Has There Ever Been a Good Movie About Mars?

There’s never been a great movie about Mars. The latest, a Matt Damon vehicle called “The Martian,” will rocket into theaters on October 2. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

The Martian is not the first cinematic exploration of the fourth rock from the sun. Earth's filmmakers have been making hay of the red planet since at least 1910, when Thomas Edison produced the four-minute silent A Trip to Mars (possibly inspired by George Méliès's 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon). The plot: A professor fools around with magic powder that allows him to reverse gravity. He ascends to Mars, where he escapes some menacing trees, winds up inside a droplet and lands on the hand of a giant Martian who exhales and blows him back to Earth.

Another professor—this one an astronomer evocatively named Professor Planetaros—figures prominently in the 1918 Danish space opera Himmelskibet (variously known as A Trip to Mars and 400 Million Miles From Earth). And let's not forget the Soviet epic Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), a bit of Bolshevik agitprop involving telepathy, revolutionaries and a proletariat uprising. The ruler of Mars is named Tuskub, and the Radiant Energy Tower Guardian goes by Gol.

Since then, dozens of movies have touched on Mars in some form, from the good (1990's Total Recall) to the bad (2012's Total Recall) and the ugly (1954's Devil Girl From Mars).

NASA's director of planetary science, James Green, told me he loves movies, especially space movies, so I decided to run some Mars-centric titles by him and see where he thinks they rank in the Mars movie canon.

Red Planet (2000)

Synopsis: It's 2050 and Earth is just about spent due to ecological disaster. There's hope we can begin a new civilization on Mars, but that plan goes awry. Jay Carr wrote in The Boston Globe, "Red Planet is a giant roach motel of a movie, where actors check in, but don't check out."

Green says that the film is "so unrealistic, it just doesn't cut it."

Mission to Mars (2000)

Synopsis: The U.S. sends its first manned mission to Mars. And guess what? Disaster strikes! A New York Times essayist branded it "yet another paean to product placement: 'The Earthship is saved by gravity-free Dr Pepper, and human DNA turns out to be composed of M&M's.'" The critic protested, claiming that he was "60 percent Goobers and 40 percent Raisinets.''

Green insisted the picture, which came out earlier the same year as Red Planet, is "too far out." But he did enjoy it. "This one has tremendous excitement," he says. "It's a grabber of a story!"

Total Recall (1990)

Synopsis: Based on a 1966 Philip K. Dick short story ("We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Paul Verhoeven's Martian mind-fuck centers on a futuristic construction worker who realizes that his entire life is just an implanted memory. The upside: He finds out he's actually a secret agent who can kick (literally, there's a lot of kicking in this movie) some serious mutant butt. The downside: Smokin' Sharon Stone in her early-'90s prime is not really his loving wife but an agent sent by the evil governor of the Mars colony to kill him. Once he discovers his true identity, he travels to Mars to find out why his mind was erased, as one is wont to do in these situations.

What does Green think of it? "Love it!" Was the movie accurate? "No! There is no one thing that can create a breathable atmosphere on Mars, like there was in Total Recall. On top of that, there are no aliens that left something like that there."

(And though perhaps he'd rather not recall the 2012 Total Recall reboot starring Colin Farrell, Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers called it "two hours you'll never get back—and every minute is a bad memory.")

Mars Attacks (1996)

Synopsis: Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox and Natalie Portman make campy sci-fi comedy an all-star blip in our multiplex memories. "Hilarity never seemed so tedious," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.

"That was cute," says Green.

Doom (2005)

Synopsis: A team of space marines led by Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson is sent through a portal to a Martian research facility where strange stuff is taking place. Turns out an experiment on Planet Red literally opened the gates of hell. It's the Rock versus Satan, Mars-style. Rosamund Pike, who played Man's Worst Friend in Gone Girl, stars as Dr. Grimm. It was all based on a popular video game. "Yes, Doom is a bad movie," wrote The Village Voice, "but you already knew that."

Green disagrees. "It's great science fiction," he says. "It talks about other worlds. What's great about it is we're finding solar systems that have planets like in Doom, all in the same solar system. That used to just be science fiction!"

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953); Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964); Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Synopsis: The tiles say it all.

"Sorry," Green says, admitting he hasn't seen them. "I've enjoyed a lot of Mars movies, but The Martian will be far above all of them." Why? "I've read the script."