Tuesday, October 2, 2012

REVIEW: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Director: Michael Anderson
Year 1980
The Martian Chronicles is a wonderful three part series that delves into the trials and tribulations that come to light when man decides to begin colonizing Mars. Though obviously dated and factually whimsical, this epically imagined made for television mini-series is quite ambitious thanks to the legendary writing work of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, and the themes and concepts that the series brings to the forefront are as compelling and thought-provoking as they come. With a doomed outlook on mankind and a brave disposition, The Martian Chronicles is an entertaining piece of science fiction that never ceases to shock and awe us with its masterful storytelling and its retro filled futuristic style.
Told in three parts and centered on man’s efforts to colonize Mars, the film takes in all aspects of man’s ambitious mission. The series covers the first unmanned spaceship to land on the red planet all the way to mankind actually living on the planet’s surface in large scale colonies, all the while showcasing the various interactions that the explorers have with the natives of the region and their glorious and mysterious culture. There’s a wide array of characters within this narrative and a tremendous amount of story to cover, so I’m going to tackle this review in three parts, following the structure of the series. Be warned though because spoilers will be aplenty due to the fact that this ambitious film covers a great deal of concepts and I’m just going to dive right in to the insanity. Well, without any further delay, let’s start things off with the first part of the series.

In the first entry of the series, we follow the birth of the Mars program as Col. John Wilder, played by Rock Hudson, and his team of astronauts, send the first manned spaceship to the uncharted planet in the year 1999. What follows is a surprisingly strange turn of events which introduce us to the denizens of the planet and their way of life. The Martians in this series are humanistic creatures who resemble earthlings, aside from their glowing eyes and bald heads, and even though they are more evolved than man, they are still susceptible to our failings as we come to find out during the first meeting between man and Martian.
In this first interaction, a telepathic Martian woman has romantic visions of meeting the astronauts as they begin to descend on her planet. Confiding in her husband, she tells him of the visions and he becomes uncharacteristically jealous and fears for the safety of his people by the introduction of this warring race of creatures from Earth to his harmonious civilization. He sets out to greet the crew, but not in peace. After this first brutal and costly meeting, it’s plain to see that the colonization of Mars is going to be more difficult than first believed, and with the mysterious disappearance of the first manned mission, Col. John Wilder and the rest of NASA are determined to begin preparations for a second expedition.

This time a new crew is assembled and in the year 2000 they land on the planet Mars. What they come to find though is that instead of a barren desert-like terrain, they come face to face with a landscape that looks and feels all too familiar. Like something out of a Twilight Zone episode, the crew is presented with a tranquil setting that perfectly resembles small town USA. Obviously confused over what they are witnessing, Commander Arthur Black, played by Nicholas Hammond, sets off into the town to find some answers to their situation. After much deliberating, the crew comes to find that the entire place is filled with long deceased loved ones, making them believe that this could possibly be heaven. Unfortunately for them, there is a more sinister mind at work and before they can realize what is going on, they are silenced in the same way that the previous astronauts were.
Lost but not defeated, Col. John Wilder takes it upon himself to lead the next expedition to Mars and in the year 2001, they land on the now infamous planet. What makes this expedition the most intriguing out of the three is that it allows us to explore a bit more into the world of the Martian people. We come to find that they are a highly evolved race, who through their harmonious lifestyle and their love of life, have found a way to become one with nature. Sadly we find this out too late, because as Major Jeff Spender relays to the rest of the crew after finding miles and miles of devastated Martian cityscapes, that the race of Martians have been all but wiped out by a plague brought onto their peoples by the first and second expeditions from Earth. As Spender tells of the demise of these tragic people, we begin to see a change in him that will eventually spark this third act of the first series into a fireball of an ending. 

Major Jeff Spender is played by Bernie Casey and damn does this guy deliver in his role. After his speech, which bluntly claimed that Martian people and their way of life were superior to our own, he goes off on a wild escapade that seems almost inspired by the spirit of this dying race of beings. After running off into the wasteland of the city, Spender returns with a calmed demeanor, yet cold vicious nature which deems it necessary to destroy in order to preserve. He despises the rest of the crew and sees their presence on Mars as a blight on what was once a glorious Martian civilization. Whether possessed by a surviving Martian or Spender being a Martian in disguise, the outcome is rather frightening and Bernie Casey does an excellent job with the contrasting personalities.
Of course this change in Spender allows Col. John Wilder to step up to the plate and try to reason with his former friend, though in vain. The confrontation between Spender and Wilder is an interesting one, and it isn’t because it’s played out in an explosive action packed way, though it does end with a bang, but it is because of the tension between the two characters and the past that they share. Most of this sequence is taken up by dialogue, with each man stating his case. It’s a very curious scene that plays around with the notion on whether Spender is in fact Spender, or a Martian in disguise. In the end the confrontation mirrors what’s to come, for Spender is gunned down by a reluctant Wilder after trying to defend the purity of Mars. With the drums of doom sounding the approach of new settlers heading for the Red Planet, Col. Wilder wonders if he indeed did the right thing.

It is in this disheartening and earth shattering moment that we come to realize the overall theme of this science fiction tale. As Earth is quickly dying from man’s unrelenting lust for destruction and power, it has bred its malcontent onto a race of beings whose only fault was that they rested on a planet that man deemed worthy of colonization. The series sets up mankind as a dire race of beings, set in their ways and all consuming, and I love the bold angle that this show takes. Earthlings are not glorified and infallible, in fact many of them are quite the opposite, but most are simply put, human. What is most interesting is that the characters that are involved in the story are well meaning folks, like Col. Wilder, who often think that what they are doing is right, but of course the most pure of intentions can result in dire consequences.
That’s what I think I liked most about the thematic introduction to this series. It doesn’t sugar coat the concept of mankind by giving it a positive spin. It daringly goes straight to the point and emphasizes the failings that we have as a race of beings and uses that concept to bring home its message. After it nails this heavy handed concept of man’s corruptibleness into our skulls, it begins to let flickers of positive light through with the actions of a few select characters that believe that mankind can change and become better after all they learn from the Martian people. One of these characters is Col. John Wilder and Rock Hudson does a tremendous job in bringing this sympathetic man to life. As the story moves along and mankind starts to colonize Mars, John Wilder begins to be our anchor that holds all of these vast concepts together, which leads us into part two of the series.

With the introduction of Mars and the many brave souls that pioneered the various journeys to stake claim to it behind us, a new age is dawning on the tumultuous planet. Settlers from far and wide are arriving onto the planet’s doorstep in hopes of finding a new life in this alien world. The second entry of the series starts out showing us all of the changes that have taken place in the three years since Wilder gunned down one of his closest friends in self defense, ultimately and inadvertently claiming Mars for mankind. Colonies have sprung up across the terrain, bringing with them settlers of all variations and denominations. This, at the heart, is what the second entry in the series is all about.
What you’ll notice right off the bat is that religion plays a big role in this section of the The Martian Chronicles, most prevalently in the sequences that feature Father Peregrine and Father Stone, two priests that have made the journey to Mars to spread the word of the Lord. Their roles in this series are pivotal and highly relevant to all that goes on in this entry, especially the role of Father Peregrine, played by Fritz Weaver. In his story line, Peregrine has a sort of faith crisis when he witnesses a group of strange glowing orbs in the night sky. He believes that the unexplainable wonders that he is witnessing on Mars are the work of the God that he worships, but then devastatingly he comes to find that even when he puts his entire faith in these glowing apparitions, he learns that they are nothing more than another form of life, much like himself.

His crisis of faith is emphasized all the more when he comes into contact with a shape-shifting Martian later on in the series, who can take the form of anyone you most desire. After Peregrine tells Father Stone about wanting to meet Jesus Christ face to face more than anything, he is shockingly confronted with the image of Jesus when looking upon the lone Martian. This scene is all the more potent because of Jon Finch’s excellent portrayal of Christ, with the crown of thorns and all. He tells Peregrine that he is killing him, because of the pain from the thorns and the nails through his hands, and Peregrine stubbornly heeds his warnings, wanting to believe that he is the real deal. After a painful mental struggle, Peregrine is able to come to the truth and realize that his faith in the image before him is in vain, and he reluctantly looks away so that the shape-shifting Martian can transform back into his true form and sneak away. It’s an odd, yet extremely effective way in which to balance the belief of faith and the existence of whether a higher power is real or not. Not only do they bring this concept to light, but the filmmakers take no sides in the issue, rather using the bold imagery to allow the audience to mull over it themselves and come up to their own conclusions.
Faith is also explored during another entertaining segment that includes the shape-shifting Martian. In this particular story a mourning mother and father, played by Maria Schell and Wolfgang Reichmann, are trying to get over the death of their astronaut son David, who was one of the members of the crew that landed in the small town USA version of Mars. In order to get over his death, the two decide to journey to Mars and live on the very spot where he was buried. One stormy night, the father notices a man standing in the darkness and staring at their house. He shouts at the man but gets no answer. Suddenly he realizes that it is his son, and though apprehensive, leaves the door unlocked incase it really is him. As he gets up in the morning he figures that it was all a strange dream, but quickly comes to find that his son is there and his wife, oddly enough, seems to not remember ever having lost her son. Of course, this is the shape-shifting Martian that was featured in Father Peregrine’s story, and being the head strong man that he is, the father doesn’t doubt for a second that this stranger is in fact an imposter, but after seeing his wife so happy with her newfound son’s return, he accepts what his wife has put faith in and tries to live with the lie. Ultimately, when you’ve got a shape-shifting son in the family, who can’t control how he looks to other people, you’re bound to have problems when going in to town and that’s when all hell begins to break loose for the family.

This brings us back to Col. John Wilder’s character, as he is on the hunt for the last remaining Martian who happens to be the shape-shifting alien that has been causing all the trouble within the colonies of faith hungry citizens. As he finally tracks down the Martian in the center of town, a mob has circled around the alien, filled with throngs of people wanting to get a glimpse of their long lost loved one or missing family member. In the hysteria, the Martian cracks under the pressure and the constant pull by the minds from all around, and collapses under the weight of all of their collective wanting and desires. In this hectic moment, John Wilder comes to the realization that his constant faith and hopes of being able to talk with a Martian has died with this poor soul. Crushed and defeated, he mourns for not just the death of one Martian being, but for the entire culture that disappears with his passing.
It’s quite a feat to round up all of these conceptual themes and make it interesting and coherent, but The Martian Chronicles does it with an exceptional flair and a thought-provoking manner. Every single story in this second entry seems to be motivated by the concept of faith and the repercussions that come with putting all of yourself into a single idea or belief, whether you know or not that it might not be what is entirely true, just something you can live with. This is emphasized perfectly in the closing segment of the second series. In this story we are reintroduced to a colleague of Col. John Wilder in the form of Sam Parkhill, played by the gem of an actor Darren McGavin. Being the only surviving crew member of the third expedition, Sam has taken it upon himself to live out his life long dream of owning the first restaurant on the planet Mars. Unfortunately for him, the location that he chose to build his establishment is in the middle of nowhere. Even though all hope is lost that his restaurant will ever pick up steam, he still has an infallible faith that things will turn around, even after hearing the devastating news that Earth is on the brink of an all-out nuclear war and no new settlers will be heading to Mars in the near future. It is this sort of unrewarded faith that is at the center of the second part of The Martian Chronicles.

Within each story, faith is gifted again and again with disappointment and betrayal, making you think that the filmmakers really do despise the concept of faith and everything to do with it. Not only that but you get a strong correlation that points to the downfall of man being its constant need for something to believe in, fighting tooth and nail against any other outlook on life that isn’t their own. Be that as it may, the concluding moments of the second series are a real cavalcade of impactful moments that really close this segment on an extremely gloomy note.
In a chance meeting with a ghost-like Martian apparition, Sam Parkhill accidently shoots a Martian baring a gift, thinking that it was some form of alien weapon. This random act sets off a wickedly out of this world sequence that results in a high speed chase that is beyond bizarre. After dispatching a handful of ghostly Martian’s and ultimately being captured at the hands of his ethereal pursuers, Sam is again given the same gift, but this time with an explanation. He is told that he is now the owner of half of Mars and that he now controls the deed to a vast region of the planet’s surface. As strange as this is, it gets even weirder, for after arriving back home and looking through a telescope anticipating an endless line of shuttles arriving from Earth, Sam shockingly witnesses his home planet go up in a ball of flames. It’s at this moment that it all becomes horribly clear. He is the owner of a lost world, filled with the remnants of a now dead planet. No one will be coming from Earth and his dreams of owning a thriving restaurant on Mars is all but extinct, along with his home world. In these closing moments, it is all too apparent that mankind’s lust for power and the incredible clashing of faiths has led to the downfall of a once thriving race known as the people of Earth. Now all that is left are the Martians, both new and old, and that is where part three of the series comes in.

In this, the final segment of The Martian Chronicles, the settlers of Mars are all but extinct having beckoned the call of duty to return to their homeland to partake in the last war to end all wars. With the now dead planet of Earth lost to the past, Mars is now the new haven for a handful of survivors that for whatever reason decided to stay behind. If faith was the driving force of the second entry in the series, then you could say that it also plays a role in the third, but on a different level. In this segment it’s more about making connections with people and establishing real relationships that are built on common grounds and centered on life. At the center of this belief is Col. John Wilder. After all of these years of searching and trying to make contact with a living breathing Martian, all of his efforts have come up fruitless, but he still believes that their way of life is the true answer to saving his people from further destruction.
One of these aforementioned connections is established in the first story of part three, but not in the way you would think. Instead of showcasing a narrative that would emphasis a positive character interaction, the filmmakers decided to go the other way and depict what would happen if two people who got together didn’t gel quite right. Enter Ben Driscoll, played by Christopher Connelly, a lone drifter just looking for someone who is still alive on the planet Mars. He roams the empty colonies in hopes that he’ll locate anyone, preferably a woman, to find companionship with. As luck has it, one day he makes contact with a woman named Genevieve Seltzer, played by the sexy as hell Bernadette Peters, after randomly dialing numbers on a phone. He asks to meet up with her and travels over an untold distance in order to meet her face to face and what at first seems like a match made in heaven, quickly turns out to be a match made in hell. Genevieve is a pompous and self-centered woman, who though extremely beautiful and hypnotic to the very definition, is at her core an empty vessel with no redeeming qualities aside from her superficial façade. In any other circumstance, Ben probably would have just stayed with her, but seeing that this segment of the series seems to focus on meaningful connections and a great sense of change, he deems that the sacrifice is just too high and jets once he has finally has had enough of her constant needy attitude. This then brings us to a rather interesting twist, because Ben Driscoll ends up in the most unlikely of places in this unusual tale, but I’ll talk about that later.

As for the rest of the survivors on Mars, there’s a strange little family consisting of Peter Hathaway, his wife Alice, and their daughter, who of all things, share a bizarre secret that really is kind of endearing and heartfelt, though extremely morbid. You see what makes this particular story so entertaining is that Mrs. Hathaway and the young girl have actually passed away years earlier and the people that are keeping screwball Peter company are in fact creations that he has constructed himself. These robots, though completely superficial, serve a much needed purpose for Mr. Hathaway, and that is to keep him alive and sane until help arrives. Desperate for companionship, his creations give him faith and security that he’ll come into contact with someone else out there, and even though it is a false hope, it still gives him comfort in a time of need. But as the tales that were told in the second entry of the series, nothing that is born of faith lasts, for just as Peter makes contact with Col. John Wilder and Father Stone, played by the always outstanding Roddy McDowall, he succumbs to a heart attack amidst all of the excitement.
This untimely death of a broken man leaves his robot creations to toil out their existence in the only way they know how, but this is where Ben Driscoll comes in. As if a present wrapped in a bow and a gift for his decision on leaving the superficial Genevieve behind, he stumbles onto the robot family, not knowing that they are actually superficial in the most blatant and definitive of terms. With a story arch that strangely feels right, Ben is able to find peace of mind amidst a lifestyle that is anything but normal. It’s a strange ending to his tale, but one that I feel reflects the overall conclusion that comes into play in the closing moments of the series.

With most of the loose ends finding a respectful conclusion, we finally come back to Col. John Wilder and his epic search to find the meaning of the Martians way of life. Throughout the entire series, he’s been having a personal struggle with the way mankind was living and the idea that he had some part in bringing the destruction that men bare onto the planet of Mars has slowly been ripping him apart. For this simple fact, he has yearned to learn more about the Martians so that he can salvage what is left of his dying civilization. Desperate for answers, he ventures to the broken ruins of the once thriving Martian city, the same place where he shot his friend Spender in self defense, in hopes to find the key to his query. In a moment of reflection, he is suddenly confronted with an apparition of a Martian who seems to appear from out of nowhere. Lost in a dream-like state, the Martian tells Wilder that their philosophy is simple and that it is to love life and all of its facets.
Inspired by his words and intrigued by the possibilities, Wilder sets off towards home in order to gather up his family and start their new life. Now this conclusion is actually strangely underdeveloped compared to the rest of the stories in the series, but I think the open ended nature of the narrative and the positive outlook that it has on the future of these characters are actually a breath of fresh air, compared to the gloom and doom temperament of the rest of the series. Without a doubt I wish they would have concluded on something more compelling to bookend the series with, one that equaled in wonder with the rest of the entries, but I admit it’s an interesting concept to think that this family can start out fresh and anew in pursuit of a new life filled with hope and renewed faith in loving life in the simplest of ways. In the end, the series as a whole is astoundingly deep and very rewarding for the viewers out there that like their science fiction cerebral and thought-provoking.

The Martian Chronicles series is a remarkable staple of science fiction storytelling and this cinematic iteration is without a doubt a rare and unusual gem. Structured in almost a documentary style, the film relies heavily on the gradual unraveling of time as it highlights the progression of Mars’ colonization and the people that paved the way for mankind’s next big step. The series is not the most technically sound in the effects department, but for the time period that it was produced in the production is outstandingly simple and quite effective. I’ve always loved the retro style of the future in these kinds of films and The Martian Chronicles really has a definite style to it which makes you believe this alternate future might just have happened.
Aside from the obvious factual errors that rear their ugly heads throughout the majority of this series, I’m looking at you casual jumpsuit wearing astronauts and water aplenty planet, I still can’t help but be swept up in the spectacle that comprises the feel of this film. As it throws logic to the wind, the production breaks off into a bizarre tangent that ends up being more fantasy then science fiction, but be that as it may, I still get a kick out of the concepts that the series brings to the forefront. Without a doubt, the movie’s outlook on humanity is harsh and without restraint, as it should be, and the overall portrayal of our combined faults and inherent failings are breathtakingly displayed for all to see. If you’re looking for an interesting vantage into what struggles mankind might experience when colonizing a planet, and you’re bat shit crazy about film’s that tackle such subjects as philosophy, religion, and psychology which are all wrapped up in a science fiction setting, then The Martian Chronicles is definitely up your alley. Check it out because this ambitious series is…..

Needless to say, that first expedition didn't go so well. Poor little guys.

And the winner for the most uncomfortable sleepover is.....

Your hair smells divine honey.

Sure..... like none of you have ever farted in your space suit.

Martianz in the Hood.

Mars sucks!

You gonna hand over those kick ass binoculars?

Stop! Or my Rock Hudson will shoot!

What are you looking at weirdo?

Everyone just walk away from the phallic looking ships. Nothing to see here.

Dear God... you kick ass!

Don't jump you idiot!

This movie has so many stars, even Jesus makes an appearance.

My word! It looks like a country western nightmare!

Looks like Earth is roasted, toasted, and burnt to a crisp.

Sweet mother of god! I'll take Ben Driscoll's sloppy seconds.

Shit! Roddy McDowall spotted me! Run for it Marty!

Rock Hudson has just been faced..... Scratch moded.

No comments:

Post a Comment