MGM // 1980 // 293 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // October 8th, 2004
I'll guarantee that this is the only work of filmed entertainment with a credit line for both "Martian on sand ship" and "Christ"...
Prior to the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, Illinois native Ray Bradbury was a virtual unknown outside of the realm of hard-core science fiction fans. Chronicles was an unexpected best-seller, and turned Bradbury from obscure genre writer into pop author. Thirty years later, The Martian Chronicles was turned into a three-part television miniseries by English producer Charles Fries, with Rock Hudson (Giant,McMillan and Wife) as its lead. For no apparent reason, MGM has now released The Martian Chronicles on DVD, in a bare-bones edition sans extras or bonus features.
A long time ago, back in the late 1870s, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiapparelli was making observations of the planet Mars using his telescope. In his notes, he mentioned seeing "canali" on the face of Mars. "Canali" has a somewhat flexible meaning in Italian -- generally, it means "channel," but it could just as well have meant "a linear feature." However, it looked like a pretty straightforward English word -- canal. And so, from this unintentional simplification, was born the "canals on Mars" story. It captured the public's imagination -- and why wouldn't it? Canals, after all, are human inventions. They're the product of intelligent design. And if there were canals on Mars...wouldn't they have to be built by Martians?
Some people were more captivated than others by these tales -- e.g. H.G. Wells, who penned The War of the Worlds in part to capitalize on the Martian craze. Among the biggest Martian canal proponents was a rich New Englander named Percival Lowell. The intelligent scion of a prominent Boston family (his brother was president of Harvard), Lowell took up astronomy as a career, building the state-of-the-art Lowell Observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona -- on Mars Hill. Mars was his true love, and he spent 23 years mapping, studying, cataloging, and researching the red planet. He truly and honestly believed in the canals of Mars. And he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. He published three books on Mars in the late 1890s/early 1900s. Together, these books, besides summarizing his research, also described his vision of Mars and its society. An ancient, but dying, race, the Martians knew their planet was drying up. In order to sustain themselves for just a bit longer, the Martians had undertaken massive public works projects to bring precious water from the polar caps to the increasingly arid mid-latitudes of the planet: the canals. This image of Mars and its society dominated the public's view of the planet (until the early Mariner probes in the '60s showed that there in fact were no canals, and were no Martians). One person who clearly read and embraced Lowell's ideas about the Martians was a science fiction writer by the name of Bradbury.
Although billed as a "novel," The Martian Chronicles was really a collection of previously-written short stories, tied together into a coherent narrative by some additional pieces Bradbury wrote specifically for the collection. The television version of the "novel" takes some additional liberties in order to make the narrative thread stronger -- it replaces characters in some tales, alters the order in which some stories are presented, and flat-out eliminates several. Hence, it's not really a true filmed version of the book. It's close enough, though, that most fans shouldn't be too upset.
The miniseries breaks into three parts, each on its own disc side, representing the three "eras" of Mars exploration covered in the book.
(Multiple spoilers ahead -- unfortunately, there's simply no way to explain the story, which is disjointed and only loosely connected, without actually telling the story.)
* Part 1 -- The Expeditions
Our show begins on Earth, circa 1999, where we meet Col. John Wilder (Hudson), a big-wig at NASA. NASA is about to launch the first manned mission to Mars, a mission that features the cutting-edge technology of extremely shoddy plastic models. We also pop up to Mars, where meet some Martians. Guess what -- they're an ancient, dying race. And they have canals. Anyhow, we meet Mr. and Mrs. K, just a typical Martian couple. Mrs. K, whose other name is Ylla, is having dreams about creatures from the third planet coming to Mars. Mr. K is green with envy. The first mission lands, whereupon Mr. K. promptly terminates it with extreme prejudice.
Undaunted by the fact that their first mission failed within seconds of landing, NASA parties on and launches another mission. This time, they send three guys instead of two. As if that will help. The second expedition [Change note: this was the third expedition in the book] travels all the way to Mars and lands...in the middle of an Illinois farm town. The commander, Captain Black (Nicholas Hammond, The Sound of Music), recognizes it as his home town, and finds that his dead family is alive and well and living there. The other crewmembers discover friends and family as well. They all go along with it, and try to convince themselves that they've fallen into a time warp or something. Eventually, Black figures it out -- these are Martians, and like the Shadow, they have the eerie power to cloud men's minds. Whereupon the Martians kill him and his crew.
NASA, not getting the hint, sends a third expedition. This time, Wilder takes matters into his own hands and leads the mission personally. They arrive on Mars to find the entire Martian civilization dead -- killed by chicken pox, which the second expedition apparently brought along by accident. One of Wilder's crew, the thoughtful Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey, Revenge of the Nerds), is aghast that a noble civilization was undone by a child's disease. [Change note:ahem...kinda sorta like the Native Americans were killed off by smallpox, perhaps? Do you think? In the book, this parallel is made patently obvious by including an Indian crewmember named Cheroke for Spender to play off of. Cheroke is absent in this teleplay.] Spender goes a little kooky, and starts to kill off the other crewmembers to prevent humans from ruining Mars like they ruined Earth. Wilder, and his sidekick Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin, Kolchak: The Night Stalker), must save themselves and defend whatever honor humanity has left.
But humans will come, no matter what happens...
* Part 2 -- The Settlers
Several years after the fourth expedition, Mars has become the new frontier, with Col. Wilder in charge. (Theme alert! Theme alert!) Settlers are coming in droves, each with their own personal reasons for fleeing Earth. For some, like Sam Parkhill, it's a chance to start over and follow a dream -- in his case, opening a diner. Fathers Peregrine (Fritz Weaver, Marathon Man) and Stone (Roddy McDowell, How Green Was My Valley) have come to bring the word of God to Mars. For others, the reasons are more personal. Lafe (Wolfgang Reichmann) and Anna (Maria Schell) Lustig have come in the hopes of someday finding their son David (Michael Anderson, Jr.), who disappeared with the rest of the second Mars expedition.
Father Peregrine becomes obsessed with meeting the Martians, whom he suspects still live somewhere in the hills. He's willing to go to extreme lengths to find them, too. Eventually, he gets a bit more than he suspected out of the process.
One day, David appears at the Lustig residence out of nowhere. It's clear to Lafe that this "David" isn't really David at all. He suspects -- correctly -- that he's a Martian. But he also suspects that his wife, who's been mentally tweaked by "David" to not doubt his identity, couldn't handle losing her son twice in one lifetime. So he plays along, until Anna insists that they all go into town. When exposed to other humans, the Martian appears to each one in whatever form that person really wants to see -- for one family, it's their dead daughter. For a cop, it's the criminal he's been hunting. And so on. "David" flees to the local church, where he runs across Father Peregrine. Who almost kills him...not out of spite or anger, but because his deeply-held vision is that of Jesus, complete with wounds and pierced side. Col. Wilder -- who also wants to see a Martian, and bad -- shows up and tries to corner him. "David" eventually overloads from the mental images pulling him apart, and dies.
Sam and his wife Elma (Joyce van Patten) have started their diner at the intersection of two highways cutting across the Martian plains. Business isn't good, but Sam expects things to pick up once the next wave of colonists hit the ground. One day, a Martian shows up unannounced. Sam thinks he's packing heat, so he shoots him. Oops. More Martians show up, in their nifty sandships (portrayed by extremely shoddy plastic models). A chase ensues. Eventually the Martians catch up to Sam, and...deed him half of Mars. Didn't see that coming. They mention that "tonight is the night." Wait -- the Martians are Rod Stewart fans? Unfortunately, no; as Sam finds out when he watches a nuclear war break out on Earth that night.
[Change note: Virtually all of material contained in the book relating to this "era" was excised from the television version. Only two stories remain, "The Martian" (the Lustigs) and "The Off Season" (Sam Parkhill), with the former substantially changed here (the tie-in with the earlier expedition isn't present in the original). A third story, "Night Meeting," is also retained, but in a different context and in Part 3. The story of Father Peregrine is original to this version.]
* Part 3 -- The Martians
Earth is dead, mankind having consumed itself in a nuclear (apparently, and topically, a neutron bomb-related) holocaust. Most of the colonists on Mars had left when the planet was evacuated as the war broke out, so few people are actually left on the Red Planet. Most of those who remain were camping, or absent, or otherwise missed their boats home.
Among those few remaining colonists is Ben Driscoll (Christopher Connelly, Benji), a simple miner. He lives by himself in an abandoned town. One day, the phone rings. He isn't quick enough to answer it -- but now he knows that he's not the only person left on Mars. He dials every number in the phone book, hoping that the other person is a woman, until he hits upon an idea: call places where women would probably be hanging out if they're the last woman on Mars. Dialing up every beauty salon on the planet, he finally reaches Genevieve Selsor (Bernadette Peters, Pennies from Heaven), who's located about 1500 miles away from him. He flies all night to get to her, and discovers that...well, that she looks like Bernadette Peters. That's a very, very good thing for a lonely guy. Unfortunately, he also discovers that she's about as self-centered and egotistical as someone can be. He runs fleeing. Better to be the last lonely man on Mars than the last henpecked man on Mars, I guess.
Col. Wilder is still around, with his family, including his wife Ruth (Gayle Hunnicutt, Dallas), their two kids, and her two exceptionally perky PG-13 caliber breasts. ("Mommy, what are those two gigantic things poking through the front of Mrs. Wilder's sweater where the babies eat?") Wilder and Father Stone drop by the house of one of Wilder's old crewmembers, Peter Hathaway (Barry Morse, Space: 1999). He finds Hathaway in frail health -- but his wife and daughter look perfectly fine. They also look suspiciously young. Hmm.
Wilder returns to his family, but first he has an encounter with a real live Martian. [Change note: Here is where the story "The Martian," with Wilder inserted as its main character, was moved.] They're living in different eras, but decide to be friends. Wilder takes his family camping, to see some more real live Martians -- themselves, since Mars is now their only home.
Bradbury's "novel" isn't so much a work of science fiction as it is an extended parable, expounding on the dangerous colonial nature of humanity (whom Bradbury compares to "locusts" at one point). The parallels between the colonization of Mars and the colonization of America (especially the opening of the West) couldn't be more obvious. But for every instance of heavy-handedness on his part, there's a surprisingly eloquent piece like "There Will Come Soft Rains," the short-story equivalent of Shelley's poem "Ozymandius."
Unfortunately, all of that comes out in the wash in this version of The Martian Chronicles. In lieu of having a loosely-connected series of independent vignettes, the producers of this miniseries wisely chose to rework the material into one main story centering on Colonel Wilder. But in doing so, much of the richness of Bradbury's writing is lost. You're left with an interesting story, and a well-told story -- but kind of a dull story.
Here's The Martian Chronicles in a nutshell: People are introduced. Stuff happens to them. Occasionally, it involves Martians. Colonel Wilder shows up. Stuff happens to him. Lather, rinse, repeat. Dramatic tension: zero. There's nothing to dislike here -- it's all competently done -- but the show generates no real enthusiasm in this sci-fi fan's heart. I'd rather read the book again.
At least Rock Hudson is interesting. His character is, as written, pretty dull. But Rock brings all of his inherent rugged charm to bear on the role, and gives the good Colonel a bit of life. Fritz Weaver as the thoughtful priest is interesting as well; and it's always great to see Darren McGavin (playing, as always, Darren McGavin) in anything. Everyone else is...well, just fine, but uninspiring.
Pacing is a significant flaw in this miniseries. The total running time is just a shade under five hours, with ten minutes of that composed of "catch-up" clip segments at the beginning of Parts 2 and 3. It drags along at times, and you really feel like the film isn't setting a scene, or creating tension when it does -- it's flat-out wasting your time. If this were re-done as a two-part miniseries, with a much quicker tempo to the storytelling, it would be a far superior product.
I just can't emphasize how laughably bad most of the visual effects are. I built more realistic spaceship models when I was seven. The Mars rocketships (you can see the strings, by the way) look for all the world like giant space vibrators (sans French tickler, of course), and they're paired with the flimsiest landing craft I've ever seen. The quality is about one level above The Mr. Bill Show, and miles beneath even something as hokey as Thunderbirds. The "space disco" soundtrack doesn't help things. I guess the pitiful quality of these sequences is entertaining in its own way, but it really does bring down the impact of the show.
At least the transfer is nice. Colors are crisp and vivid, and the overall quality of the picture belies the age of this miniseries. It's presented in fullscreen format, of course, given its TV pedigree, with an acceptable Dolby 2.0 mono audio track. No extras are included, unless you count the ad for MGM products that appears on startup.
It should be noted that several of the stories from The Martian Chronicles, including some that were included here, were recreated on the syndicated television show The Ray Bradbury Theater, which can occasionally be seen on cable television. These versions (including a shockingly well-done "There Will Come Soft Rains") are uniformly better than anything in this miniseries. Seek them out if you're a Bradbury fan.
"Watching the movie" is a frequently-used shortcut by students who have to report on a well-known fictional work. The Martian Chronicles, though, is the anti-Cliff's Notes. Most people could probably finish the book in less time that it takes to watch this lugubrious story, and they'll also get a much better taste of the poetry and philosophy with which Bradbury infuses his work.
On the other hand, you've gotta love the Martians' excessively mask-based sense of fashion, and you can't disguise the quality of Bradbury's stories, even when they're dramatically retooled.
It's just a dull, but decent, sci-fi show. That's it.
Guilty, but given a light sentence. One shorter than the five hours I spent watching this...
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 293 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated