20th Century Fox
Yesterday, as part of the 53rd Annual New York City Film Festival, the Lincoln Center put on a sneak preview of The Martian. Cast and crew from the film were in attendance; director Ridley Scott offered a few words about his film prior to the screening and warned audiences that our reception to the first joke would make or break his entire evening. And with every seat in the house filled, the audience settled in to find out if a savvy, handsome astronaut had what it takes to survive being stranded on Mars.
A lot of praise for the film has been directed at its science-heavy approach and its spirit of unflagging cooperation; the film even offers a world where Chinese and American space agencies can combine to put together a rescue plan for one man. And yet, no critic is saying what we are really thinking: if Matt Damon’s character does indeed make it out of the movie alive, he might very well be the first. Mars in movies has never been kind to those who traveled there. Between sentient dust storms, a lack of oxygen, and countless versions of hostile aliens, Hollywood has spent the last quarter-century killing countless explorers who set foot on the red planet.
Here are some of the Mars movies – and body counts – that not even Mark Watney could survive.
Mission to Mars
A few years back, as part of an effort to see every movie nominated for an Academy Award, I saw Gravity in theaters with my fiancée. I liked the film and, turning to tell her as much, discovered that she had spent the entire film silently sobbing. I learned that the only thing that makes her more upset than the thought of dying alone in space is when people willingly sacrifice themselves so that others might live. This probably means we’ll never watch Mission to Mars. Granted, its sincerity as a 2001 successor means that it has not aged particularly well, and Tim Robbins’s Commander Blake isn’t the only person to die in Mission to Mars — the three Russian astronauts from the beginning of the film are each killed horribly, either decapitated by a rock or drawn-and-quartered by a Martian sandstorm. But when Blake pulls off his helmet to ensure that his wife won’t waste precious fuel trying to save his life? That’ll have me on the couch for a week.
There are a handful of Mars-related deaths in Red Planet, one of the great guilty pleasures of my high school years (alongside The Saint and The Ghost and the Darkness and The Salton Sea, which might cause you to notice a trend). One astronaut is accidentally thrown to his death from a Martian cliff; another is killed by a homicidal robot; a third blows himself up rather than being eaten by oxygen-producing bugs. But the best death in the film is also the quietest: Terence Stamp, elder statesman of the Mars-1 crew, who chooses to quietly succumb to his injuries after crash-landing on the planet’s surface. Much like the aforementioned Mission to Mars, Red Planet is a film that underscores its entertainment with the implicit knowledge that mankind must travel to the stars and, as a result, any deaths that occur are both noble and selfless. While Red Planet may be (delightful) genre fluff from top to bottom, it still carries in it a little bit of that pioneer spirit that makes NASA movies great.
Centuries from now, when humanity has colonized Mars and moving pictures are a boutique medium for those who tire of virtual reality, hipster Martian children will still find reasons to refer to Total Recall’s glorious puppet Arnold as he gasps for air. Total Recall may be more interested in spectacle than hard science-fiction, but the idea that other planets might be terraformed to become hospital to humans has been an essential part of the latter since the heyday of Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. And sure, maybe the lasting image of Vilos Cohaagen’s bulging eyes and bloated neck don’t quite tap into the scientific potential that terraforming offers humanity as a species, but there are plenty of people out there who probably only know the concept through Verhoeven’s film. Total Recall is probably more pervasive in popular culture than The Martian could ever hope to be.
Ghosts of Mars
It’s probably not unfair to accuse John Carpenter of plagiarizing himself a little with Ghosts of Mars. Like Attack on Precinct 13, you have the central story of a law enforcement officer and a criminal who are forced to join sides to survive an all-out assault; you also have the themes of sublimation of self and the occult that appear in Carpenter films like The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Still, even The Master himself can’t pass on the allure of a terraformed Mars and an ancient civilization that handles its first encounter with humanity pretty poorly. Discounting the titular Martian ghosts, all of the death in this one is of the old-fashioned hand-to-hand variety: people are shot, stabbed, and beaten by possessed miners, and poor Clea DuVall’s Bashira Kincaid can travel hundreds of millions of miles between planets only to be decapitated by thrown circular saw blade when she gets there.
This one doesn’t really feel like Mars’s fault. Like the other films on this list, humanity travels to other planets and discovers the presence of a past life; unlike other films, however, humanity skips a few (hundred) steps in the process and starts injecting itself with this alien substance right away. Doom arguably wins for the highest possible body count on the list; even excluding the monster-on-soldier action that makes up most of the film, when Dwayne Johnson’s Sergeant Mahonin goes all plot-device bibbildy during the quarantine, what seems like hundreds of civilians and scientists are gunned down under his orders. There is a scene in The Martian where Damon’s character scans the horizon and quietly remarks that he is the first person to experience this for the first time; to that, Doom offers Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban in a fist-fight for the sake of the planet. Dignity. Always dignity.