23 November 2011

Hollywood and the Curse of Mars

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

At NASA and in Hollywood right now, eyes are trained on Mars. November 26 will see the launch of NASA’s much-hyped, $2.3 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, the purpose of which is to land and operate a rover called Curiosity on the surface of the Red Planet. The rover’s task: to discover whether or not Mars is now, or has ever been, hospitable to life. Meanwhile, over in Tinseltown, Disney is hoping that its own substantial Mars-related investment will pay off: the forthcoming mega-movie, John Carter.

The movie – a lavish, big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series of science fiction adventure novels – will chronicle the exploits of John Carter, a 19th Century American Civil War veteran who, upon being mysteriously transported to Mars, discovers it to be a thriving and diverse world populated by 9 ft tall, green, four-armed warriors called Tharks, as well as more human-looking "red" Martians.

Empire magazine has described John Carter as “one of the more complicated productions you’ll ever see," noting that "the film combines location shooting, studio sets, [and] live action and digital creations.” Disney has invested almost $300 million in the movie, placing great faith in its director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), as well as its much-loved source material, and the word “franchise” will no doubt have been used liberally by Disney bigwigs overseeing the project since its inception. In light of its colossal budget, however, the movie will need to do some serious box-office if it is to survive past its first instalment, let alone go on to become Disney’s next Pirates or Narnia.

In addition to the usual hurdles strewn along a movie’s road to success – bad reviews, box-office competition, poor filmmaking (though that’s usually irrelevant), misjudged marketing, classification issues, uncontrollable, politically sensitive national or international events (Hollywood suffered badly in the aftermath of 9/11, for example), John Carter faces another, almost insurmountable, obstacle: the dreaded ‘Martian Curse.’

Lost in Space

The Martian Curse is typically referred to in the context of Earth’s numerous failed Mars missions, the most recent of which is the Phobos-Grunt. The purpose of this Russian-led mission was to land a probe on the mysterious Martian moon Phobos and scoop up rock samples for return to Earth. It was hoped that the samples would yield new insights into the origin of Phobos, which is thought by some to be an extraterrestrial space station. However, for reasons as yet unknown, the spacecraft was unable to fire its engines following its launch on November 9 of this year has been stuck in low Earth orbit ever since. Hope for the mission’s recovery has now been completely extinguished.

The failure of Phobos-Grunt should come as little surprise. Of the 39 international Mars missions to date as listed by NASA on its Mars Exploration Program website (excluding the Phobos-Grunt, which has yet to be officially counted among the ‘dead’) a staggering 22 are declared as outright failures.

Mars Missions: Historical Log

Launch Date
Name
Country
Result
Reason
1960
Korabl 4
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Didn't reach Earth orbit
1960
Korabl 5
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Didn't reach Earth orbit
1962
Korabl 11
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Earth orbit only; spacecraft broke apart
1962
Mars 1
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Radio Failed
1962
Korabl 13
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Earth orbit only; spacecraft broke apart
1964
Mariner 3
US (flyby)
Failure
Shroud failed to jettison
1964
Mariner 4
US (flyby)
Success
Returned 21 images
1964
Zond 2
USSR (flyby)
Failure
Radio failed
1969
Mars 1969A
USSR
Failure
Launch vehicle failure
1969
Mars 1969B
USSR
Failure
Launch vehicle failure
1969
Mariner 6
US (flyby)
Success
Returned 75 images
1969
Mariner 7
US (flyby)
Success
Returned 126 images
1971
Mariner 8
US
Failure
Launch failure
1971
Kosmos 419
USSR
Failure
Achieved Earth orbit only
1971
Mars 2 Orbiter/Lander
USSR
Failure
Orbiter arrived, but no useful data and Lander destroyed
1971
Mars 3 Orbiter/Lander
USSR
Success
Orbiter obtained approximately 8 months of data and lander landed safely, but only 20 seconds of data
1971
Mariner 9
US
Success
Returned 7,329 images
1973
Mars 4
USSR
Failure
Flew past Mars
1973
Mars 5
USSR
Success
Returned 60 images; only lasted 9 days
1973
Mars 6 Orbiter/Lander
USSR
Success/Failure
Occultation experiment produced data and Lander failure on descent
1973
Mars 7 Lander
USSR
Failure
Missed planet; now in solar orbit.
1975
Viking 1 Orbiter/Lander
US
Success
Located landing site for Lander and first successful landing on Mars
1975
Viking 2 Orbiter/Lander
US
Success
Returned 16,000 images and extensive atmospheric data and soil experiments
1988
Phobos 1 Orbiter
USSR
Failure
Lost en route to Mars
1988
Phobos 2 Orbiter/Lander
USSR
Failure
Lost near Phobos
1992
Mars Observer
US
Failure
Lost prior to Mars arrival
1996
Mars Global Surveyor
US
Success
More images than all Mars Missions
1996
Mars 96
USSR
Failure
Launch vehicle failure
1996
Mars Pathfinder
US
Success
Technology experiment lasting 5 times longer than warranty
1998
Nozomi
Japan
Failure
No orbit insertion; fuel problems
1998
Mars Climate Orbiter
US
Failure
Lost on arrival
1999
Mars Polar Lander
US
Failure
Lost on arrival
1999
Deep Space 2 Probes (2)
US
Failure
Lost on arrival (carried on Mars Polar Lander)
2001
Mars Odyssey
US
Success
High resolution images of Mars
2003
Mars Express Orbiter/Beagle 2 Lander
ESA
Success/Failure
Orbiter imaging Mars in detail and lander lost on arrival
2003
Mars Exploration Rover - Spirit
US
Success
Operating lifetime of more than 15 times original warranty
2003
Mars Exploration Rover - Opportunity
US
Success
Operating lifetime of more than 15 times original warranty
2005
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
US
Success
Returned more than 26 terabits of data (more than all other Mars missions combined)
2007
Phoenix Mars Lander
US
Success
Returned more than 25 gigabits of data


Humanity’s rather bleak history of Mars exploration has led some UFO researchers to speculate that perhaps the Red Planet does not want to be visited; that Earth may even be under some sort of Martian quarantine. This idea is based, in part, on statements made by some of the world’s best known remote viewers, among them David Morehouse, a former ‘psychic spy’ with the CIA’s now-defunct Stargate program, who told best-selling author and journalist Jim Marrs: “It appears that whoever is up there [on Mars] does not want us to know about them.” This view is shared by many of Morehouse’s ‘psi-spy’ colleagues based on their own ‘remote’ observations of the Red Planet, which are detailed in Marrs’ book Alien Agenda.

The idea of Mars being inhabited today may sound far-fetched, but a number of unusual events during past Mars missions are enough to give pause. Take, for example, the Soviet Phobos II probe, which was lost in mysterious circumstances in March 1989 as it moved into orbit around the Red Planet. The Soviets claimed publicly that Phobos II had spun out of control as a result of mistakes made by ground command, but also admitted that the probe had encountered – and photographed – an unknown object shortly before it was lost. Discussing the failure of Phobos II on March 29, 1989, Alexander Dunayev, Chairman of the Glavkosmos space organization, said that the precise nature and origin of the unknown object had yet to be determined, but he speculated that it could be “debris” or part of the probe’s propulsion system. However, the enormous size of the anomaly - which, based on its appearance in the photograph, has been calculated as being up to two kilometers wide and twenty kilometers long - would seem to rule out these possibilities.


In any case, officials within the Russian space program would hear a very different accounting of what befell Phobos II from a team of remote viewers they later commissioned to investigate the probe’s failure. In September 1991, the remote viewers – formerly with the DIA’s project Grill Flame – presented their findings in a report titled “Enigma Penetration: Soviet Phobos II Spacecraft Imaged Anomaly,” which stated that the probe was disabled by an “object” already in space that “moved into close proximity” of Phobos II before directing “a very powerful, wide, penetrating particle beam into the interior of the spacecraft.” According to the report:

“The directed energy was neither reflected nor absorbed by the probe’s skin. However, the beam inflicted serious damage upon the spacecraft’s electronic components, altering or rearranging their material structure at the molecular level to such a degree that circuits became paralyzed, in turn rendering many systems dysfunctional.”

The photo of the unknown object was made public in December of 1991 when retired Soviet air force Colonel Marina Popovich displayed it for American reporters in San Francisco. Popovich argued that the object - which was cylindrical in shape - was indeed anomalous and did not rule out the possibility that it may have been an alien spacecraft.

It is also worth noting that on August 21, 1993, NASA’s Mars Observer probe was similarly lost en route to the Red Planet. Just three days prior to entering Mars orbit, NASA reported an “inexplicable” loss of contact with the probe. The US Naval Research Laboratory produced a report the following year citing a ruptured fuel pressurization tank as the cause, but remote viewer David Morehouse would later tell Jim Marrs that the probe appeared to have suffered the same fate as that of the Soviets’ Phobos II. In other words, the Martians did it.

The Angry Red Planet: Mars at the Movies

It seems that the Martian Curse affects not only Earth’s Mars-bound missions, but Hollywood’s movie’s about the Red Planet also. For decades, Hollywood filmmakers have been romantically drawn to the mysteries of Mars, compelled to explore the majestic sweep of its rust-hued surface and to unearth its ancient subterranean secrets. Hollywood’s love for Mars, though, is unrequited. Indeed, one could be forgiven for suspecting that the potential inhabitants of the planet (be they microbes or, as has been suggested by remote viewers, technologically advanced underground base-dwelling humanoid beings) are aggressively ‘anti-Hollywood’ and are actively working their magical and malicious Martian mojo against each and every one of Tinseltown’s ‘aliens-on-Mars’ movies.


With the notable exception of War of the Worlds (1953) – which was a critical and commercial success – Hollywood’s Cold War-era Mars movies truly did seem to be, well, cursed. Movies such as Rocketship XM (1950), Flight to Mars (1951), Red Planet Mars (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953),The Angry Red Planet (1959) and The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963) received – at the very best – mixed reviews from critics (most were savaged) and generated little or no profit. But the Mars movie-bomb conveyor belt was only just slipping into gear. Here is a quick chronological glance at some of Hollywood’s most memorably disastrous visits to the Red Planet:

  • Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964): The plot is in the slightly laughable title, but the movie itself is a surprisingly sober and dramatically engaging affair. It was also billed as being “scientifically accurate” based on technical advice that the production received from NASA (though, actually, it’s about as scientifically accurate as the Transformers franchise). There were high hopes for the movie, and a sequel - Robinson Crusoe in the Invisible Galaxy - was planned but quickly scrapped after the first movie took a nose dive at the box-office.
  • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): The title says it all. It is currently ranked number 77 in the IMDB’s bottom 100 movies of all time.
  • Mars Attacks! (1996): Inspired by the cult trading card series of the same name, Tim Burton’s manic B-movie parody – described by the director as “kind of a Mad magazine version of Independence Day” – had a production budget of $80 million, on top of which Warner Bros. forked out $220 million on marketing. The movie grossed just over 100 million worldwide and introduced Burton to the notion of box-office failure (something he has rarely experienced since).
  • My Favorite Martian (1999): a big screen version of the popular 1960s sitcom of the same name in which a Martian crash-lands on Earth and disguises himself in human form. This Disney flick grossed just $37 million against a budget of $65 million and was slammed by critics. It has a great opening scene though (see video below).
  • Mission to Mars (2000): When the first manned mission to Mars meets with disaster in the year 2020, the ensuing rescue mission learns that humans are descended from an ancient and long since departed race of Martians. Disney (again) and director Brian De Palma had high hopes for this $100 million epic, but the best it could do at the worldwide box-office was to recoup its productions costs plus a paltry $11 million.
  • Red Planet (2000): Released in the same year as Mission to Mars, Warner Bros.’ bid to lift the Martian Curse fared no better than Disney’s. The story follows a team ofastronauts who travel to Mars in search of solutions to Earth’s environmental degradation and eventually come up against some nasty Martian insect thingies. Other stuff happens too, but none of it good. It cost $80 million to produce and grossed just $33 million worldwide, making it one of the world’s biggest ever box-office bombs.
  • Ghosts of Mars (2001): In which human colonists on the Red Planet become possessed by angry Martian spectres. Another big rusty nail in the coffin of John Carpenter’s career, the movie had a $28 million budget and grossed just $14 million worldwide. Scathing critics’ reviews didn’t help.
  • Mars Needs Moms (2011): not deterred by the back-to-back failures of My Favorite Martian (1999) and Mission to Mars (2000), Disney chose to return to the Red Planet with this family-friendly offering about emotionally stunted Martians who abduct Earth moms in order to extract their maternal instincts for the benefit of their own babies. The moms’ natural know-how is then uploaded into thousands of automated robots which are tasked with nurturing the Martian young. It’s as weird as it sounds, but actually not half bad – the visuals, at least, are jaw-dropping. Disney poured a staggering $175 million into the movie, of which it lost $136 million... ouch! It is the fifth biggest box-office bomb of all time.
Disney's Mission to Mars (2000)

Considering the high failure rate of Hollywood’s Mars missions, it’s a wonder filmmakers continue to gamble on the Red Planet at all, and yet, in addition to Andrew Stanton’s forthcoming John Carter movie, first-time feature director Ruairi Robinson is betting on success in 2013 with Last Days on Mars, while Underworld helmer Len Wiseman is rolling the dice with a $200 million remake of Total Recall (2012), which, admittedly, thanks to its literary and cinematic heritage, just may turn out to be a hit. The original Total Recall – a Mars-set Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – was released to critical acclaim and grossed $261 million against a $65 million budget in spite of its ‘R’ rating (which originally was an ‘X’ before director Paul Verhoeven was forced to make numerous cuts in order to soften the movie’s graphic violence). But that was way back in 1990, and no other ‘aliens-on-Mars’ movie has matched its success.

As for John Carter, for now, at least, things are looking hopeful: the movie was well received by test audiences according to Andrew Stanton, who told The New Yorker that a two-hour cut of John Carter was screened in July for an audience in Portland, Oregon, with 75% of attendees scoring the movie either "excellent" or "very good," despite it being largely unfinished and distinctly lacking in post-production polish.

Could John Carter be the movie to restore Hollywood’s faith in Mars? Maybe, but it is not due for release until March of 2012 – four months away at time of writing – and the proof, so the strange
saying goes, is in the pudding. John Carter is already a hero to many, and he may well succeed in lifting the Martian Curse. But don’t be too surprised if he ends up biting red dust.

Copyright © 2011 Robbie Graham


Related trailers/video:


Flight to Mars (1951)...

 


The Angry Red Planet (1959)...




Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)...




Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)...




My Favorite Martian (1999) - opening scene...




Mars Needs Moms (2011)...




John Carter (2012)...



8 comments:

  1. Excellent article, Robbie!

    Disney's love for Mars is so big, that with the current state of the space industry, it wouldn't surprise me that instead of raising an American flag, the first astronauts to set foot on the Red Planet end up raising a banner of the Magic Kingdom ;)

    Popovich's claims might seem fantastic to most people, but we have to remember that the loss of the Phobos II probe coincided with a massive UFO wave experienced throughout the Soviet Union, in which not only giant objects were seen hovering over cities and industrial centers, but even landings and close encounters with humanoids were reported —the famous Voronezh incident is the most prominent of these cases, but it wasn't by far the only one— all this happening just when the Soviet regime was drawing its last breath, too.

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  2. Thanks Miguel. Yes 1988 - 1989 saw a boom in UFO sightings worldwide. My home county of Staffordshire in the UK was right in the thick of it. There were two very impressive close encounter reports from August 1988 within just a few miles of my family home (which lies only a few hundred meters from the UFO hot spot of Cannock Chase). One was a CE2, the other a CE3. I have spoken at length with the witnesses. The CE2 was the event that first got me hooked on UFOs.

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  3. And yes, I do find Disney's obession with Mars interesting. It goes all the way back to the 1950s with Ward Kimball's 'Mars and Beyond' work:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfX6z9Z4sAk

    Disney really seems determined to push the idea of life on Mars - no matter how many times cinema audiences push it back in their faces!

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  4. The early century saw another Mars-flick, the lesser known spanish production Stranded starring Vincent Gallo. The first half of the movie is a bit slow though. The movie has obviously been inspired by the are who has been nicknamed Inca City.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0283015/synopsis

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  5. Thanks for this, Robin. Looks interesting!

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  6. The JCM preview did look promising but... so did the Conan remake until you saw it in full. Gak!

    All the remakes seem to reflect a horrid lack of imagination in Hollywood. The original Total Recall was not all that bad so, like Conan, I have to wonder if Arnie really has anything to worry about. I mean, Sharon Stone wrapped in leotards is gonna be tough to beat.

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  7. Now I'm feeling old...LOL

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  8. How prophetic this ended up being. JC bombed harder than...well..any other movie ever..right?

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