Despite its title, all of the action on Red Planet Mars takes place on Earth, but perhaps the red refers to the ‘Red Scare’ that is at the heart of this story that imagines how the world would be changed if we discovered that intelligent life existed on the planet next door.
Based on a play titled Red Planet, Red Planet Mars was released in 1952. It tells the story of a scientist (capably played by the always reliable Peter Graves) who uses radio waves to communicate with Mars. He is accelerating his efforts as recent telescopic observations have shown evidence that there are engineered canals on the Red Planet bringing water from the north polar cap to its mid-latitude deserts. Wasn’t that trope dead by the time Edgar Rice Burroughs used it in his John Carter of Mars stories?
In one of the movie’s many references to the Cold War and impending nuclear doom, his wife (Andrea King) warns him that contacting Martians may not be such a good idea. Mars was the God of War, after all. She also reminds him that Nobel invented dynamite and Einstein’s theories led to the atomic bomb and thinks his work could lead mankind into oblivion. He shrugs her off and continues tapping on his telegraph key to send, presumably, Morse code signals to Mars.
We learn that some of the Grave’s research is based on work done by a former Nazi war criminal and scientist and the drama begins when we learn that he is now working for the Russians out of an observatory in the Chilean Andes. He, too, is trying to contact the Martians via radio.
Eventually, Graves, whose work has come to the attention of the United States government, receives a visit from an admiral who cracked Japanese military codes during the Second World War. They come up with the idea, with the help of the scientist’s son, to broadcast the value of pi to Mars and see if they get a response. When they do, it causes a sensation.
We are treated with montages of spinning newspaper headlines and frenzied reactions when the world learns that the Martians live to be more than 300 years old, have efficient farms and use cosmic energy to power everything. Coal mines close! Steel mills close! It’s economic chaos.
Things really go off the rails when the Martians learn about Earth’s violent history. They reply that we were told generations ago that we should use knowledge for good, not war. Are they referring to the Sermon on the Mount? The headline is “God speaks from Mars!”
Oppressed Russians start digging up buried holy relics and openly defying the Soviet ban on religious gatherings. It sparks a revolution in the Soviet Union that sees a theocratic and democratic government take power.
The world is turned upside down and then so is the story when the Nazi scientist appears on Graves’ doorstep and tells him that he faked all of the messages and that there are no Martians. He threatens to expose the hoax, but Graves ignites a hydrogen explosion in his lab that kills him, his wife and the German war criminal.
In the final frame of the movie, instead of the usual “The End” shot, we are told it’s “The Beginning,” presumably of a new age where religious ideas destroyed the Godless Communists and we can now all live in peace.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think how would such a scenario play out today. Would such a message cause the sort of chaos and economic upheaval portrayed in this film? Somehow I doubt it. Still, Red Planet Mars is a pleasant film that is an interesting artifact from that era and has plenty of twists and turns to keep you watching. And while it might not be a reliable forecaster of how the Soviet Union finally did collapse, it does feature a scene that shows the scientist’s cool, mid-century home that featured a flat-screen television on the wall above his fireplace. Now that’s science fiction!
Ready to watch Red Planet Mars?