Curse of the Red Planet: Why audiences don't want to go to Mars
Opening this week is the astro-budgeted John Carter, a sci-fi fantasy about a boringly-named but incredibly buff Earthman mysteriously transported to Mars, where he must fight all manner of deadly special effects to ensure the survival of an alien race. Advance word on the film has been less than stellar, and all the signs point to a likely disappointing box office. It's no wonder: if history has taught us anything, it's that if you want your movie to be a success, steer well clear of the fourth rock from the sun.
When science fiction films became all the rage in the 1950s, nothing got moviegoers' juices flowing more than an unwelcome alien visitor to Earth. 1953 saw both War Of The Worlds and Invaders From Mars rake in megabucks from their tales of marauding Martians, despite the limited special effects of the time meaning that the little green men went largely unseen on screen.
Those restrictions placed on filmmakers by technology meant that very few films were actually set on Mars until effects technicians gained the tools – and the cash – to realise an alien landscape. An early effort had a go anyway, and set the standard for all Mars-based atrocities to live down to. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964) is as abysmal as it sounds, and currently rides high on the IMDb's 100 worst films of all time.
Perhaps because of this festive flop, Mars went largely unexplored by cinema in the following decades. It wasn't until 1990, when Arnold Schwarzenegger went there to take a vacation from himself in Total Recall, that a Mars-based film did spectacular business. It was more thanks to Arnie's planet-sized appeal at the time than any successful depiction of the Martian landscape though, and the film's success proved to be an isolated incident in the sad history of Mars movies.
In the late 90s, science fiction cinema was affected by two defining events: NASA's Pathfinder probe sent back astonishing pictures of the red planet, and CGI became cheaper and more widely used in Hollywood. As a result, the first decade of the 21st century saw lovely-looking but tragically substance-lacking Mars-based flop after flop launched at audiences. 2000's Mission To Mars and Red Planet went head-to-head in a battle for ignominy (both bombed spectacularly), John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars (2001) was a disaster despite the dynamite pairing of Jason Statham and Ice Cube, and the less said about the 2005 Mars-set movie version of popular shoot-em-up Doom the better.
Mission To Mars: Sorry chaps, it was kind of a wasted journey.
Whatever it is that's cursing these films is a mystery deeper than Valles Marineris, Mars' 7km-deep canyon. The visual depictions of our celestial neighbour aren't the problem, it's just that nobody's managed to land a decent plot on the surface yet. Science fiction films are still going strong, and critical successes like 2009's Moon prove that it's still possible to make a great movie based on a nearby rock. But when Robert Zemeckis produces a Mars-related animated film that loses $136 million, as Mars Needs Moms did, it's time to start avoiding the big red one. Hollywood has started to take note: John Carter dropped its "Of Mars" suffix before release and this year's Colin Farrell-starring Total Recall remake won't feature Mars at all, despite the success of its predecessor.
It'll take a brave team to spend millions on any further Martian adventures, but you can bet that if one of them hits paydirt, they'll all be queuing up to follow suit. Until then, we can only recommend that studios and audiences alike continue to bar Mars.