadly attack drone. Can’t see that doing wrong at any point, no sir.

Another orbital mishap, this time a solar flare frying the ship’s circuits, sees Gallagher and the rest of the team abandon the mothership and make a sub-optimal landing on Mars, while Bowman tries desperately to repair the vessel. The crash claims the life of Terence Stamp’s Chantilas, depriving the crew of much needed cod-philosophical soundbites.

They head off in the rough direction of a habitation module sent in advance, only to find it destroyed, and the algae that should be covering the planet missing. It doesn’t seem like they’ll have enough oxygen to figure out these mysteries, but it turns out that the atmosphere is just about breathable. Which solves one problem, although another presents itself when Killbot3000 returns to its old programming and starts waging a guerrilla war against them.

The surviving crew of Gallager, Tom Sizemore’s Burchenal, Benjamin Bratt’s Santen, and Simon Baker’s Pettengil attempt to get back in contact with Bowman, and ultimately get off the surface, while avoiding their killer robo-pet and the inexplicable solution to their missing algae / destroyed habitat in the shape of some all devouring, oxygen secreting insect things that the film pulls directly from its ass.

At the very least, Red Planet doesn’t take itself as seriously as Mission to Mars did, which makes it more fun by a very marginal amount, and Kilmer, Sizemore and Moss at the very least show some charisma together. The other actors might as well not be there, through little fault of their own.

This script is, to be polite, dreadful, with chunks of dialogue that do not sound like something humans would be able to conceive of. Perhaps it was written by Martians, who I assume are more tolerant about just having torrents of expositional dialogue issue forth in lieu of any more organic way of introducing it.

Red Planet does present a few rather more sensible questions as opposed to Mission to Mars, or heaven forfend Robinson Crusoe on Mars regarding the fate of the terraforming effort, unfortunately there’s apparently no confidence that it would be enough to take the audience along for the ride hence the silly diversion with the murder-bot.

To be fair, that’s probably accurate, as “magic bug from literally nowhere” is a pretty poor answer, and frankly not all that much further along the hard sci-fi spectrum than the plants that grow pepperoni sausages.

It’s effects work was pretty decent as of sixteen years ago and I think hold up reasonably well, but so much of it is focused on that damned robot that it’s of little interest.

Often with the concurrently(ish) released, similar subject matter coincidences one is clearly better than the other – in this case it’s very much a no score draw with Mission to Mars. Red Planet perhaps disappoints a little less, but only because it seemed much less promising than a De Palma film, and frankly both are rather dull and avoidable.

Doom

Of course, based on the iconic video game of the same name, although perhaps stylistically closest to the previous year’s Doom 3. As often mentioned videogame adaptations don’t have the strongest track record, and Doom did not help this well deserved reputation.

The military-corporate colossus UAC has set up a base on Mars, involved in some top secret research when things go south. They call in a squad of elite space marines to investigate why they’ve lost contact with the deepest, darkest, most top secret lab. The group, headed by Gunnery Sgt. Asher “Sarge” Mahonin (Dwayne “Flex Kavana” Johnson) and Staff Sgt. John “Reaper” Grimm (Karl Urban) jump through the mysterious teleportation portal to Mars, seemingly left by an old Martian civilisation, and meet up with Grimm’s sister Samantha, Rosamund Pike, who holds a Doctorate in All Science Required For The Film. Something like a major in genetics, a minor in zeno-archeaology.

Dr. Samantha tells them, after a bit of arm-twisting, what the UAC bods have discovered – the Martians were very much like us, down to the genetic level, with one exception – they added in another gene pair. This small addition resulted, seemingly, with a 50/50 chance of giving you super-powers or turning into a slavering bloodthirsty mutants. Apparently enough of them liked their odds on the coin toss enough to wipe themselves out, so of course the first thing our best and brightest minds think to do it replicate this, leading to the current situation.

Cue the science team turning into monstrosities and running amok, infecting other scientists and the other one-dimensional team members and so on in something closer to a zombie film scenario rather than the game’s specific “actual demons from actual hell” remit – not, really, that this makes a blind bit of difference, and on a theoretical level at least there being a story behind these monsters deeper that “the devil did it” should make for a more interesting narrative. In theory.

The actuality of Doom is rather different, of course. As with many terrible films, and Doom is a terrible films, there’s a draft or at least a pitch of this that had potential. It very much wants to be Doom flavoured Aliens, which is a laudable aim, but one that rather exceeds the capabilities of, well, everyone involved, really.

There’s not much point criticising the supporting actors, who while excruciating, aren’t really given anything to work with, but I’d have hoped for more from the usually charismatic Johnson and the certainly much better than this, at least these days, Urban, who together have close to zero chemistry. However it’s the dumb as a box of rocks writing, vastly sub-par action and effects work that sinks this vessel.

It’s interesting to read that the producer went for a balance between CG and practical, prosthetic effects, for much the same reasons that we are occasionally called upon to critique CG heavy works – they don’t look believable. There is, however, a flip side to the argument that we’ve not had to use in our podcasts so far, and that is that while I have no trouble believing that the prosthetics used in_Doom_ are real, physical items, I can’t believe how amateurish, low budget and stupid they look.

As a result, the action scenes are ruined before they get started. While the dancers inside the zeno-suits in Aliens lent credibility to the monster’s movements, somehow Doug Jones detracts it in this film, which already suffered from character design of the “melted candle” school of thought. And, while the first person perspective sequence is perhaps the only original element in here, it’s way too slow to feel anything like the game – of course if it was the multiplex would have been awash with vomit, so I suppose we should thank it for merely being dull, rather than inducing motion sickness. The trick was recently spun out by Hardcore Henry into a full motion sickness picture with similar quality results.

I remembered this film as being absolutely terrible, however on re-evaluation I’d say this was merely terrible. There’s at least a few interesting points, mainly in seeing Rosamund Pike slumming it, and Dexter Fletcher’s hilariously bad CG robo-wheelchair. But perhaps the best moments come from Johnson’s heel turn in the final reel, as he issues some terrible orders with a steel that would see him be a really effective antagonist in a film, should he ever decide to go that way. Unfortunately after two minutes of this it devolves into a horrible CG fight that looks much worse than the game ever did.

I take it back. Doom is absolutely terrible. Avoid.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

First, a confession. We had a few films on our initial coverage the list that were Mars related, but not quite Mars-ey enough – something like Capricorn One, which is an excellent film but fits more into a Conspiracy episode than a Mars one. Nonetheless, 2001’s anime feature of the series Cowboy Bebob, variously subtitled as The Movie or Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, remained due to petitioning by me, because I love Cowboy Bebop, although it’s set on a Mars so distinct from the Red planet we know and tolerate that by the rationale mentioned earlier it ought not to be part of this episode. But it is. Consider it payback for some of the rather less enjoyable films we’ve spoken about, even if this Mars might as well be Earth, for all the difference there is in this fully terraformed, urbanised Mars that looks like a fusion of New York and Morocco.

For the uninitiated, Spike Siegel is a spacegoing hitman turned bounty hunter, the rather laid-back captain of the good ship _Bebop. He’s joined by Jet Black, a former space-cop, Faye Valentine, a space-con artist, “Ed”, a space-hacker girl-boy thing, and Ein, an intelligent, genetically engineered, implausibly cute space-corgi.

The TV series fleshes out these characters quite a bit, and deals quite a bit with existential emotions that’s perhaps a bit outside of what you might be expecting from a cartoon, but for the most part this film dives straight into the narrative and does a decent job of letting you pick up on what’s needed of the characterisation without reference to the series.

The narrative concerns a terrorist threat made to the good people of Mars, after an explosion spreading an entirely new and unknown pathogen leaves hundreds dead. The Mars Government offers a tremendous bounty for the capture of these terrorists, and serendipitously Faye has a lead in the form of a hacker who eventually leads them to the leader, Vincent Volaju.

He’s a ex-special forces bod, marked down as dead after the last war but who’d actually undergone a secret, presumably illegal trial of a vaccine – the only survivor of a test of the pathogen he’s now using, partially as revenge, partially as a deranged vision of helping humanity after the vaccine left him unable to tell dreams and reality apart. Tracking him down does not go well for Faye.

Meanwhile, Spike and Jet are chasing another angle, the exploding truck belonging to a pharma company that, on probing, has a suspiciously high level of security, headed by Elektra Ovirowa, who’s also on the trail of Vincent as a matter of urgency, what with them having created the pathogen and would very much rather that didn’t become a matter of public knowledge, which would probably happen if Vincent executes his plan to viro-bomb the the Halloween parade.

So, naturally, it’s up to Spike and co, eventually aided by Elektra once she figures out they’re on roughly the same team, to stop this, which also uncovers the past relationship between Elektra and Vincent.

So, as mentioned at the top, I love Cowboy Bebop, which in attitude at least I can best describe as the space western that Firefly very much wishes it was. It’s a gorgeous looking film, with lovely, fluid animation of the action sequences. The music, of course, deserves special mention – the soundtrack is one of the elements that set the series apart from its peers, and it’s fusion of jazz, opera, country and western and rock is distinctive and enjoyable.

It’s very well paced, with a great mix of character moments and plot progression mixed in with the action, and it’s deftly written, with some great lines for most of the characters – only Vincent comes across as a touch too generic, even by director ShinichirĊ Watanabe’s own admission.

Not that this hinders my enjoyment any, as it’s a tremendously fun, entertaining movie that should be enjoyed by anyone, and I heartily recommend that y’all do so.

The Martian

Ridley Scott’s movie sees Matt Damon’s Mark Whatney stranded on Mars, after a fierce storm causes the first manned mission to Mars to scrub and take off early. Unfortunately an unplanned flying radar dish – Whatney interface scenario knocks him out his crewmates are unable to find him, do they’re forced to leave without him.

So, with the rest of the universe thinking him dead, Whatney must find a way initially to survive firstly the mild impaling he took, then a longer term solution for the whole “hostile, barren planet” thing. The parallels with Robinson Crusoe on Mars are obvious, although there’s no monkey, so this is a clearly an inferior film.

Sausage-plants aside, there’s still the same need to fulfil the basics – food, oxygen, and contacting Earth to ask for a lift home, the details of which are perhaps best left for those interested to discover. Of course, once NASA know he’s alive they do their best to resupply him and bring him home, which has its own set of challenges, which again are best left uncovered to those who haven’t yet seen it.

Now, the selling point of the book on which this is based, and therefore the film, is that it’s at least on nodding terms with scientific accuracy, or at the very least it’s closer to “hard” sci-fi than anything else that we’ve spoken about on the rest of this podcast. But accuracy isn’t really the primary concern.

It’s about human ingenuity it the face of adversity, and the human spirit sustaining against the odds. This mainly shows up in Whatney’s sense of humour, which you’ll either dig or not.

Which is a wider criticism of both the film and the book, as while I find the dialogue entertaining, it’s not exactly “good”. Better, though, are the visuals, which look amazing, both in the CG landscapes and the design of the habitation modules and other bits of NASA kit.

While it’s mainly the Matt Damon show, and his charisma more than carries the day, there’s also amiable support from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Pena. Only NASA chief Jeff Daniels puzzles with what appears to be a purposefully stiff performance, but the rest of the support is likeable.

By most conventional metrics, The Martian is the best film we’ve covered in this little sojorn, so by all means seek it out.


Well, that’s enough outer space shenanigans for now. Feel free to let us know if we’ve not covered your favourites! Unless your favourite is Ghosts of Mars, in which case seek immediate medical attention.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at podcast@fudsonfilm.com. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the tenth with a look at Shutter Island and Jacob’s Ladder, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.