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The Movies Tell Us: How To Get Our Ass to Mars

What’s the best way to get to Mars? Here are ten options as seen in the movies.
Total Recall Mars
TriStar Pictures
By  · Published on July 31st, 2014

This month, NASA tweeted a great bite of optimism about the future of space exploration: “First humans to step on Mars are alive today.” The statement was followed by a link to what they’re calling the “Next Giant Leap,” a loose plan compiling their expected missions over the next few decades culminating in a manned trip to the red planet.

The tweet, however, may not necessarily refer to American humans or a NASA operation. With the United Arab Emirates announcing, also this month, that they’re sending an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021, and with at least Japan, China, India, Russia and the European Space Agency all currently involved in the planet’s exploration, we’re experiencing a new space race.

Will we see humans on Mars by the 2030s as NASA proposes? Or even in the lifetime of today’s newborn infants as was promised on social media? The answer won’t be known until then, obviously. How such a trip will be achieved isn’t even certain yet. But maybe the movies can help us with transportation options.

For more than a century, cinema has provided us with stories of man traveling to Mars. Many were released in innocent times as far as knowledge of both the planet and space exploration are concerned, and those are quite preposterous. Yet unlike Moon landings in movies (which have a real counterpart to compare to) there’s really no way for us to tell yet what is completely credible.

Some examples are currently known or at least believed to be genuinely implausible, but to some degree every mission to Mars we’ve seen on the big screen is probably wrong. So take the following methods (spread over 13 movies) each with an equal grain of salt, regardless of whether they seem totally ridiculous or totally convincing.

Method: Reverse-Gravity Potion
Movie: A Trip to Mars (1910)
Year Set: 1910?

In this five-minute silent short produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Ashley Miller, a man concocts a sort of fizzy lifting drink that allows him to float up to Mars. Of course, this anti-gravity potion is an impossible means of space travel because there is no gravity in space. There’s also no oxygen, so even if a potion allowed a man to fly from here to Mars, he’d suffocate along the way.

Method: Planetary Proximity
Movie: Himmelskibet, aka A Trip to Mars (1918)
Year Set: 1918?

The actual method of transport in this silent Danish feature is a simple spaceship that looks a bit too related to airplane designs of the time. Planetary proximity is more of a strategy for the mission to get to Mars through as little distance as possible. It’s a given today that we’d want to shoot to the planet when it’s closest to Earth, and that’s not difficult as the alignment happens every 26 months. Not that shooting straight is the best option, but that nearest proximity idea is still part of the equation. It’s pretty amazing that a movie this old would have such authentic thinking and bother to give a whole expositional slideshow scene illustrating that thinking.

Method: Large Ship Built Off Earth
Movie: Conquest of Space (1955)
Year Set: Late 1950s

“See how it will happen … in your lifetime!” exclaimed the poster for this George Pal-produced sci-fi flick that aimed for as much authenticity as it could. And like Himmelskibet, it was pretty smart about the logistics of getting to Mars. First the U.S. builds a space station that orbits the Earth. Then, from there they build a giant spaceship that couldn’t have been constructed on our planet. And that ship is then used to travel to the red planet. It’s also notable for dealing with how the trip fits into one of the crew’s religious beliefs. Basically, another way to get to Mars, safely anyway, is to make sure all aboard don’t suddenly see the mission as blasphemous.

Method: Stow Away On Someone Else’s Ship
Movies: Just Imagine (1930), Conquest of Space (1955), and Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Year Set: 1980/late 1950s/2011

Now that so many other nations and private companies are interested in space travel, we don’t even need to develop our own means of getting to Mars. We can hitch a ride on someone else’s ship. In fact, that’s what many NASA astronauts do now, basically, to get to the International Space Station – they go by way of Russian-commanded Soyuz spacecraft. It’s not quite the same as a character stowing away on a mission to Mars in the sci-fi musical Just Imagine, and literally hiding aboard probably won’t be very safe, but there may still be something prescient about this early sound film. In the case of Conquest of Mars, it’s a man who had wanted in on the mission but was deemed too old. And in Mars Needs Moms, it’s more of an accidental stowing as a kid winds up in a Martian ship while trying to get the aliens to release his mother. Oh, that’s another way to get your ass to Mars…

Method: Abduction
Movies: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Year Set: 1964/2011

For such a bad movie, Mars Needs Moms is pretty lucky to be a part of two entries in this guide. In the Disney family film, Martians kidnap Earthling mothers every 25 years because that’s when their young hatch and they need to connect a maternal human to a machine programming their nanny robots. For Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a cult film because of how bad it is (thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000), there’s also an issue with Martian children and so the planet’s dwellers abduct St. Nick for their very own. Not to spoil what the title already does, but he defeats them. One movie, however, tells us that being kidnapped is not foolproof: the Martian mission of 1967’s Mars Needs Women fails and the aliens go home empty handed.

Method: Join a Rescue Team
Movies: It! The Terror from Beyond (1958) and Mission to Mars (2000)
Year Set: 1973/2020

If there’s one thing we can learn from the movies, it’s that you never want to be on the first mission anywhere. That’s like the test mission, and often in sci-fi movies it’s the one that is lost or attacked or otherwise doomed. The rescue missions don’t always fare any better, but they do have the benefit of being more cautious and hopefully learning something of the danger that made the first mission fail. So, don’t get upset about not being first picked, and if you still really want to get to Mars in spite of a most likely death then join up with the rescue team. In It! The Terror from Beyond they’re the ones that seem to get to Mars and save the single survivor of the first mission and then turn around and head home. Unfortunately they also bring back a nasty alien creature. In Mission to Mars, most of the rescue team make their way safely to and from the planet, and one of them even gets invited by some non-nasty alien creatures to venture further into space with them.

Method: Fake It
Movie: Capricorn One (1977)
Year Set: Near Future

Given that we faked the Moon landing, we might as well do the same with Mars, right? Never mind the conspiracy theories of what has actually happened. Inspired by and probably helping to encourage those theories, though, this Peter Hyams movie imagines a situation where NASA (which actually cooperated with production) attempts to pull a hoax when an intended genuine mission to Mars ends up having problems. This is seen as a better idea than canceling the event, because it will keep faith in the space program alive. Astronauts played by O.J. Simpson, James Brolin and Sam Waterston are ordered and then threatened to participate in the deception and keep the secret to the grave following the faked mission.

Method: The Next Shuttle
Movie: Total Recall (1990)
Year Set: 2084

If NASA is right, then people will be landing on Mars before 2115. But how long before there’s a full colony and regular flights to the planet for business, pleasure or secret agent missions to save the world? The first adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” has that happening as soon as 70 years from now, but whether then or much, much later, perhaps the best and easiest way for most of us to get to Mars is to wait for shuttle service (hopefully we live that long via some future anti-aging drug). Let’s all be prepared for customs, though, and if we need a disguise make sure it’s one that can answer all the basic questions asked there.

Method: Design Complicated Guidance System Software
Movie: RocketMan (1997)
Year Set: 1997?

These instructional movies need not be about a whole national program getting to Mars. Here is a Disney comedy that’s a bit more geared to the individual looking to hop aboard a ship already pointed at the red planet. We’ve already established that stowing away in a literal sense isn’t going to work, but if you don’t have the goods to become a career astronaut yet are really smart, then you can design software for a craft’s computer that isn’t easily understood by anyone besides you. Yeah, it’s very specific.

Method: Teleportation
Movies: Doom (2005) and John Carter (2012)
Year Set: 2046/1868

It’s interesting that two of the most recent movies on this list have the most unbelievable method of getting to Mars since the early Edison short. Doom, an adaptation of the popular video game series not only sees people on Mars as soon as the 2040s but it has them traveling by the presently non-existent technology of teleportation rather than spacecraft. Technically it’s just a fortunate case of there being a wormhole between the planets, as the transportation device known as the Ark isn’t something we could use for just anywhere, but that’s no more plausible. For John Carter, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Barsoom” novels, the teleporting device is a medallion found on an alien hiding in an Arizona cave. That might be a rare find, but you never know.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.