Sunday, 13 December 2015

Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars, released in 1952, is one of the more notorious American science fiction films of the 50s. Almost all American movies of that era that took what could be interpreted as an anti-communist line have over the past few decades been subjected to ridicule and dismissed as crude propaganda. Red Planet Mars has suffered in this respect more than most and it’s really quite unfair. 

If such a movie were also to deal with religious themes and to treat those themes seriously then as you can imagine that movie would be the subject of even greater derision. Such a movie is Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is an ambitious and interesting film that deals with big ideas. There’s nothing wrong with science fiction that simply offers entertainment but the genre has always been at its best when it tackles big ideas. And this movie tackles very big ideas.

This is a first contact movie. A young American scientist, Dr Chris Cronyn (Peter Graves), has received radio signals from Mars. He has been broadcasting messages to Mars and now he is receiving replies. The replies are simply his own messages repeated back to him. This could of course be explained as some kind of natural phenomenon. The signals might simply be bounced back to him. There is however an objection to that theory. The signals take just over the minutes to reach Mars. If they were being bounced back he should be receiving them just over six minutes after transmitting them. But there is an unexplained time delay. Someone or something is actively transmitting the replies.

This is all very interesting from a scientific point of view but things are about to get a good deal more interesting. Suddenly the replies are more than just repeats of Dr Cronyn’s own messages. He really has made contact with an alien civilisation.

What he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one working in this area. He has a rival. Dr Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof) is a brilliant German scientist who was imprisoned after the war for war crimes. After being released he found employment behind the Iron Curtain. Dr Calder was in fact the man who invented the hydrogen valve which made it possible to send messages to Mars. The US government took his invention after the war and Dr Cronyn used it to build his own transmitter. Calder feels, reasonably enough from his point of view, that his invention was stolen from him. For this he hates the Americans. He hates the Soviets as well, having found that they are not exactly ideal employers. Calder has built a transmitter as well. He could use it to try to contact Mars himself, but he has a better idea, an idea that will have fateful consequences.

Dr Cronyn’s wife Linda (Andrea King) is a Christian and she’s not at all convinced that contacting Mars is a good idea. She’s not sure why the idea worries her, it’s basically a case of, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Chris Cronyn is certain that first contact with an alien civilisation can only be a good thing. If the Martians are more scientifically advanced than we are we could learn so much from them that it would usher in a golden age of progress. It turns out that things are not so simple. Sudden exposure to advanced technology causes economic chaos. The western world faces ruin. This pleases Dr Calder’s communist paymasters. It causes panic in Washington. The Pentagon’s predictable reaction to crisis is to want a start a nuclear war. It’s intriguing that in a supposedly anti-communist movie it’s the Americans who are the ones contemplating the destruction of all life on Earth.

The next messages from Mars are very different. They are religious in content and their effects are dramatic. They spark a worldwide religious revival. But this movie still has several dramatic plot twists up its sleeve which lead to a somewhat unexpected shock ending.

To see this movie as anti-communist propaganda is to misunderstand it completely. It’s as much an indictment of the materialism and hedonism and spiritual nihilism of capitalist society as it is an indictment of the brutality and inhumanity of communism. If it’s propaganda it’s religious rather than political propaganda and it’s more complex than one expects propaganda to be.

There’s some fun technobabble and some amusing gadgetry but this is the science fiction of ideas rather than the science fiction of rayguns and starships. There’s very little in the way of special effects since the story doesn’t require such things.

The script was co-written by John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller from a play by Balderston and John Hoare. Balderston is best known for his stage adaptation of Dracula, which formed the basis for the classic 1931 Dracula movie. He wrote a number of outstanding screenplays, mostly but by no means exclusively in the horror genre. This seems to have been his only foray into science fiction, which might explain why it’s so  untypical of 50s sci-fi movies.

Peter Graves is a serviceable hero and Andrea King is reasonably good in a tricky role - LInda Cronyn could easily have become an irritatingly pious character but she mostly avoids that pitfall. Herbert Berghof gets the plum role as the evil Nazi mad scientist and he (quite rightly) goes deliciously over-the-top with it. 

Cheezy Flicks have established a reputation for releasing interesting hard-to-find movies in pretty terrible transfers. In this case the transfer is not too bad. 

Red Planet Mars is one of the few science fiction movies to attempt to explore in depth the economic, social, political and religious consequences of first contact with an alien civilisation. The conclusions it draws may be deeply unfashionable today but that makes them all the more interesting and provocative. No-one today would dare to make a movie such as this. This is not cheesy low-budget drive-in fodder. It’s an ambitious movie made on a limited budget that succeeds in its aims surprisingly well (even if some modern viewers will not approve of those aims). While you’re likely to either love it or loathe it it’s worth a look. Highly recommended simply for being It’s intriguingly different.

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