The second film shown at last night’s Mars Movie Screening was a much better — but still not very good — movie, Mission Mars, made in 1968 by Red Ram Productions and Sagittarius Productions (their logos looked an awful lot like those of porn studios and some of the cast members were billed with names that sounded like porn aliases, too), directed by Nicholas Webster from a story by Aubrey Wisberg (a recognized screenwriter with some not-bad credits on his résumé) and a script by Michael St. Clair. At least it had the advantage of actors you’ve actually heard of, like Darren McGavin and Nick Adams, who play two of the three scheduled crew members on a spaceship scheduled to fly from Earth to Mars over a nine-month period. McGavin is actually excellent within the extreme limitations of his character, mission commander Col. Mike Blaiswick: in the opening scene we’re shown him in bed with his wife Edith (a not-bad performance by Heather Hewitt, though her character is the typical Astronaut’s Stepford Wife) and, though clearly considerably older than she, he’s hot enough one can readily understand their continued attraction. Nick Grant (Nick Adams) is also married, though his wife Alice (Shirley Parker) whines about how he’s never home because he’s always searching for some new place, new frontier, new horizon to explore. (Adams is considerably more bloated than he was when he appeared in films with James Dean, but he speaks his lines in the mumbling monotone he picked up from Dean and in fact learned to do so well that when George Stevens, director of Giant, realized during his editing, well after Dean’s death, that Dean’s recording of his final speech was unusable, he had Adams dub it in.) Mission Mars has one howlingly funny lapse of continuity — supposedly Mike has got Edith pregnant just before he takes off on his nine-month mission, but when he actually gets to Mars she looks exactly the same and there’s no indication that she’s actually had the baby, which one would ordinarily expect to have happened in nine months!
Other than that, it’s an O.K. but rather dull film that overexplains the science behind everything (a flaw in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster as well — at the opening of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster Dr. Nadir tells the Princess, “We continue to hear modulated hydrogen frequency signal of 21 centimeters, Princess,” to which she replies, “What does that mean?” — our question exactly!) and in which very little happens until the astronauts actually reach Mars. There they encounter a weird little thing that looks like a cross between a Giacometti sculpture and E.T. which turns out to be a solar panel hooked up to a ray gun, so it can fire an intense beam of sun-derived energy at anything and thereby do things like melt holes in metal. The big Martian whatsit we see, though, is a round ball textured to look like a moon that parks itself next to the U.S. spaceship and makes it impossible for Our Astronauts — there are three, Blaiswick, Grant and Duncan (George De Vries, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than his two better-known co-stars until he got fried by the Martians’ mobile solar panel midway through the Mars sequence) — to fire their rockets and launch the trip back home to Earth as their Mission Control people back home asked them to. There’s also an earlier Mars probe launched by the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) which also had three astronauts on board; the crew finds two of them dead in mid-space, perpetually orbiting Mars, and the third one they locate on the surface, think is dead but take his body anyway with the intent of giving him/her/it/whatever a decent burial back home.
Eventually — a very long “eventually” — it turns out that the big ball wants one of them to stay behind and enter it, and with Duncan having already been fried by the Martian solar-energy machine it’s Nick who decides that as a man who’s always wanted to go to the next unexplored place for the next exciting adventure, he’ll enter the spacecraft and go to wherever with the aliens, while Mike unthaws the frozen Soviet cosmonaut and impresses him into service as his co-pilot for the trip home. Mission Mars is a bad movie, wretchedly written and (aside from McGavin) acted with virtually zero authority or skill, yet it’s one of those bad movies in which one detects the basic ingredients of a good movie fighting to try to get out of it. It was made in 1968 and features two more O.K. rock songs, only one of which (“No More Tears” by a group called — I kid you not — “The Forum Quorum”) is listed on imdb.com, and it was in color — though the color was probably not that great to begin with and the film has faded into the dusky greens and dirty browns that are the 21st Century cinematographers’ vision of just about everything. The color helps, and so does a well-thought script — indeed, a bit too well-thought script that violates the basic rule of science fiction: don’t explain the technology. As Gene Roddenberry put it in his prospectus for Star Trek, “Joe Friday doesn’t explain how his .38 revolver works before he fires it at the bad guy, so Captain Kirk shouldn’t explain how his phaser works, either.”