movie review: Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars (1952)

What did you watch? The sci-fi, or is it, drama, Red Planet Mars (1952)

Sounds fun. Anyone of interest in the movie? Peter Graves.

Ooh, how much do we get to see him walking around a 50s imagined version of Mars? None.

Red Planet Mars has, unfortunately, nothing to do with going to Mars. It’s mostly two people talking in a room about talking to beings living on Mars, possibly. The “red” in Mars refers to something else on  Earth, and this movie packs an ideological whallop depending on your religious and economic views. Even though everyone stays on Earth, this movie takes you on a wild ride.

Peter Graves is a scientist who has a “hydrogen powered radio transmitter,” which was designed by a foreign scientist Calder, who is presumed dead. The transmitter is in a lab outside of Graves’  home, and he’s given permission by the government to try to use it to send a signal to Mars. What Graves doesn’t know is that Calder is alive and well, and working for the Soviets in a hidden radio outpost in South America. (I guess Calder would be a wanted war criminal, and maybe some of you might’ve heard jokes in the 80s of escaped  Nazis hiding out in Argentina. Anyone?)

It is implied that Graves sends a message to Mars, and the Martians write back, but it’s Calder who is using his technology to mess with Graves. This is quite the prank, on a destabilized society level. The “answers” to individual queries escalate to breaking American society. Martians live for 300 years? HR types fret over retirement plans and pensions that will eat into their profits (I’m extrapolating the last part, but this is a scene in the film). Martians can sustain themselves on very little food? The agricultural industry nearly collapses.  Martians power their planet on fission and don’t need coal? This is the one that ends it for America, as workers don’t see  the point in going to work, and captains of industry complain to the President of The United States to dear god please end Graves’ scientific breakthrough.

It’s hard to tell how seriously this movie takes itself here, if this is a gag or if audiences who saw it in 1952 were smirking to themselves.  In a lens developed in the last five years, it’s kind of ridiculous, something you’d see in The Onion or Hard Times of captains of industry sitting in the same room with cigars who can’t do anything as they hear the translated answers from Mars regarding their socialist paradise. Even truly subversive 50s scifi and noir that tries to sneak in criticism of unchecked capitalism has to play by some rules before a Senate subcommittee throws the filmmakers into  prison, which is whyiIt’s even more difficult to tell after how serious this movie really intends to be after what happens next.

The President allows for one more answer to be translated and broadcast, and it’s a doozy. How do the Martians maintain peace since they obviously have the energy and might and knowhow to kill each other or begin interplanetary conquest? DUH: they follow the basic tenets of Jesus Christ, which is why they’re getting along ok, and also why Earthlings are miserable. Ya dummies.

This totally backfires on the Soviets, of which everyone there was like “haha look at the Americans and how miserable they are, wait’ll they have to file a help ticket with the Party when they need to replace a lost boot! Wait, did the Martians say that Jesus was real? And that contentment can be ours by giving Jesus thanks once in a while?” If this goofy recap doesn’t resonate with you at all, this is the kind of things I and everyone growing up through the 1980s had to hear about regarding the USSR until it fell apart.

There’s another revolution in Russia, basically, and everyone’s basically Catholic again. Haha, sure, America’s economy grinded to a halt, but your State as God is no more! This is a narrative nose dive, and no fun anymore, by the way. A lot of this movie is Peter Graves and his wife in their lab, the captains of industry in their shared boardroom, the Soviets in their command center, and then the news of the USSR’s collapse covers for its laziness of the language barrier by having the Soviets demand that they speak English to each other, and then the British diplomat to the USSR makes the announcement of the completed revolution for the Russians.

America kind of relaxes about having to give up maximized profits at every second of the day since now they don’t have a global competitor. Graves and his wife are in their backyard lab enjoying this subtle ease of world peace when Caldor storms in. He claims to have not only fooled Graves & America with his pro-commie Mars non-worker paradise, but also says that as an escaped WW2 German war criminal (my assessment) he got back at the Soviets by making up messages about how the Martians’ love for Jesus is what made their lives great. Graves & his wife insist that Caldor’s math isn’t correct – at some point, the signals that came from Mars couldn’t have been Caldor sending a signal from his hydrogen transmitter in South  America, that some of these answers must be from the Martians and real.

And as if the Martians were watching this unfold with a telescope, they send another message. Calder freaks out and shoots the hydrogen transmitter, and the whole place blows up, killing him, Graves, and Graves’ wife. The message? A biblical quote, basically saying good job, Earthlings.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. Right?

Was it good? Uh… it’s incredibly talky, and the USSR’s own disruption and just desserts is just TOO hokey, but I’m not seeing this in 1952. It might have been trite, some kind of warning to moviegoers about competing societies ready to go to war at the drop of a hat. The terror America undergoes because what’s the point in going and mining coal anymore feels too serious after the goofy reaction the bean counters have when wondering what they’d do if they had to provide pensions for 250 years. And then, the Martians’ Christianity, which is at least not the Prosperity Christianity (I forgot the actual term) that we have to deal with today, because then the Martian’s next message after Do Unto Others would be the 11th commandment,  “Get back in the mines and get your boss some of that wonderful coal!”

What makes it truly bad though is how misleading this movie must have been in 1952. You see one xray of Mars at the beginning, and then the rest of the movie is Graves looking at some kind of oscilloscope radar screen and then stock footage! The Soviets! The worried captains of industry! The poster shows Graves looking at a screen of a terrifying Martian landscape. Nothing like that whatsoever happens. You just get blah blah blah blah pretentious world peace, that almost feels like parody, but isn’t.

Was anything worth it? It’s an interesting concept, but what a cop-out. It’s a talky drama and there’s probably some plots or story beats that could have gone another way. Graves becomes despondent as American  society blames him for exposing the world to Mars’ lazy utopia. Show a man who loses all faith from society for his scientific discovery and becoming the first person (since Jesus?) to speak to and create an ongoing dialog with an alien race, but he keeps at it for the sake of knowledge and people hate him more. Forbidden fruit, or book of Job? Or the aliens POV as they share their knowledge willingly and can’t figure out why Earthlings are losing their minds over it and making it worse for themselves. Make it a comedy!

I said a lot here, but not nearly as much as this movie.

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