This article is doubly topical. I had originally intended to talk about films set on Mars in preparation for the upcoming release of Ridley Scott's The Martian, but NASA's announcement of water on Mars has made the red planet the hot topic of the week!
The Martian, based on Andy Weir's highly scientific sci-fi novel of the same name, stars Matt Damon as scientist Mark Watney, stranded on Mars after being presumed dead by his crew. It's not Damon's first venture into sci-fi, he played an uncredited role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and everyone involved in The Martian will be hoping he earns similar levels of praise and box office success.
However, although the red planet holds a fascination for many, the journey to Mars hasn't always been a successful one for filmmakers. Many inside Hollywood consider there to be a 'Mars curse,' as every film about or related to the red planet tends to flop. Let's take a look at some of the films that have been subjected to this fateful curse:
If you think it's stupid that modern day films can be adapted from toy lines, board games and emojis, remember that Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! from 1996, was based on a line of trading cards. Burton was keen to pay homage to classic B-movies, particularly those of Ed Wood, given that he had made a biopic about the famously terrible film director two years previously.
Mars Attacks! may have been a tongue-in-cheek homage to schlock-y, terrible movies, filled with references to others, but Burton hired an A-list cast for the job. The film features Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Jack Black, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Martin Short, among others, while legendary crooner Tom Jones makes an appearance as himself.
The film was fun, but perhaps not as much fun as the movies it was parodying and/or paying homage too, which was a shame. Burton's follow up to the well-received Ed Wood had mixed reviews at the time, and had disappointing results at the box office, but has since developed into a cult classic.
Red Planet & Mission to Mars
I have vague memories of what felt like a slew of Mars-related films in the late '90s and early 2000s. Having looked into it, I can say my memory is faulty. 'Slew' isn't the right word, but there were certainly two very similar Mars movies released in the year 2000 (which is why I've grouped them together). Red Planet starred Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss (as famous as she'd ever be off the back of The Matrix's success). The film's competition in the Best Mars-Related Film of 2000 Award was Mission to Mars, a film I recall going to see at the cinema for reasons that now escape me.
Mission to Mars was directed by Brian de Palma and had a solid cast: Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle starred, and the movie's plot has some parallels with the upcoming Ridley Scott movie: an exploration mission goes wrong, and a daring rescue mission gets undertaken (I haven't seen The Martian yet or read the book, but I'm going to assume it doesn't follow Mission to Mars's lead down the 'ancient astronauts' rabbit hole). It was received more warmly than Red Planet, but only just. Both films did poorly and are part of the reason there has long been considered to be a 'Mars curse' in Hollywood.
Disney's John Carter is only three years old, yet it has already found a home for life on various 'all time box office bombs' lists. The film was based on the Barsoom series of children's novels, and was originally envisioned to be part one of a trilogy (it was based on the first novel in the series, The Princess of Mars). It was the pet project of director Andrew Stanton (best known for Pixar favorites Finding Nemo and WALL-E) and Disney granted the movie a huge budget of over $250m, not to mention marketing costs of $350m. Basically, the movie flopping cost Disney about $200m -- terrible business by anyone's standards.
Following box office failure and ridicule by critics, the planned John Carter sequels were at first postponed, then shelved indefinitely (even though the director and star, Taylor Kitsch, repeatedly stated they still hoped to make them). Stanton went back to Pixar to work on the upcoming Finding Dory and eventually Disney gave up the rights to the source novels. One suspects Disney won't be venturing out to Mars again any time soon.
Perhaps the last Mars movie to be a success was the original version of Total Recall, way back in 1990. Can The Martian rescue Mars for moviegoers? Maybe, I just hope nobody complains that it's unrealistic because of the lack of water on the planet...