Three astronauts go to Mars on the first manned U.S. rocket. The Russians have already launched a spacecraft, but rumours from behind the Iron Curtain suggest that it’s gone missing. Back home, the astronaut’s women worry and the Mission Commander tries to hold things together.
Mars has been a graveyard for many filmmakers over the years, from the famous to the infamous. From Brian De Palma – Mission to Mars (2000) – and John Carpenter – The Ghosts of Mars (2001) to David L Hewitt – ‘The Wizard of Mars’ (1964) and Larry Buchanan – ‘Mars Needs Women’ (1967). So what chance Nicholas Webster with his micro-budget epic starring Darren McGavin and Nick Adams? Well, none at all, really.
The film opens, fairly inevitably, with that long-standing friend of low budget science fiction: rocket launch stock footage. At least by the late 1960s, V2 missiles had turned into Saturn V rockets and black and white had changed into colour. It all turns out to be a nightmare anyway, as McGavin’s wife (Heather Hewitt) frets about his imminent trip into space, but feels better once the two of them go all ‘From Here To Eternity’ on a nearby beach. But McGavin is off to the stars all too soon; captaining a three man crew comprising impulsive geologist Nick Adams and bland George de Vries. Adams also has a worrying wife/girlfriend back home and the two ladies spend a lot of time talking about their worries with Mission Controller Michael DeBeausset. De Vries doesn’t get a ‘woman who waits’ so we all know what’s going to happen to him!
Ironically, the film actually comes up with some probable realism during the transit between planets. Yes, the cabin is far too big; yes, there’s complete artificial gravity; yes, they are hit with the inevitable meteor shower (that looks like electrical sparks from a welding torch), but what it does get right is the sheer tedium of it. By the time our dreary heroes reach their destination, it truly feels as if the audience has been cooped up with them for months on end. McGavin provides fascinating voiceover facts by reading out of an encyclopaedia (probably)! Adams navigates by looking out of a porthole and using a sextant (no computer for him!) The worrying women back home watch television and worry! The mission controller chews out some colleagues who worry about their sums! The worrying women talk to the Mission Controller! Again! Adams eats a pastrami sandwich! And so on…and on. It’s all so dull and lifeless that brain cells begin to disengage and die slowly.
Arrival on Mars is followed by more pulsating action. Adams digs rocks and the others inflate balloons that float into the camera. Adams finds a frozen Russian. There’s a hole into the supply module. Eventually, our heroes encounter a multi-limbed statue thing that flashes bright lights at them. In accordance with reasonable first contact protocols, they blast it! (If science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s has taught us anything it’s that firearms are essential equipment for space exploration).
All of this takes place on a tiny cardboard set that doesn’t resemble the model landscapes. But we do have to cut the filmmakers some slack here. Apparently, the original sets were destroyed by bad weather the day before filming and had to be rebuilt in a hurry in a nearby basement! Similarly, the film is probably best known for the motorcycle helmets that the astronauts wear on Mars. Worse than their obvious origin is the fact that these are ‘open face’ helmets, leaving a wide gap beneath the visor. Again, there were mitigating circumstances. The original custom-made headwear apparently didn’t meet McGavin’s high standards and he smashed his against the set, necessitating some last minute replacements from a local store!
McGavin went on to find lasting cult fame as ’Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ on U.S. TV and many supporting roles in big budget films; usually as a shady authority figure. Adams made only two more films before he was found dead from an overdose at the age of 36. It was probably an accident, but both murder and suicide have been suggested over the years. Although successful in a late 1950s/early 1960s TV show called ‘The Rebel’, Adams was most famous for his friendships with both James Dean and Elvis Presley. He went to Japan to take the American lead in Toho Studio’s ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ (1965), but it’s clear his career was not in good shape by the time he made it to the red planet.
This is really a quite dreadful experience; a slow, pitiful crawl through one cliché after another, culminating in a planetary exploration as one dimensional as it is brutally dull. But one question remains. Is it the most boring film about Mars ever made? The obvious answer would be ‘yes’ if not for the existence of David L Hewitt’s ‘The Wizard of Mars’ (1964). I’d have to watch both back-to- back to make a decision but, you know what? You’d have to pay me. A lot.