Thursday, October 01, 2015

Mars on Film: The Angry Red Planet (1959)

Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Ib Melchior’s The Angry Red Planet (1959) didn’t earn many positive reviews from critics of its day, or afterwards, either, for that matter. 

The low-budget AIP film was shot in just ten days on a budget of two-hundred thousand dollars and its primary visual gimmick -- a technique called Cinemagic which was to render two-dimensional drawings 3-D in appearance -- never quite worked. The film’s big visual conceit is thus a red filter slathered over all the sequences set on the Martian surface. Commendably, the red tint hides many trespasses, including painted backdrops

Yet in a way, it’s a shame that The Angry Red Planet isn’t more fondly remembered today. The film is very static, and even cramped visually-speaking, it’s true, yet it nonetheless possesses a rich sense of imagination, and its story of a doomed space mission is both mysterious and suspenseful. The narrative twists and turns keep creating new and more menacing challenges for the astronaut characters to face and defeat.  In the end all the pieces fit together nicely into a unified whole; a complete story that makes sense and even proves chilling.

I’ve noted before that I’m a sucker for space mystery/doomed-expedition cinematic stories; adventures in which human astronauts travel to the stars and find terror and awe there. The Angry Red Planet fits right in with that template. The acting is no great shakes, and some of the special effects don’t come off that well, but the film is fast-moving, and maintains the sense of mystery and grandeur that I find so irresistible about these tales.

There be dragons over that next hill. Or across that sea.  Or on that dark plain, just beyond the landing site…

The Angry Red Planet and movies (and TV shows like it…) are thus pioneer tales; stories of man perched on the edge of known territory, venturing out into realms new, mysterious, wondrous and terrifying. Man could meet anyone out there, on that frontier…or anything. The limit of the storytelling is thus, simply, the imagination of the storyteller

The Angry Red Planet veritably bristles with the uncertainty and thrills of a manned landing on Mars, and despite the dated aspects of the film’s visualizations and screenplay, still holds together remarkably well. One scene involving a forty-foot denizen of Mars -- a sort of crab/rat/spider-thing -- still manages to forge a sense of real terror.  Another monster, a giant amoeba, proves almost as disturbing to the psyche.  Regardless of all the film’s deficits in terms of characterizations and visualizations, there is the feel of a legitimate, alien ecosystem broached here, and that vibe works immeasurably in the film’s favor.

How to say this? The Angry Red Planet succeeds almost in spite of itself, and again, I credit the imagination of the screen-writers, Ib Melchoir and Sidney W. Pink, for that quality.

“Mars…the red planet…our destination.”

On Earth, Major General Treager (Paul Hahn) recalls the long-missing MR (Mars Rocket) 1. He orders his men to bring the vehicle back to terra firma via remote control, and land it in the Nevada Desert. 

There, it is soon revealed that only two of the crew, Colon Tom O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr) and Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden) remain alive. However, O’Bannion has some kind of infectious and deadly growth covering one of his arms.

With the mission tapes mysteriously erased, the traumatized Ryan must recount to Treager and her doctors the story of the landing on Mars if there is any hope to diagnosis and reverse Tom’s grave condition.  She attempts to remember everything, and explains how, after forty-seven days in flight, the rocket touched down on a still, silent Martian surface.

Exploratory teams to the surface discovered strange, man-eating fauna, and weird life-forms, like a giant carnivorous rat-spider, there.  

Soon, the team’s scientist, Professor Gettell (Les Tremayne) realized that the Earth crew was being tested by such challenges and confrontations, and urged the mission to depart for home. Unfortunately, as the crew learned, a force-field was holding their rocket back.

Hoping to find and reason with the intelligence behind that force-field, the four man crew set out via inflatable raft across a Martian ocean. There, the astronauts spotted a magnificent, highly-advanced city, but one guarded by a colossal, hungry amoeba.  Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) was absorbed and consumed by the amoeba as the others returned safely to the ship. Attempting to save him, Tom’s arm was infected by the green substance.

After electrifying the hull, and repelling the amoeba, the rocket returned to the stars, but not before the Martian intelligence, perhaps a “super intelligent community mind” issued a warning to the crew -- and to all mankind -- about returning to the angry red planet unbidden.

“I wonder if some things are better left unknown.”

The Angry Red Planet reveals its low-budget origins in myriad ways. For example, the opening sequences of the film cut repeatedly to stock-footage of real mission control rooms, a ploy which makes the movie’s small mission control “corner” look all the more pitiful by comparison. This early sequence features shot after shot of technicians turning knobs, moving dials, adjusting head-sets and otherwise working in mission control.

Similarly, all views of the MR-1 in space are…cartoons. The ship is literally animated as it moves through space.

And finally, once the ship has landed on Mars, those 2-D drawings (which were supposed to become 3-D with Cinemagic) are displayed front-and-center. We see a close-up of an alien plant or flower that is clearly just a two-dimensional illustration. And we get a view of Martian landscape (and road?) that similarly fails to convince, let alone impress.

Beyond these obvious deficits, the movie does not vet its story adroitly or artistically in terms of the language of movies, or film grammar. The shots of the rocket interior during landing and lift-off look woefully static and sedate, failing to capture the idea of a desperate escape, or a daring descent into unknown territory. These shots do not suggest movement, velocity, gravity, or much of anything. Similarly, there is no sense of scope on the Martian surface. All the shots are tight and even cramped.

But, from the opposite point of view, these tight shots do convey a sense of claustrophobia, and, perhaps unintentionally, make the action feel more suspenseful. So much is out of our view, out of frame, that danger could appear suddenly from any direction. The film’s leitmotif, that man himself is under the Martian microscope, becomes more pronounced through the compositions which restrict the astronauts’ space in the frame. When they are on a raft in the ocean, for example, the frame does not extend much beyond their conveyance and oars. Everything else exists outside the rectangular screen frame, and therefore suggests a great unknown.

The issues tallied above all suggest significant problems and yet, in the final analysis, the film’s story itself carries the day, and one is drawn in a little at a time, hoping to discover the mystery behind Mars.

In this case, that mystery is one that ties together the carnivorous plant, the giant bat-spider, the amoeba, the erased tapes, and the three-eyed being who noses into view occasionally. They are all part of a secret, carefully engineered agenda.

It’s a neat little conceit, and one that holds up well. As the Earth astronauts explore the surface of the Red Planet -- believing that that they are the ones conducting tests and gathering data -- the Martians are actually collecting data about them, and putting them through a dangerous series of paces. Mankind is under that microscope and he doesn’t realize it.  In fact, he is arrogantly progressing with the idea that he can land on another world, unbidden, and learn all about it.  Call this conceit ironic, or simply a reversal of expectations, but it adds a sinister feel to all the action in The Angry Red Planet.

I have described the visuals that don’t work in the film, mainly the 2-D drawings, the animated rocket footage, and the rocket interior shots during launch and touch-down. But this list does not tell the whole story.  Many images in the film are quite powerfully rendered.

Although the carnivorous plant looks largely lifeless, the bat-spider thing remains impressive and creepy today, in part because the red filter hides the seams in much the same way black-and-white photography would, and in part because of the bone-crunching sound-effects that accompany the creature. This horrible thing has sense of weight and physical presence to it that is hard to deny, and remains very unsettling. The set-up for the creature’s presence is good too. Iris mistakes one of the monster’s bony, crab-legs for a tree trunk and takes a machete to it. The creature suddenly howls in pain, and that tree trunk starts moving…

The amoeba -- which seems to serve as the guardian for the Martian metropolis -- is terrifying too.  

We see the thing chase the crew across the sea, and then devour their inflatable raft. It then eats Sam, consuming him a little at a time, and envelops the MR-1 itself.   The question, of course, is: was it unleashed or released by the Martians to prevent the humans from reaching the city, or was it happenstance that it blocked their path just as they were about to get answers?

That question aside, I can acknowledge this: had I seen The Angry Red Planet at age eight or nine, both the bat-spider-crab and the amoeba would have proven terrible nightmare fodder, and troubled my slumber.  I have no doubt the creatures did just that for the generation that first encountered them in theaters and on TV.

Using these weird monsters as dramatic stepping stone, The Angry Red Planet boasts a powerful structure in the way that danger keeps escalating (from man-eating plant to man-eating rat-spider, to giant, man-eating amoeba), and the scientists don’t realize until too late that they are the ones under a microscope.

The film’s final punctuation arrives in the form of a message for the human race taped by the Martians. The voice informs the humans that they are “spiritual and emotional infants,” and therefore not yet ready for contact with the planet Mars. 

Their words make sense in the film’s framework. Iris faints twice in the course of the story, horrified by the appearance of the alien creatures…and she’s a scientist who should know better!  And Sam doesn’t go anywhere without his sonic gun, taking a kind of glee from the destruction “Cleopatra”—the gun’s name -- causes. Professor Gettell, meanwhile, seems entirely consumed with fear throughout the mission.

The underlying message here could be, indeed, that though man is technologically capable of visiting Mars (or another world), he may not be psychologically ready to do so. His science has grown faster than his wisdom. Beings who faint when confronted with a different form of life, and carry fearsome weapons into first-contact situations, shooting first and asking questions later, don’t belong in the wondrous, Oz-like spires of the Martian city, perhaps.

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Angry Red Planet features an old-fashioned or out-of-date view of what Mars physically like. Here, the red planet boasts thick vegetation with nervous systems, giant mammalian life-forms, vast cities, and wide oceans. At the very least, the film doesn’t suggest that Mars has a breathable atmosphere.  Still, again like the Pal film, it’s almost better to imagine that The Angry Red Planet is set on some other world, in a nearby solar system, rather than on Mars since the filmmakers get so much (we now know to be) wrong about our cosmic neighbor.

The Angry Red Planet is a cheap, 56-year old “B” movie, for certain, and one with legitimate deficiencies. Yet it occasionally reaches beyond that description -- and beyond the 1950s too, in fact -- to forge imagery of lasting terror and wonder. For that not inconsiderable accomplishment, this Ib Melchior effort probably deserves a bit more love than it has received.

George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is fifty one years old in 2015 and remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it. By and large, genre critics praised the sci-fi film upon its original theatrical release and soon after, as well.

For example, author and scholar Jeff Rovin termed the film an “excellent and offbeat ride” and a “thoroughly convincing retelling of the classic tale” in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press; 1975, page 131).

And while noting that the film is “not fast-paced,” the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films observed that Robinson Crusoe on Marssucceeds…in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the minds of its audience at the exploration of a new and different kind of world.”

Furthermore, the same authors wrote that director Haskin accomplished this task by making Mars itself one of the film’s essential or key characters (Arlington House; 1982, page 174).

That last observation is the most trenchant one because Robinson Crusoe on Mars impresses even today on the basis of many of its colorful and dynamic visualizations. Shot in Death Valley and buttressed by some still-impressive matte paintings, the film feels both authentic and vivid in its depiction of a desolate, lonely planetary surface.

At times in the film, the landscape itself feels almost oppressive in its craggy, mountainous appearance, and at other junctures -- such as the discovery of the polar ice caps -- it appears downright wondrous.  The film conveys the idea of not just a single locale, but of an entire, harsh ecosystem, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

In terms of narrative, Robinson Crusoe on Mars succeeds too because it clearly has the literary model -- Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book -- to fall back on, and it needn’t veer too far from that impressive source material.

In fact, by retelling Defoe’s famous story in a “final frontier” setting, the 1964 film suggests some universal qualities about mankind. Specifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars meditates about both the human desire to survive even when survival is damn near impossible, and about our need for companionship. 

In fact, companionship is right up there with the other essentials to human life -- air, food, and water -- and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does a good job of exploring that powerful notion.

I count Robinson Crusoe as one of my favorite stories of all time, and find that in 2015 Robinson Crusoe on Mars still captures the essence of that classic tale well, even if all the details of life on Mars in the film don’t conform to modern scientific knowledge.

Indeed, this George Pal production remains just the brand of imaginative, colorful sci-fi epic that spurred my fascination with outer space and other worlds in the first place. And in its exploration of companionship as a key “resource” permitting humans to survive in any frontier, Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a case about man in space that we must not forget.

When at last we travel to the stars, we should go in great numbers, because we will likely find it impossible to thrive there in isolation. As Robinson Crusoe on Mars reminds us, we need each other, whether here on Earth, in darkest space, or on the surface of the red planet.

In the near future, Mars Gravity Probe 1 narrowly avoids a disaster in planetary orbit, specifically a collision with an asteroid.

Unfortunately, the ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory, and the crew must eject from the vessel. 

Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) lands his craft in a crater, scuttling it, and finds that his commanding officer, McReady (Adam West) has died during his landing attempt. The ship’s monkey, Mona (The Woolly Monkey), however, has survived.

With Mona in tow, Draper attempts to solve the problems of human survival on Mars. He finds the atmosphere thin, and therefore breathable only for short durations, and must determine a way to maintain a breathable air supply. With the use of native rocks, he does just that.  Draper’s next problem is locating water on Mars. When Mona doesn’t evidence signs of thirst, Draper decides to investigate her daily routine, and discovers a water source.

Sometime later, Draper sees a ship landing in the distance, and realizes that it is an interstellar craft.  Alien slavers have come to Mars, but one of their slaves -- whom Crusoe names Friday (Victor Lundin) -- escapes from their custody. The two survivors become friends, and set about to evade the aliens for as long as possible.

Draper and Friday make a long trek to the polar ice caps, and there receive a happy transmission from an Earth vessel and rescue ship.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars remembers and translates to the “space age” virtually all of the important story beats of the famous Defoe literary antecedent.

In Robinson Crusoe, as you may recall, the sea-going protagonist escapes a shipwreck, and salvages what he can from it, with only the captain’s dog (and a cat or two) for companions. Crusoe then lives on an inhospitable island alone for some time, dwelling in a cave and growing his own food.

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes more religious, reading the Bible, and ultimately saves a man, whom he names Friday, from cannibals. He eventually converts Friday to Christianity, and together the men leave the island on an English ship.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Kip Draper is marooned on the planet Mars, rather than on an island. He has no humans to keep him company, but rather an animal companion like the captain’s dog: the monkey named Mona.  The alien slavers substitute for the novel’s cannibals, and of course, Crusoe’s Friday is a one-to-one corollary with Draper’s alien friend. The topic of the Divine and religion come up in both stories as well, with Draper quoting Scripture to the alien at times in the film. Finally, the two men are rescued by an Earth ship as the film closes.

Beyond its relocation of narrative points from the Defoe story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ strongest interlude occurs shortly before Draper first encounters Friday. He is ensconced in his home cave, at night, and the shadow of a humanoid falls across his transparent-rock cave door. Draper opens the door and suddenly encounters a silent, zombie-like McReady, who refuses to speak to him, or even acknowledge him.

Draper awakens --sleepwalking -- and realizes he has experienced a nightmare. This scene is creepy as hell, from the first appearance of the silhouette (surrounded by weird Martian lighting), to McReady’s unearthly demeanor as Draper desperately tries to make him talk to him. The scene beautifully expresses the absolute terror of Draper’s predicament as the only intelligent being, essentially, on an entire planet. He also, no doubt, feels survivor’s guilt. He lived, and McReady didn’t.

Importantly, this sequence in the film follows those in which the resourceful Draper has licked a number of survival problems. He has learned how to breathe on Mars (using yellow, air-producing rocks) and he has found food and water.

But the problem of companionship is not something he can tackle alone, and his so Draper fears his mind will fall apart, that he will start to lose his grip on sanity. Draper notes that the “hairiest” problem for astronauts is “isolation,” and also makes a special point of describing how for astronaut training he was in an isolation tank for a month to prepare for the hazards of lonely space travel. But, as he says, he knew, at that point, that he would be with people again. At this juncture, there is no certainty. He could live the rest of his days without seeing anyone else. That is a tremendous psychic weight to carry. Thus the movie equates companionship with the survival necessities of air or water, or food.

If the small, intimate scene of McReady’s visitation sells Draper’s terror at being the only living being on Mars (outside of Mona), then the many shots of the astronaut traversing the landscape alone help enormously as well.

In sustained long shot after sustained long shot, we witness Draper making his way from one dead zone to another, from one rocky outcropping to the next. Seen against the land, he looks truly small, truly insignificant.  Some shots see the camera pointed at our eye level (and below) so that we don’t even see the red sky.  Instead, we see a lot of ground.  On one hand, this prevents the need for every shot to be fixed with a Martian skyline in post-production. On the other hand, the effect is that we see just this one tiny figure moving against a sea of rock and sand.  He seems truly lost there.

But impressively, the film’s visuals aren’t boring or repetitive, and don’t sacrifice interest, even considering the desert landscape. There’s one scene set in a grotto or grove, where Draper goes swimming, and the view is magnificently imaginative. 

At another point, Draper and Friday seek to escape the slavers, and head down into a subterranean world, where they must navigate a narrow ledge.

Again, the effects work is stunning, and a reminder of how Hollywood successfully performed “world building” in an age before CGI.  The film’s final visual flourish plays as catharsis and relief. We see Friday and Draper at the polar ice caps, surrounded by cleansing water and immaculate white ice.  They have been delivered from the red, fiery Hell of Mars’ surface.  This is a great note to go out on.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars also features, perhaps to its detriment, a strong colonial tone. Almost immediately after meeting Friday, Crusoe assumes his superiority over his new friend and tells him that he is the boss, demands that Friday learn English, and attempts to convert him to his own religion.  In 1964, this attitude would not have been questioned, but today it seems as dated as the portrayal of Mars’ atmosphere as breathable by humans.  

Later films of this type, like Enemy Mine (1985), go out of their way to suggest that representatives of different cultures have much to teach each other, but here a lot of the teaching is one way: Draper to Friday. In fairness, however, this was also the nature of the Defoe literary work. It concerned a "civilized" Englishman sharing his culture (and breeding) with a savage.

It is not fair, perhaps, nor entirely appropriate, to judge a film made fifty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by some viewers today, it is likely because the film doesn’t conform to our 21st century fund of knowledge about the red planet.  

To put this another way, film lovers and science fiction lovers can and will look past this particular deficit, and judge the film accordingly, based on its historical context. But there will be some viewers who can’t do that, and who will be put off by Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ flights of fancy about a Mars consisting of subterranean water pools, ample (purple) vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.  Today in September 2015 -- we know that part of this depiction may actually be accurate! On Monday, NASA announced that there are flowing, salt-water streams on Mars, so perhaps in this one regard the film is ahead of its time.

The film’s re-use of some stock props and miniatures, such as the costumes from Destination: Moon (1950) and the Martian war machines from War of the Worlds (1953) -- as well as some oft-repeated footage of those alien ships -- may prove more legitimately disturbing to some fans than do these scientific errors.  The alien slaver ships are seen, in particular, in the same three or four shots, and these shots are repeated over and over again. For a film that features such lush visuals in other arenas, the sort of cheap-jack depiction of the slavers is doubly disappointing. 

These points diminish Robinson Crusoe on Mars significantly, but they do suggest how far ahead of their time later works, like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were by comparison. In some ways, the Pal film feels like the last gasp of a 1950s version of outer space, while Kubrick’s film (followed by efforts like Moon Zero Two and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) feel much more modern. 

Yet what doesn’t age Robinson Crusoe on Mars -- and indeed what renders it relevant fifty years later -- is its focus on the human equation, and its message that friendship is as nourishing -- and as necessary -- to the human animal as oxygen, or fresh water.

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