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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mission Mars

A small production company's effort at science fiction, Mission Mars (MM) is an anachronism. It is a late 50s movie in almost every way, yet shot in 1967, released in the summer of '68. If it weren't for being shot in color, and the groovy electronic keyboard score, MM would be totally at home as a B-movie from the late 50s. The existence of posters tell of at least a limited theatrical release, but much about the film suggests that television was it's intended market. Darren McGavin stars. Nick Adams co-stars.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Edith wakes from a bad dream about astronauts lost in space. Her astronaut husband Mike (McGavin) comforts her. He blasts off for Mars in the morning. They go for a romantic frolic on the beach beforehand. She wants to have a baby. Nick, the mission geologist, has a troubled relationship with his wife Alice. He's a pioneer. She wants stability. He promises this will be his last mission (so viewers know he's doomed). Duncan, the navigator, is single, therefore expendable. Eventually, they blast off in a flurry of stock NASA footage. They dock up with their supply ship and head for Mars. The trip is long and dull, so is filled with exposition about Mars factoids. Mike and Duncan eat reconstituted omelets. Nick eats a smuggled pastrami sandwich. They come across the bodies of two lost Russian cosmonauts floating in space. Where is the third? Once finally at the planet, they descend to land, but must eject the supply module prematurely. They don their space suits and go find the errant supply module, leaving a trail of tethered balloons to mark their path back. Nick stumbles upon the body of the third Russian, frozen stiff. Nick takes him back to the ship. Mike and Duncan find the supply module, but it has a hole burned in its side by someone or something. Their trail of marker balloons are gone. As they approach their ship, a strange creature appears. it flashes Duncan and Mike in the eyes. Nick blasts it with his laser rifle. A bunch of the Polarites appear and attack them with more light bursts and heat. The three get into their ship. They can't take off, for some reason. Ground control suggests they get more boosters from the supply pod. Mike and Duncan do this while the sentry Polarite is asleep in a shadow. (they use solar power, you see) A twelve foot diameter sphere appears near the ship. Duncan goes to check it out, but Polarites attack him, burning him to death. The sphere pulls his body inside itself. The sphere speaks to Mike, saying that it wants one of them alive. The Russian thaws out (alive!) and tells them the sphere is solar powered too. They can't wait for the Martian night, so Nick volunteers to out and shoot the center of the sphere. He senses his next great adventure, so opts to go inside instead. The sphere blows up. (?) Mike and the Russian manage to blast off in the ship. En route home, Edith tells Mike he's going to be a father. Smiles and laughter all around. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Released in the same year as Kubrik's techno-masterpiece, 2001, MM is a techno-throwback to the way B movies were made in the 50s. Model landscapes, wet suits as space suits, open motorcycle helmets, model aliens and lots and lots of stock footage. For fans of 50s style, MM isn't cheesy, it's fun!

Cold War Angle
This is only faintly present as back story. The Russians and Americans are 'racing' to be the first on Mars. The Russians lost, but maybe won? The fact that one American and one Russian survive to return is a subtle reconciliation message.

Notes
The Okay Stuff -- Fully half of MM is taken up with the human drama of astronauts and their wives and whether they have the mettle for such boldly going where no man has gone before. This sort of NASA drama was very much in vogue in mid 60s "realistic" space fictions. (Countdown was an example of this in '68 as well). Yet, this part of the movie is its weakest -- establishing that all involved had, if not the Right Stuff, some Okay Stuff.

Red Shirts Alert -- Seasoned movie viewer were handed easy clues early on that the characters of Duncan and Nick were not going to survive. Duncan brags that he's a bachelor, so viewers know he's doomed. He's expendable. He might as well have been wearing a red shirt. Viewers know that Nick is doomed before he starts when he promises Alice that he's coming back and that this will be his last mission. He might as well have put ON a red shirt right then.

NASA Stock -- Much use is made of stock footage from NASA. Several programs' clips are used indiscriminately. Most, but not all, are of various Apollo missions: Gantry shots, launch shots, ground crew shots. A set that gets frequent use, is footage of the AS-203 mission. This was an early Apollo effort, but the rocket (with the big white nose cone), carried no astronauts or even craft. It was a test of the Saturn 1B rocket's ability to cold-start in space.

Multi-Multi-Stage -- Note the heavy use and re-use of the NASA footage of a booster stage being jettisoned. This footage was used for that same step in Mars-1's lift-off, but was used again, run backwards, for the docking of the ship with the supply module. It was run forwards again for the ejection of the supply module. It was then run backwards again as part of the landing-on-Mars sequence. Director Nicholas Webster got his mileage out of that clip.

Breathing Room -- Modern viewers scoff at the unsealed helmets the astronauts wear. These were fairly common in the 50s, before the Mariner 4 probe determined that Mars had too thin of atmosphere for men to breathe, and too little oxygen. According to the director's son, Lance, who acted as a gopher on the set (this from imdb), the original prop helmets were sealed, but not to McGavin's liking. (Being a bit tight for his prominent nose). New (motorcycle) helmets with partial shields were made up. Some text was added to the script suggesting that Mars had marginally breathable air, only needed supplemental oxygen. Viola! Nose, script and props harmonized.

Artsy Effort -- Webster was experienced in television production, but had done only a few movies prior to MM. One of them was the tragically annoying Santa Claus Conquers the Martians ('64) Yet, Webster showed he had an artistic side. Note is use of multiple fast cuts and overlays of sound. He used rapid video montages to help perk up the dogged pace of the script. In this, one can see the seeds of "modern" television of the 80s and 90s before the restless-cam fad took over.

Cross Marketing Music -- Decca Records tried to pump a little music sales by getting the single "No More Tears" by the group, Forum Quorum, grafted in as the title theme. The tune is pure 60s pop rock ballad-style fare, but has nothing to do with the film. The movie did not appear to "rocket" the single up the charts. "No More Tears" failed to make the top 100. Of course, it was up against the likes of The Beatles' "Hey Jude", Simon and Garfunkle's "Mrs. Robinson", and The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash".

Bottom line? MM is fun stuff for fans of the old low-budget films, such as Angry Red Planet ('60) or Missile to the Moon ('59), etc. If those sorts of films annoy you, or if 60s-style jazzy electric keyboard music annoys you, you should avoid MM. If, however, you enjoyed old films like Catwomen of the Moon ('53) or Fire Maidens from Outer Space ('56), then MM will feel comfortably familiar and even a bit cerebral in comparison.

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