Visions of Mars

by Graham Edwards

NASA's MAVEN probe approaches Mars

Image courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

MAVEN has reached Mars!

“Hold up!” I hear you cry. “What the heck is MAVEN?” Well, I’ll tell you. It’s the latest in a long line of spacecraft sent to gather data on the Red Planet. Its full title is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, and it’s the first of its kind, dedicated as it is to exploring in detail the upper atmosphere of Mars.

But all that’s a bit of a mouthful, so MAVEN it is.

One of the puzzles the MAVEN mission controllers are hoping to solve is the mystery of how the sun may have stripped Mars of its early atmosphere, creating a barren desert out of a world that may once have supported microbial life.

What they’re unlikely to find are the irradiated survivors of a doomed Martian race, a bat-headed spider, an abandoned atmosphere processing plant or a race of green, six-armed warriors.

All of the above have graced our cinema screens over the years, and little wonder. As one of Earth’s closest celestial neighbours, Mars has long fascinated filmmakers …

The Re-making of a Rocketship

One of the earliest movies to explore Mars was Rocketship X-M, in which a botched attempt to fix an engine glitch sends the crew of a moon rocket spinning so far off course that they eventually land on the Red Planet. Released in 1950, the film was shot in black and white, with the Martian sequences tinted red to evoke a suitably otherworldly atmosphere.

Bizarrely, the film was revisited – and to some extent remade – in the late 1970s, when lifelong fan Wade Williams acquired the rights, and set out to shoot new visual effects sequences. His aim? To introduce Rocketship X-M to a new audience hungry for interplanetary thrills to match the recently released Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Williams managed to assemble a team comprising some of the top VFX experts of the day, including Dennis Muren, Bob Burns, Tom Scherman, Robert Skotak and Harry Walton. Between them, they re-created the original spaceship in the form of a two-foot-tall miniature.

The "Rocketship X-M" reshoot visual effects crew.

The “Rocketship X-M” reshoot visual effects crew. Image from Cinemagic Issue 1.

In this extract from David Hutchison’s article Re-making “Rocketship X-M”, published in 1979 in the first issue of Starlog spinoff magazine Cinemagic, Mike Minor describes the process of building and shooting a foreground miniature of the rocket on location at Trona Pinnacle, near Death Valley:

“It took about three hours to complete the miniature. We had just barely enough time to get the takes. It was a constant battle, because as the day went on, the shadows got longer and the colors changed, so there was constant repainting. The 40-mph winds moved the rocket ever so slightly, even with the brace Tom had built. The takes in which the rocket moved, of course, will not be used – it looks like an earthquake had started!”

More Mars

Ever since Rocketship X-M was first released, like a planet trapped in endless orbit Mars has periodically circled back into movie theatres. After Conquest of Space came the dubious thrills of The Angry Red Planet. In 1964, Mars even got a visit from Robinson Crusoe. Later, the planet’s desolate deserts popped up on the small screen, when Rock Hudson starred in a 1980 TV mini-series adapted from Ray Bradbury’s classic The Martian Chronicles.

In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger visited an especially lurid Martian landscape in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. A decade later, a slew of less-than-successful Martian movies arrived – and swiftly departed. Among them were Mission to Mars, Red Planet and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.

Simmering beneath all these was the rumoured adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s definitive science fiction trilogy – Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars – a project originally pursued by James Cameron and now, by all accounts, mired somewhere in Hollywood development hell*.


In 2012, Disney released John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs “Barsoom” books, the first of which was A Princess of Mars. As with previous Martian movies, depicting the Red Planet’s barren landscape was a fundamental requirement.

Just as with the reshoot of Rocketship X-M, a  location in North America was chosen for key exteriors. In this extract from Joe Fordham’s in-depth article Under the Moons of Mars, published in Cinefex 129, Stanton describes why Utah was the perfect analogue of Mars for location shooting on Earth:

“There’s something about the northern part of the Grand Canyon going into Utah. You can just tell that the whole landscape was once underwater. That is pretty much the topography of Mars, and that is how it was described from a romantic standpoint in the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

Sue Rowe, who shared visual effects supervisor duties on John Carter with Peter Chiang, overseeing VFX vendors Double Negative, Cinesite, MPC and Nvizible, goes on to describe the peculiarly alien quality of the Utah light:

“Utah was a wonderful resource, with vast plains of red and ochre. And the light there was amazing. Back in the UK, I spent quite a lot of time explaining to my crew how the light was in Utah. Everything was so sharp and bright and highly contrasted, with huge over-exposures but still retaining details.”

Visions of Mars

Now that the MAVEN spacecraft has slipped smoothly into orbit – and with the Curiosity rover still romping across the Red Planet’s rocky terrain – Martian conditions no longer need to be simulated. Instead they can observed at close quarters. Still, I hope the mission controllers take a moment or two to train their cameras on some of the forgotten corners of that dry, desert realm.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll spot the long shadow of a sleek silver rocketship caressing the side of a remote sand dune. Perhaps they’ll see Arnie tumbling down the mountain slopes of Olympus Mons, with his eyes bulging and his hands clamped to his throat. They might even spy the long trail of the walking city of Zodanga as it marches relentlessly across the dusty plains.

Watch the NASA MAVEN video Targeting Mars:

Whatever new visions MAVEN does bring us, few words can be more appropriate to celebrate its arrival at Mars than those spoken by science fiction author Ray Bradbury in his address The Search for Life in Our Solar System, which he delivered at JPL, Pasadena, California on 8 October 1976:

“Today we have touched Mars. There is life on Mars, and it is us — extensions of our eyes in all directions, extensions of our mind, extensions of our heart and soul have touched Mars today. That’s the message to look for there: ‘We are on Mars. We are the Martians!’”

*Within days of this blog post first appearing, Variety reported that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels have just been snapped up for development by Spike TV and Vince Gerardis, co-executive producer of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones … Read the Variety report here

“Total Recall” photograph copyright © 1990 by Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. “John Carter” photographs copyright © 2011 by Walt Disney Pictures. John Carter ERB, Inc. All rights reserved.