Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Red Planet Mars!

Red Planet Mars has been on the bucket list to watch for decades. Finally I landed a copy of the DVD and gave it a gander. It's not quite what I expected, but turned out to be reasonably entertaining nonetheless. The movie is an unapologetic condemnation of the Soviet Union, and in the midst of the infamous "Red Scare" years in America, this comes as little surprise. Many movies of the period take a knock on this du jour core threat to the American way of life, but Red Planet Mars makes this its central message.

Spoilers be below.

It begins as Chris and Linda Cronyn (Peter Graves and Andrea King) two scientists, a married couple with two sons, reveal that they have made contact with intelligent life on Mars. The means by which they did this was a bizarre device which uses hydrogen gas invented by a Nazi scientist (Herbert Berghof) who has since disappeared and is believed in Soviet hands. That turns out to be true and from a base in the Andes this scientist has his own installation similar to the Americans. The news of contact with Mars first thrills the world then causes massive disruption as news of breakthrough energy sources results in a breakdown in coal, steel, and other core industries. Then the messages turn to a more philosophical bent with the suggestion that the "Martians" have had contact with no less than Jesus Christ himself. This final revelation brings the world hope as it causes a religious revival in the Soviet bloc resulting in the fall of the Russian threat. With both the West and the East having been staggered the Nazi scientist reveals himself and says that he not the Martians was the cause of the messages and he revels in the destruction of the civilized world. Before he can wreak even more havoc by his revelation the American couple receive another message from Mars, one which cannot be from the Nazi just before they are all blown to smithereens by the hydrogen which powers the communications.

Graves and King with Berghoff between.
This is a surprisingly grim movie. The couple is supposed to be All-American, but they are shown as hard-working scientists who appear to neglect their older son somewhat, who seems to be the primary caregiver for his younger sibling. He's a bright fellow though and is shown to be the hope of the future in the movie. Peter Graves is portrayed as older than he actually was at the time, for reasons I don't really understand, unless it was to give him more philosophical weight. Andrea King plays the mother as someone really obsessed with the safety of her sons and the safety of the world under then fresh nuclear threat of Soviet occupation. She seems at times oddly hysterical with fear. It's peculiar really how often the main characters are shown to be wrong in this movie about the fundamentals of human nature.

This movie is seen most clearly as a parable, with added fairytale aspects. The Cronyns work at their home in a lab isolated from the larger world, protected by police and military when the angry displaced seek them out. The Nazi scientist seems to be a magical character cooped up in a rundown cabin but who is almost miraculously able to appear where he needs to be. His cold and rundown abode a stark contrast to the sleek modern home of the Cronyns. This is a movie that offers up the theme of personal sacrifice as a necessary tool of social transformation and the dual sacrifice of the Cronyns in the story's climax is only peculiar in that both of them die, supplying the story a strangely downbeat ending.

There are parts of Red Planet Mars I really liked and parts that still puzzle me. I'll have to give it more thought. That's pretty good for a sci-fi movie that clearly wants to be taken seriously, that's pretty good indeed.

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  1. You had me at Peter Graves. He's always great.

    1. Graves is one of those reliable talents. Always good, sometimes more. Even in hokum like "Killers from Space" his serious no-nonsense demeanor elevates the proceedings.

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