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S P E C I A L   S E C T I O N Destination Mars

The long, strange history of Mars and the movies

War of the Worlds July 3, 1997
Web posted at: 8:16 p.m. EDT (0016 GMT)

From Correspondent Dennis Michael

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The mysterious Martian surface may be the subject of intense scrutiny for scientists these days, but in Hollywood, our planetary neighbor is familiar ground.

Indeed, Earthlings have been experiencing Mars on their silver screens since way back in the silent movie era. But often, Hollywood's depictions have been, well, not quite on the mark.

For instance, in the move "Lobster Man From Mars," a character makes the urgent observation that Mars is "about to run out of air." Not a surprise, because Mars doesn't have any air -- at least not of the oxygen-laden kind we're used to on Earth.

My Favorite Martian

The Martian atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide. While the makers of the humorous "Lobster Man" might be forgiven for the liberties they took with Mars' chemical character, even higher-class writers have made similar mistakes.

Ray Bradbury, for instance, provided the Red Planet with a breathable atmosphere in his fantasy anthology, "The Martian Chronicles."

"They introduced me out at Cal Tech as ... the guy who put oxygen on Mars," jokes Bradbury. "It doesn't exist, but they accepted it because they're romantics, too."

Over the years, Hollywood storytellers have turned the canals and plains of Mars into something of a Rorschach blot -- glimpses at the Red Planet that perhaps say a lot more about Earthlings than they do about Martians.

Mars Needs Women

"Mars is also a place where we've projected our fears, our concerns, our dreams, our hopes," says astronomer John Mosely. "Mars is many things, and it should be many things. It's a symbol as well as a planet."

Mars, named after the Roman god of war, has declared war on Earth many times, from "The War of the Worlds" to "Invaders from Mars." Even beach movie regular Tommy Kirk had his own turn as a Martian in what may have been the lowest point in bi-planetary film relations -- the subtly-named, "Mars Needs Women."

The Martians invaded as recently as last summer, with Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks." Those invaders, at least, had a sense of humor.

Mars Attacks

It wasn't an invasion from Mars as much as a reconnaissance mission when "My Favorite Martian" established a beachhead on television on the 1960s. A movie version is now in the works.

Today, however, most science fiction writers know Mars is more a place to be invaded, rather than a source of invaders. Arnold Schwarazenegger, for example, led a revolt of Martian colonists in "Total Recall."

Perhaps Hollywood's fascination with Mars stems from the fact that, in planetary terms, it's part of the local neighborhood. As Ann Druyan, co-producer of the upcoming movie "Contact" puts it, "There is kind of a homey quality to Mars."

That is, as long as you remember to bring your own air.

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