THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
Review by Ed Nguyen
Rock Hudson, Gayle Hunnicutt, Bernie Casey, Roddy McDowall, Fritz Weaver,
Christopher Connelly, Nicholas Hammond, Darren McGavin, Bernadette Peters
Director: Michael Anderson
Audio: English mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, full-screen
Length: 293 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004
we were an honorable people. Now
see the depths to which we have inexorably fallen.”
the many celebrated science fiction authors over the years, three stand out as
the Great Ones - Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury.
All three were pioneers of the genre during its Golden Age, each playing
a significant role in popularizing and elevating science fiction from its early
pulp fiction beginnings to its current status as a legitimate form of mainstream
literature or even social commentary. Arthur
C. Clarke specialized in hardcore science fiction, while Asimov was renown for
his tales of robotics. Ray
Bradbury, however, was the most lyrical and experimental of the three authors,
and he frequently delved into horror and drama, too, among other genres.
In fact, Bradbury's stories were frequently a fusion of many different
styles with science fiction.
heart, Ray Bradbury was more of a short story writer than a true novelist.
Nonetheless, thanks to his celebrated novel The
Martian Chronicles, Bradbury's name is now virtually synonymous with the
planet Mars. First published in 1950, The
Martian Chronicles is widely regarded as a science fiction classic and
essential reading for all sci-fi enthusiasts.
It is not a novel in the true sense of the word but rather an anthology
of short stories (some previously published and some unique to the work).
As a whole, though, The Martian Chronicles presents an epic and cohesive narrative about
the exploration of Mars and the poignant consequences of its eventual
colonization for humanity.
course, Bradbury was hardly the first author to write about Mars.
In fact, the beginning of the public's on-going intrigue with Mars and
Martians can probably be attributed to Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiapparelli.
Back in the late 1870s, Schiapparelli described in his observations of
the Red Planet a series of "canali" marking the face of Mars.
The public took these descriptions to mean canals, attributing their
construction to a hypothetical Martian civilization, and thereafter the canals
of Mars quickly entered into the public consciousness as proof of life on Mars.
H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds
further expounded upon the possibility of an advanced but belligerent Martian
race, although it was Ray Bradbury's various short stories and the novel The Martian Chronicles which ultimately popularized the image of the
Martian race as an elegant and peaceful civilization in decline on a slowly
Bradbury's vision, the Martians were once a harmonious people, living in austere
simplicity in their desert homes, listening to their singing books and gliding
across the dunes in their graceful sand ships.
The Martians communicated via words and telepathy, and among them, the
Old Ones had even transcended a mortal or even corporeal existence.
the late 1970's, Bradbury himself would collaborate with noted science fiction
writer Richard Matheson to create a teleplay for his popular novel.
The eventual result was a nearly five-hour miniseries that aired on NBC
in January 1980. While the film
made some alterations in the stories, it retained enough of the essential
narrative arc to be a faithful adaptation of the novel's spirit and overall
tone. The film of The
Martian Chronicles was divided into three main parts, highlighting early
exploration of Mars, settlement on the planet by the people of Earth, and
eventual reconciliation and union between the disparate cultures of humanity and
major change from the novel for the film was the creation of a central
character. The original novel had
no single, identifiable protagonist, whereas the miniseries established a
recurring individual with whom audiences could empathize and whose progress and
enlightenment would give the miniseries more gravity and resonance.
Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson), as Program Director of the Mars
expeditionary project, was that character.
He was initially a man driven by aspirations of exploring the Red Planet
and of paving the way for its colonization.
However, his views would evolve and change through the course of the
miniseries as he gradually came to appreciate the true beauty and simplicity of
the Martian way of life.
the film opens, Earth has plunged into political chaos, its obstinate nations of
men upon the brink of a calamitous world war. With people increasingly desperate to flee before the final
Armageddon, scientists and scholars have begun to look to the stars for escape.
Mars, possessing a thin but breathable atmosphere and sufficient
life-sustaining resources, presents a possible safe haven.
And so, with the survival of the human race in the balance, courageous
astronauts brave the vast reaches of empty space for the first manned
expeditions to the Red Planet.
“Part One: The Expeditions,” the tale of three different missions is
unfolded. On the eve of the new
millennium, on January 1999, the first rocket ship blasts away from Earth’s
atmosphere, propelling its frail cargo of humanity towards the Red Planet. This first mission, adapted from the short story “Ylla,”
is a dream of humanity, the fleeting images within the mind of one Martian, Ylla,
of strange creatures arriving from the skies in their vessel of metal and fire.
Ylla tells her husband of her strange vision and, perturbed and perhaps
jealous, he decides to stake out the foreseen landing site.
The Martians being a telepathic people, dreams and “reality” for them
are not necessarily separate entities. Even
the concept of time/space holds little sway, and any philosophical discussion
over what is past and what is future must yield to the eventual acceptance of
the basic ideal of life as simple existence and the joy of pure being.
there beings from the third planet truly on their way to Mars?
Ylla has dreamt so, and her husband, in his manner, believes her and
determines to halt the progression of Ylla’s dream-vision.
For the Earthmen and their rocket ship then, a pre-ordained fate awaits
them on Mars.
Earth, when no word arrives from the first expedition, the entire Mars program
is temporarily delayed, but not for long. By
April 2000, a second crew of spacemen arrives upon Martian soil, or so it
appears. Emerging from their rocket
ship, the men are astounded to find themselves in the middle of seemingly
typical small-town Americana. A
quick talk with one of the residents reveals the astronauts to be in Green
Bluff, Illinois, circa 1979. Furthermore,
as the men explore further, they realize that the town’s residents are all
formerly deceased family or friends. Have
the astronauts entered a time warp? Or
is Mars something more profound? One
of the men even questions, “Mars is heaven?”
Are the Martians, then, perhaps the caretakers of one vision of a
astronauts eventually learn one interpretation of the truth, but for Mission
Control on Earth, again no word from the crew ever arrives, as had been the fate
of the first expedition. This
second arrival, harboring a Solaris-style
storyline (and based on the novel’s “The Third Expedition") must
regrettably be deemed yet another failure.
so, two consecutive failed missions for reasons unknown does little to dissuade
the Earthmen’s unwavering determination.
A third mission is planned (based upon the short story "And the Moon
Be Still as Bright"), and this time Colonel Wilder himself will personally
lead the crew. By June 2001, the
mission is underway and, arriving on Mars, the astronauts find the planet
strangely deserted. Reconnaissance
reveals a loose matrix of widely scattered cities, yet one after another, each
is discovered to be empty, devoid of life or activity, perhaps for an eon.
Obelisks, pyramids, and stone temples adorn these Martian cities, but as
to the whereabouts of the monuments’ living creators, there is little
of the astronauts, Spender (Bernie Casey), eventually happens upon the recent
remains of some possible Martians in one of the deserted cities.
A dreadful realization soon dawns upon him that humanity itself, as a
carrier of contagion and viral diseases to which the Martians had no immunity,
may have been the direct cause of the demise of Martian civilization.
Spender's soul is tormented by such horrible cognizance, and shortly
thereafter Spender vanishes into the Martian landscape, assimilating the ancient
Martian culture and transforming himself into a champion for their former way of
life. If that should entail
eliminating his own fellow astronauts to protect Mars and to dissuade further
desecration of Mars by humanity, then so be it.
third expedition concludes with a final and bittersweet confrontation between
Spender and Wilder. Both men were
good friends now caught upon opposite sides of a philosophical battlefield.
In one sense, their struggle is a parable of the injustices inflicted by
European colonists upon natives of the Americas, and a poetic irony exists in
that fact that only the African-American Spender seems to truly appreciate the
grave tragedy that has befallen the Martians.
If, in his defense of his adopted home’s former way of life, Spender
should perish too, then his last request is that his friend Wilder might come to
understand the rationale behind his actions.
For better or worse, Wilder will carry Spender’s words with him through
to the end of the film.
this confrontation, exploration of Mars draws to a close, opening the floodgates
for settlement of the planet. In
“Part Two: The Settlers,” the storyline leaps three years forward as the
colonization fleet arrives upon the Red Planet, bringing with it engineers,
prospectors, adventurers, and more. Man
or woman, young or old, all the colonists alike share a common trait; each one
is in search of something - a new home, a name, a new identity, or perhaps even
proof of God himself.
his part, Wilder has also settled with his family on Mars.
Retired, he now coordinates the re-modeling and terraforming of the
planet. He is also deeply involved
with the establishment the first twelve communities, though always with a mind
towards preserving the remnants of the old Martian civilization, as his friend
Spender would have wanted.
this new age, circa September 2006, one such colonist yearning for the
unattainable is Leif Lustig. In a
storyline adapted from "The Martian," Lustig and his wife have come to
Mars in memory of their son, David, a member of the lost second expedition to
Mars. Every day, in defiance of
rationality, they hope for their son to appear at their doorsteps so they may
abandon their unspoken fears that he is truly dead. And suddenly, one dark and stormy evening, the first Martian
rain of the new age of man, David does appear.
Emerging from the moist darkness, this David brings renewed life and joy
to the Lustigs.
as Mr. Lustig ponders his fortune, he begins to question whether this returned
David is really their lost son or perhaps something else.
Throughout the colonies, there are whispers of the existence still of
Martians who, assuming the form and thoughts of humans, live among the
colonists. Who can say then whether
someone is a Martian or not? Is David such a being? For
that matter, was Spender, in his final hours, truly human or a commensal
symbiosis of man and Martian? If a
Martian was truly to appear, would he not seem as a god before the eyes of
lesser men or women?
theological issues have brought missionaries to Mars. Many come to spread the word of God, but for Father Peregrine
(Fritz Weaver), the greater quest of seeking out God himself is more vital.
Rumors abound of the ephemeral presence of heavenly orbs in the Martian
hills. Could they be perhaps manifestation of beings who live in the
grace of God, or are they perhaps angelic vestiges of a heavenly host?
Father Peregrine is willing to endanger his very life in the Martian
hills if such a personal sacrifice will help to reveal the truth.
Father Peregrine storyline was adapted from a short story ("The Fire
Balloons") that was excised from the original novel for the Bradbury
anthology The Illustrated Man instead.
Recent editions of The Martian
Chronicles, however, have restored "The Fire Balloons" to its
place within the chronology. The
Father Peregrine storyline also draws from "The Messiah," a Bradbury
short story relating an encounter with the Christ.
whether or not an omnipotent consciousness truly exists on Mars, it has surely
abandoned Earth. Even as the
communities thrive on Mars, war appears ever imminent on Earth.
When the immigration of rockets and supplies from Earth abruptly halts,
ominous signs foretell of the impending demise of human civilization.
news of the inevitable global conflict reaches Mars, John Wilder drives through
each community, advising those who should wish to return to their loved ones on
Earth in this final hour. The last
rockets depart from Mars and then nevermore as the skies fall silent.
Wilder himself determines to return to Earth as well, if only to rescue
his brother and family and to bring them to the relative safety of Mars, if
of the colonists to receive Wilder's message is Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin), a
former colleague and fortunate survivor from the third Mars expedition.
In an adaptation of "The Off Season," this final, whimsical
storyline of Part Two of the miniseries derives humor from Parkhill’s
entrepreneurial aspirations of setting up a frontier bar on Mars.
He envisions earning a vast fortune from the flood of new settlers, but
the ill-timed war, of course, threatens to eliminate entirely that potential
consumer pool. Even so, Parkhill
stubbornly decides to persevere on Mars even as all the other colonists scramble
to evacuate. Reckless pioneer that
he is, Parkhill is soon visited by Martian apparitions, their purpose clouded by
mystery and Parkhill’s sudden apprehension for his safety.
somber moment concludes this storyline before The Martian Chronicles opens with its final chapter, “Part Three:
The Martians.” Following the
outbreak of war on Earth, the communities of Mars have become eerily empty ghost
towns. In a very loose and comical
adaptation of "The Silent Towns,” Ben Driscoll (Christopher Connelly)
believes that he is the last man on Mars. The
loneliness and aching solitude of his life wound him to his very soul, so when a
telephone unexpectedly rings in town, Driscoll scrambles madly to find the
source of the sound. Is there
another person on Mars? Is Driscoll
not alone, after all? Several
aborted searches and near-misses later, Driscoll finally contacts a woman in a
distant community and, his imagination racing at full speed, he dashes off to
woman in question is Genevieve Selsor. As
portrayed by Bernadette Peters, she of the va-va voom physique and Betty Boop
voice, Selsor is a beautiful but vacuous and vain woman.
Driscoll's relationship with the self-centered and demanding Selsor is
strained from the very start, begging the amusing question - how choosy can the
last remaining man be if there is only one woman left alive as well?
fortunately, is not the last human on Mars.
There are a few scatter others, among them Peter Hathaway.
In a story adapted from "The Long Years," each evening Hathaway
scans the nocturnal Martian skies with his telescope for signs of a rescue ship.
Although he has the companionship of his own wife and daughter, Hathaway
is homesick for Earth and eager for any news from home.
evening, after incessant searching, Hathaway's luck takes a turn for the better
- he does indeed spot a spacecraft. Hathaway
wildly signals the ship, which lands nearby, and emerging from within is none
other than John Wilder, finally returned from space.
The news that Wilder brings to Hathaway concerning Earth, however, is not
good, and Hathaway's dream of returning to his home planet will have to die with
final segments of The Martian Chronicles
re-focus the story on Wilder. He
revisits the ancient Martian ruins of his distant conversation with Spender and,
therein, has a fateful "Night Meeting" with a ghostly Martian.
After an exchange of philosophies with Wilder, the Martian vanishes into
thin air, as though he was never present, yet the ideas imparted to Wilder
influence his consequent decisions. For
"The Million Year Picnic," the concluding story, Wilder embraces his
new outlook to life, taking his family on an outing into the Martian city. Among these ancient structures, Wilder's family will learn
from the singing books, bask in the simple balance of the Martian spiritualism,
and finally, will see the true and future Martians at long last.
science fiction film, like the Ray Bradbury novel, is decidedly more fiction
than actual physical science. The
Martian Chronicles can be considered an allegorical critique of colonialism
(and its offshoot, imperialism) as well as of mankind's paranoid propensity for
self-destruction, particularly at the dawn of the nuclear age when the novel was
originally published. Some of the
allusions and metaphors about colonization of the Americas and injustices
showered upon Native Americans may seem a bit heavy-handed at times, but these
characteristics are a faithful reflection of similarly-stressed themes in the
the end, The Martian Chronicles is a
film more for the poetic at heart than the action-oriented.
Its deliberate pacing may be too slow for some audiences, and its
episodic nature, with occasionally jarring leaps in narrative, at times creates
a sense of the miniseries as a small marathon of interconnected Twilight
Zone episodes. The
attention-deficient among us may be further disillusioned by the film's
decidedly lackluster visual effects and absence of any true action sequences at
all. But despite its quirky
characteristics, The Martian Chronicles
possesses a strongly philosophical and theological foundation and has more heart
and soul than many of its cinematic descendants today.
As with the finest sci-fi films, The
Martian Chronicles is less remarkable for a visual flair and more
significant for the depth and stimulating nature of its meaningful themes and
was originally an NBC miniseries and is shown in its original full-screen
format. The image is generally
crisp and fairly pristine with only occasional specks or debris spots. Colors are solid and stable, and the details are generally
fair with only a mild softness. Darker
scenes, however, tend to have a grainy quality, as do the processed shots.
In fact, the obvious matté paintings, laughable blue screen effects, and
phony-looking miniature ships all make The
Martian Chronicles look entirely like a product of its time, the late
1970’s. At least the set designs
have a soothingly ethereal and dreamy quality.
If you are not bothered by dated special effects along the lines of those
from the Original Series Star Trek
episodes, Battlestar Galactica, or even Buck
Rogers in the 25th Century, then you should have no problems with The
film's English mono track is merely average but does include narrative from the
text of the actual novel. The sound
quality is sufficient, given the TV pedigree of The Martian Chronicles (back in the days before stereo
score is an odd hybrid, though. As
a strange brew of meditative New Age Zen, hippy spirituals, country blues, big
band, and even a Buck Rogers-ish disco
beat, the musical score firmly sets this film in the late 1970’s era.
Somehow, despite a sometimes corny quality, the music still succeeds in
creating an appropriate tone for the film.
arrives as a two-DVD flipper set, with each side holding approximately
ninety-seven minutes of film. In
the classic TV mode, each part of the miniseries opens with brief clips from the
prior episode and concludes with scenes for the upcoming episode!
It feels very vintage television!
side two of the second flipper disc contains no program content whatsoever,
which begs the question, why is the second disc a flipper disc at all?
Too bad MGM did not decide to put some bonus features in this otherwise