Elon Musk and David Bowie was not the first people to imagine life on on the cold red planet, in fact movies about mars are a mainstay of popular culture and Hollywood storytelling.
Mars is 115 miles away from planet Earth and has an average temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike all other planets in the solar system, for some reason it has attracted the most interest as the one planet that harbors alien life. You hear about “Martians” a thousand times before anyone ever mentions “Venusians” or “Jupiterians.”
Mars is also a preoccupation for us earthlings because despite the cold temperatures, it’s the only somewhat livable planet close enough for colonization. The following films attempt to explain our collective cinematic understanding of Mars.
Here are the best Mars movies ever, arranged in chronological order.
Old Mars Movies
Intentionally or not, the word “Red” in the title has a dual meaning—first it refers to Mars, but it also refers to communism, as this film was made during the height of the Cold War. Peter Graves stars as an astronomer who receives images from Mars that suggests not only is it inhabited—it’s basically a utopia where no one is hungry and war doesn’t exist. All of planet Earth, including the USA and Soviet Union, gets whipped up into a Christian revolution that finally brings Mars-like tranquility to our planet.
For a deep retro experience, the 1950s sci-fi movie Conquest of Space is a decent Mars movie with amusing acting and creative set design. Although by modern standards, the special effects of this film might seem unremarkable, many film critics regard it as a masterpiece of visual storytelling within its historical context and some believe the film was an inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The plot involves five astronauts and their personal inter-battles as they leave Earth for Mars.
Filmed in “Cinemagic”—a process that somehow fuses drawn backgrounds and humans in the foreground into one big reddish visual mess—this film tells the story of a lone survivor of a Martian expedition who was so rattled by what happened that she’s lost all memory of the event. The film’s most notable feature is the giant 40-foot monster, which became known as the “rat bat spider crab” and was actually a 15-inch marionette.
Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel about a man stranded on a desert island is given a modern update in this tale of an astronaut (Paul Mantee), who finds himself stuck on Mars with no food, water, or oxygen and only a pet monkey named Mona as a companion. According to Film Fanatic, the astronaut “struggles to survive while aching for humanoid contact — which he finally achieves when he encounters a runaway alien slave (Victor Lundin) he dubs ‘Friday’.” The film’s poster advertised, “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!”
In this remake of the classic 1953 sci-fi thriller, a boy is the only resident in a small town who realizes that the whole place is being taken over by aliens who seek to brainwash everyone. Much of the tension arises from the fact that no one believes the boy. Mondo Bizarro Cinema gave the movie a mixed review, mostly questioning the choice of Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as director: “Yeah, this film is a little odd. On one hand, you have a quirky, family film about aliens and a kid. On the other hand, you have scary-looking aliens, soldiers being shot to death and shuttles blowing up. Hmm, maybe you shouldn’t hire Tobe Hooper to do your family film after all!”
In perhaps his finest film performance, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as an earthling who is tormented by persistent dreams of life on Mars. He has no idea whether the dreams are real or not, but when a new computer chip enables people to “travel” long distances in their minds, he leaps at the chance—and isn’t exactly happy to realize that his nightmares were based on prior real-life traumas. Paul Verhoeven directed this thriller that is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story.
Jack Nicholson stars in dual roles as the US president and a smarmy Las Vegas casino owner in this comedic story of a full-scale invasion from Mars for which earthlings are woefully unprepared. SF Gate called it a “messy science fiction comedy” that “blows most of its inspired moments because of its mean-spirited, deafening siege mentality, which turns rich promise into a tiresome parade of half-baked skits. Hilarity never seemed so tedious.”
In this sequel to 1995’s Species, an astronaut becomes infected with Martian DNA during a trip to Mars, then returns to earth as a murderous monster. Film Vault attempted to discern the film’s message: “According to this movie, we shouldn’t send astronauts to Mars, because apparently they’ll be infected with alien DNA, come home, have dimly-lit sex with lots of large-breasted women, impregnate them, and then produce alien offspring that burst forth from the poor women’s stomachs with the force of a massive, right-wing conspiracy.” Another sequel, Species III, was released in 2004.
New Mars Movies
After a first manned mission to Mars turns into a disastrous failure when the spaceship collided with an unexpected structure, astronauts launch a mission to investigate what happened and to rescue any survivors. The Martian landscape was created using a gigantic sand pit near Vancouver, and filmmakers used thousands of gallons of red paint to color the sand. Writing for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell said, “There doesn’t seem to be an original moment in the entire movie…each minute seems to last an additional 30 seconds. In space no one can hear you snore.”
Realizing that planet Earth has been devastated and that the only way for its still-living inhabitants to survive is a quick relocation to Mars, a team of astronauts and their robotic dog travel to the Red Planet—with horrifically bad consequences. A reviewer for the BBC was bored by the entire film: “it would be more emotionally involving to watch a spin cycle on your washing machine….Otherwise, the only thing that ‘Red Planet’ succeeds in doing is being the one film in recent memory that you actually forget while you are in the cinema.”
Set in the year 2176, this John Carpenter film involves a police unit on Mars being sent to a remote mining post on the planet to arrest a violent criminal, who is played by the rapper Ice Cube. After the film’s release, Ice Cube publicly stated this was the worst film he’d ever appeared in and that John Carpenter let everyone down with shoddy, 1970s-style special effects. The film received almost universally negative reviews, with the Austin Chronicle calling it “a muddled, derivative disaster straight on through.”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as the leader of a team of “Space Marines” who are tasked with investigating what went wrong at a remote research station on Mars, only to find themselves being attacked by genetically modified Martians who are superior to humans in every way. Dismissing the film as being “like some kid came over and is using your computer and won’t let you play,” Roger Ebert describes the villainous super-Martians as being involved with “chasing humans, grabbing them, smashing them, eviscerating and disemboweling them, pulling them through grates, and in general doing anything that can take place obscurely in shadows and not require a lot of special effects.”
The only documentary on this list, Roving Mars brings back state-of-the-art actual footage from the Red Planet as captured by two high-tech land rovers, which is seamlessly integrated with computer-generated animation to recreate the experience of actually being on Mars. The film runs just under 40 minutes and was screened exclusively at IMAX theaters. A review in Georgia Straight suggests that the filmmakers may have made a hugely significant discovery: “the rovers found dry lake beds and traces of ice within the rocks—which suggests that life may or may not have once existed on Mars.”
Rock band Flaming Lips spent seven years working on this surreal story about an Army Major who is stranded on a mostly abandoned Martian colony and tries to whip up morale among the troops by hosting a Christmas pageant. Mondo Bizarro Cinema called the movie “a bad, low-budget version of 2001: A Space Odyssey” while noting that the sole compelling scene involves a dream sequence where people have vaginas instead of heads.
The title refers to the name of a Confederate soldier from Virginia who fought in the Civil War, only to find himself in modern times being transported to “Barsoom,” which for some reason the filmmakers decided is an alternate name for the planet Mars. John Carter is then forced to fight off 12-foot barbarians in order to rescue an imperiled human princess. Rolling Stone noted that “It’s fun to watch JC find that the atmosphere on Mars allows him to leap around like a human shot put. And though it’s shameless to give JC a mutt as a protector, Woola – the toothy, 10-legged lizard dog – is a beauty of a beast.”
A lone astronaut finds himself in the terrifying position of being stuck on Mars with his team assuming him dead and no way to make contact with anyone. All Things Movies writes, “The Martian is incredible….easily one of the best films of the year….Ridley Scott has managed to take a simple story of a man thought lost in space and turn it into a heroic adventure of survival, drama and emotion.”
A team of scientists on the International Space station are overjoyed to find evidence of life on Mars—that is, until they realize that this Martian life form seeks to devour them. Assholes Watching Movies writes, “Their mission is to probe the samples that arrive, and before long they’ve found the first incontrovertible evidence of life on Mars, which is cool for about 10 seconds before it starts trying to eat them.”
Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is sent to Mars in attempt to figure out who’s been sending cosmic pulses that are destroying life on Earth. As SF Examiner explains, “Roy’s secret mission is to go to Mars and send a message to his father. But, of course, Roy realizes he must continue to Neptune and see what’s what….The movie ultimately tells the story of Roy and his father, both attempting to reconcile aloneness and togetherness, identity and family, and whether there’s intelligent life in the universe.”