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Mars: a planet that has fascinated humans for millennia. Shining blood red in the sky, our species has been captivated by the fourth planet from the sun for centuries.
With the arrival of the space age, we realized that Mars wasn't harboring sentient, human-like aliens but scientists continue to search for signs of present or ancient life (likely microbial life) on the Red Planet. While Mars probes and landers have yet to find extraterrestrial beings, the planet continues to inspire countless works of science fiction.
Here are some of the most beloved Mars movies over the decades, to encourage you to keep exploring:
The 1910 movie is one of the more obscure inventions by the Edison Manufacturing Company (yes, the company named after famed creator Thomas Edison).
In the film, a professor discovers that combining two powders creates a reverse gravity that allows objects to float freely, independent of the laws of gravity. He makes a powder demonstration and accidentally spills some, sending him on a trip to Mars.
It's not a Mars surface that's very realistic by today's standards (for example, he goes into a forest), but it's still an entertaining early look at Red Planet fiction. You can watch the 4-minute film here at Archive.org. A Danish film of the same name was released in 1918.
This Soviet silent film was based on an Alexei Tolstoy novel by the same name. Most of the story focuses on how people lived in the Soviet Union at the time, but what's especially intriguing in the film is the adventures of Los, a young man who goes to Mars.
Los travels to the Red Planet on a rocket ship and convinces the locals to rebel against their leaders. Interestingly, Queen Aelita on Mars already did know of Los, because she saw him through a telescope and was madly in love with him.
Aelita: The Queen of Mars from the year 1924.
Mars isn't exactly the star of Just Imagine, but it's still amusing because the film depicts what the filmmakers thought New York City would look like in the future in the year 1980. (Too bad those elevated roads still aren't a thing.)
The Red Planet comes up towards the end of the film, when a rocket sends a crew to Mars. There, the crew meets up with Queen Looloo and King Loko, and attends a Martian opera complete with Martian orangutans.
Just Imagine from the year 1930.
Some say that Rocketship X-M is the first space film after the Second World War. While we can't say with accuracy how certain that may be, the film still made the list because, well, it's a Mars film.
In the film, a crew planning to head to the moon accidentally lands on Mars through a colossal navigation error. Naturally, the crew isn't alone when they land on the Red Planet; they encounter a sharply reduced Martian civilization dealing with the after-effects of atomic war, a real worry of the era. The trip back to Earth doesn't go very well, either, but the message of the film is that exploration will continue regardless of the obstacles.
Rocketship X-M from the year 1950.
Legend says The Angry Red Planet was produced in just over a week (and with a tight production budget) and the resulting film is ... interesting.
In the film, the first crewed mission returns to Earth from Mars with only two of the original four astronauts surviving. The astronauts had a terrible time on the surface, we learn, which includes being attacked by the fauna on the surface as well as some spider-like creatures.
The Martians are so unimpressed by Earthlings that they ultimately threaten catastrophic consequences if any people from our planet deign to return. If nothing else, the special effects in this movie are amusing, combining live-action sequences with hand-drawn animations.
The Angry Red Planet from the year 1960.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars takes the classic Daniel Defoe book to Mars, with U.S. Navy commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) forced to the surface in a one-person lifeboat after their spaceship has a bad encounter with a meteoroid.
Like the classic Robinson Crusoe, Draper must live off the land and battle hallucinations, aliens and other dangers while waiting on a rescue from Earth.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars from the year 1964.
The original Total Recall (1990) — somewhat based on a short story by Philip K. Dick – explored the dangers of brain implants, a technology that is still barely yet in its infancy today.
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) voluntarily submits to memory implants and, through a complicated series of plot twists, finds himself advised to get your ass to Mars to figure out an espionage ring.
The movie's special effects were noteworthy for the 1990s and are still fun to watch today. The movie was subsequently remade in 2012, starring Colin Farrell. The sequel didn't get a lot of critical acclaim, but still has good acting and action sequences to move the story along. Unfortunately for Mars fans, though, Farrell's dystopian adventures remain on Earth.
Total Recall from the year 1990.
Total Recall from the year 2012.
RocketMan is a sci-fi comedy that shows viewers the consequences of trying to fix a problem in a crewed Mars mission, where one problem quickly leads to other issues.
In the film, NASA discovers a problem with the computer navigation software to get its spacecraft to Mars. Through a series of unfortunate events, their commanding astronaut gets a skull fracture and they decide to seek a replacement astronaut, Fred Z. Randall (Harland Williams).
Randall is a little frightened of going but is convinced to make the trip (although maybe he should have stayed home.) His hibernation chamber malfunctions, he eats most of the crew's food and his crew faces a sandstorm on the surface. But, being a Disney film, all turns out relatively well for Randall and his crew.
RocketMan from the year 1997.
In Mission to Mars, a crewed mission to Mars runs into some serious trouble and American astronaut Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) races to the rescue along with a brave crew of other astronauts.
To say the least, the rescue mission doesn't go as planned. Some people get lost along the way and McConnell finds himself confronted with a strange structure on the surface, one that he feels he must explore to better understand the nature of Mars, Earth and the universe.
Space history geeks should watch for references to the infamous Face on Mars, a feature in Cydonia that appeared to look like a face. It is actually due to shadows, but conspiracy theorists still think otherwise.
Mission to Mars from the year 2000.
Coming out the same year as Mission to Mars, Red Planet didn't fare nearly as well; it bombed at the box office and received scathing reviews.
This movie follows the fate of Earth in the year 2056, when pollution and a high population force policy-makers to begin terraforming the planet using algae transported from Mars.
Naturally, the algae begin to fail, and a crew led by Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) goes to the Red Planet to begin an investigation. The story quickly devolves into a series of gruesome crew deaths and injuries, a robot that goes crazy, and (of course) nasty Martian insects looking to repel any invaders.
The film even features a cameo appearance from the NASA Pathfinder rover, which is used to construct a radio.
Red Planet from the year 2000.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, Why Am I Taller?, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace
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