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THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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
Studio: MGM
Features: None
Length: 293 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

Once we were an honorable people.  Now see the depths to which we have inexorably fallen.

Film ***

Among 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.

At 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.

Of 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 dying planet.

In 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.  

In 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 Martians.

One 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.

As 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.

In “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.

Are 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.

On 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 celestial after-life?

These 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.

Even 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 evidence.

One 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.

This 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.

With 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.

For 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.

In 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. 

Yet, 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?

Such 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.

This 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.

But 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.

As 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 possible.

One 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.

A 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 locate her.

The 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?

Driscoll, 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.

One 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 him.

The 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.

This 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 novel itself.

In 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 ideals.

Video ***

The Martian Chronicles 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 Martian Chronicles.

Audio ***

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 broadcasting).

The 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.

Features (zero stars)

The Martian Chronicles 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!

Curiously, 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 empty space.

Summary:

The Martian Chronicles is a sincere and heartfelt effort to reproduce the spirit and message of the original novel.  It is worthwhile and thought-provoking entertainment for all sci-fi film enthusiasts, particularly Bradbury fans.

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