Saturday, June 22, 2019

Escape from Mars (Paramount Television, Credo Entertainment Group, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Escape from Mars — a bit of a misnomer because the titular escape doesn’t actually happen until the last few minutes — turned out to be even better, written by Jim Henshaw and Peter Mohan and directed by Neill Fearnley. A 1999 production of Paramount Television, it posited that humans would fly the world’s first successful Mars mission in 2015 (in Special Journey it was 2005!) and that in this vision of the future the private sector funded the mission with the idea that they could turn a profit by mining the abundant supply of diamonds and other precious jewels on Mars. (Even if those jewels existed, flooding the market with a whole new supply of them from Mars would significantly and precipitously drive down their price — a bit of elementary Economics 101 that seems to have eluded Messrs. Henshaw and Mohan.) The complications on this one are a meteor shower that virtually destroys their spacecraft, the Sagan (naming it after the celebrity scientist Carl Sagan was a nice touch!), once it’s landed on Mars and they’re supposed to stay there 18 months and build a base of operations for a future colony, as well as some bizarre romantic complications that threaten for a while to turn this movie into Mars: The Soap Opera

The mission commander, John Rank (Peter Outerbridge), receives word just before the blast-off that his wife Stephanie (Tammy Isbell) is divorcing him — though he keeps that information from the private-sector bigwigs lest they decide he’s in too much emotional turmoil to fly the spacecraft and replace him. His second-in-command, Liz Poirer (Christine Elise), gets a last-minute sexual experience from her hot boyfriend back home whom she plans to marry after her return — only, in a nicely ironic touch, she makes it back but he doesn’t: he gets killed in a traffic accident on Earth and she receives word of this on Mars. We get a “plant” of the main intrigue when we’re told by one of the officials that Mars experiences meteor showers just like Earth does, only because Mars’s atmosphere is so thin they don’t burn up on entry and therefore they become lethal projectiles — and a series of meteors take out some of the Earth colonists’ structures and damage the Sagan so it’s touch-and-go whether they’ll have a flyable spacecraft for their escape from Mars. With better production values than Special Report and a more complete portrayal of the mission (though, in order to use stock footage of space shuttle launches, the makers of Escape from Mars made their ship look exactly like the shuttle — promoting a lot of “Goofs” posters on who pointed out that the shuttle’s own rocket motors can only steer it into Earth orbit and land it safely, not take off from a planet and overcome its gravity), Escape from Mars is an even tougher project, more suspenseful and more entertaining, and the finale (Commander Rank discovers both water and life on Mars even though he gives up his life doing so — and, as an ironic result, he facilitates the others’ escape now that they only have four people to fly off the planet and provide life-support for, not five) is especially moving. These are both films that deserve to be better known!