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Red Planet Mars (2000)

[Red Planet Mars] Red Planet Mars
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952
Rated: PG-13 in North America, PG in the U.K.
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: Harry Horner
Producer: Anthony Veiller
Amazon.com: NTSC VHS
Suggested by: Greg Slade

Right from the opening chords of the soundtrack, you get the impression that this is going to be a seriously hokey movie. And, in many ways, it is. There is the scientist who believes that he's on the verge of making an enormous scientific breakthrough (in this case, making radio contact with Mars), and his wife, who periodically breaks out into impassioned speeches about how science has brought the world to the brink of oblivion. There is an evil mad scientist, Russian spies, American generals, a genius kid... in short, just about every cliché of 50s sci-fi flicks you can imagine.

The plot goes like this: the American scientist (thanks to a clue from his genius kid) does make contact with Mars. However, as the messages are translated, they wreak havoc on Western civilisation. A message that the average life span on Mars is 300 years prompts insurance companies to halt the sale of annuities. A message that Martian civilisation is entirely powered by cosmic rays results in an energy crisis as coal mines on Earth are shut down. Then, just when the West is about to collapse, and it appears that the Soviet Union is on the verge of taking over the world, a series of messages from Mars tell the people of Earth that all their problems stem from turning their backs on God. This prompts a worldwide religious revival, and a revolution against communism in the Soviet Union, and all is right with the world again.

The scenes in Russia really impressed me. For one thing, where old-time Hollywood movies tended to use characters speaking in heavy accents in place of speaking other languages, in this film, the characters actually speak Russian. (In places where the audience needs to hear the dialogue to be able to follow what's going on, the filmmakers introduce a spy whose accent in Russian is so atrocious that the leaders with whom he is speaking insist on speaking to him in English.) The scenes are also well acted, and the revolution is eerily prescient of the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was actually made nine years before it was even built.

However, the treatment of religion, which forms such an important part of the plot, is woefully inadequate. At first, the film seems to be saying that a civilisation far more advanced than that on Earth is peaceful and efficient precisely because it follows God instead of turning its back on Him. Then, it seems to change its mind and argue that religion is useful, not because it's true, but because it makes people act better, and that makes the world a better place. In fact, at one point, a couple of characters are prepared to go to extreme lengths to keep evidence from coming out which might upset the (if you will excuse the expression) new world order. In fact, throughout the film, random characters keep spouting "pop theology", apparently profound, yet contradictory, statements, which make it clear that, even in the days when Hollywood could make a film which was positive about religion without flinching or blushing, they didn't really "get" God.

As a matter of minor interest, there is a prop in the scientist's laboratory: a transparent panel with radial markings on it, which he apparently uses for the purpose of tracking Mars' bearings relative to his antenna. I have seen similar props in other films, including the original Star Wars trilogy. In fact, it's become something of a visual cliché. However, this film is the earliest in which I have seen such a prop, so it may well be the source from which later filmmakers have borrowed. (April, 2005)

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