In mid-August, the most ambitious mission to Mars thus far landed on the red planet. The Curiosity Rover is on a two-year mission to look for signs of life, study its climate and geology, and collect data that might help future manned missions. To get in the spirit, we've combed through the cinematic history of Mars. It might not help you understand Curiosity's mission (try the Mars Science Laboratory for that), but it will surely help you see what the movies thought a trip to the planet might be like. (Spoiler alert: They got it way wrong.)
Flight to Mars 1951
Jump in the wayback machine for the sci-fi clunker Flight to Mars! A mission to Mars crashes but finds an advanced race of aliens, who naturally are bad guys. One of the dashing Earthmen romances a hot alien before punching out some bad guys and returning to Earth. It's all pretty goofy and low-rent, but, hey, at least it's vintage, right? Just think of it as the kind of thing Don Draper probably saw at an afternoon matinee the day before he left for Korea. It will add to the appeal.
A Cinematic History of Mars
Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964
This is an old one but a good one. Sure, it's a little slow by modern standards (okay, it's slow by pretty much any standard), but this tale of a man — and his monkey — marooned on Mars is charming in a quaint way. Much of the movie concerns our castaway figuring out how to survive. Eventually he makes friends with an alien and spends some time running from other aliens. Fun! Sound intriguing? It got the Criterion treatment in 2007, and, hey, if it's good enough for the film snobs at Criterion...
The Martian Chronicles 1980
At more than four hours long (it was a made-for-TV miniseries), this is the longest of our Martian movies. Is it worth that kind of time investment? Not even close. Based on the work of Ray Bradbury (who reportedly called it "just boring"), it chronicles the exploration of Mars, which is populated by psychic aliens who are dying out or are maybe already dead. There's a nuclear war on Earth, but you don't get to see it. You do get a lot of talky, half-baked philosophizing. The whole thing is kind of a confusing mess, and did we mention boooooring?
Total Recall 1990
Forget that brand-new remake: The original Total Recall is close enough to perfect that it's crazy to try to improve on it. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a Martian tourist who may be a spy, or who may be imagining the whole damn thing. There are three-breasted women, a mutant with a psychic twin embedded in his side, some great action set pieces and a brain-bending story. Director Paul Verhoeven is in top form. Get your ass to Mars!
Red Planet 2000
Red Planet takes a decent cast — Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Terence Stamp — and does basically nothing with it. Well, it tries to tell a story about Martian terraforming, a mission gone wrong and renegade robots, but it never really comes together in a compelling way, as its dismal 14 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes shows. Hey, cool special effects, though!
Mission to Mars 2000
Here we have an even better cast — headlined by Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise — failing to make an awesome Mars movie. Sure, it fares a bit better than Red Planet, with Rotten Tomatoes offering this one a 25 percent. Come on, though! That cast alone should automatically put you in the mid-30s, even if they're just reading the phone book. On the other hand, the French apparently liked it pretty well, with one French movie magazine calling it the fourth best film of the year 2000. (Of course, the French also love Jerry Lewis films, so...) And if you ever wanted to see Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins in a Brian DePalma-directed knockoff of 2001 (mission to Mars goes awry, they meet some aliens, Sinise flies off to be with them — all it's missing is a hostile computer), this is likely your best shot.
Stranded: Náufragos 2001
Following closely on the heels of the Mission to Mars/Red Planet Y2K doubl-header, the 2001 Spanish film Stranded puts Vincent Gallo and Maria de Medeiros (aka Bruce Willis's girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) at the head of a doomed mission to Mars, where they find (what else?) evidence of a superior species. Man, doesn't anyone ever go to Mars and just find microbes? Or a totally inferior alien race that only watches reality television? Seriously, people, let's mix things up.
Ghosts of Mars 2001
This is an unfairly maligned Martian film. Okay, it's nowhere near as good as John Carpenter's early work. It's honestly kind of dumb — but fun dumb. (And let's face it, Big Trouble in Little China isn't awesome because of its deep plot and intellectual approach to the source material.) Here we have a bunch of miners going nuts and acting all murderous and zombielike while a bunch of badasses (Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Jason Statham) investigate. And kick lots and lots of ass. Turn off your brain and enjoy the ride.
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Christmas on Mars 2008
Notorious freak band the Flaming Lips worked for years on this bizarre story of, well, Christmas on Mars. There's a Martian that becomes Santa, a special birth and lots of general weirdness. If you're a fan of the band, it's more or less a must-see. Everyone else...well, how high are you at the moment?
John Carter 2012
The final stop on our Martian journey thus far is actually pretty darn good. Sure, you're probably asking, "Wasn't that a huge flop?" It was, but that doesn't make it a bad movie. On the contrary, it's a lighthearted, family-friendly, cartoonish space opera that's a hell of a lot of fun. Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights fame) plays a Civil War era soldier who finds himself transported in Mars just in time to save the planet, and its princess, from the forces of evil. It's also adapted from the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame), so if the kids love it, you can pick up the books and get them reading.