As ‘John Carter’ Comes Out, Considering the Movie Obsession With Mars

I know Kyle Buchanan is being sort of snarky in this post about why Mars movies have such a dismal track record at the box office, but I think there’s a tie between this sort of sentiment and our conversation from earlier in the week about the need for thoughtful science fiction. He writes:

Why are audiences so turned off by our planetary neighbor? They don’t seem to have the same hang-ups about the moon, which has factored into big hits like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Apollo 13 (as well as critically acclaimed movies like Moon), but that rock is movie-ready: Stories set there simply have to be told in romantic black-and-white. Meanwhile, setting your movie on red, red Mars is like staring into a Virtual Boy for two hours, and who wants that? (Evidently not John Carter director Andrew Stanton, whose Mars is more tan than red.) It helps, too, that the moon is such an ever-present presence in our lives, as well as a place that Americans have actually been. If NASA can’t motivate an administration to send a man to Mars, why should the average moviegoer get worked up about it?

Why should the average moviegoer get worked up over Mars movies if there’s absolutely no rationale for a movie to be set there? I have a fuller review of Disney’s sci-fi blockbuster John Carter coming tomorrow, but there is zero reason the events of that movie need to take place on Mars, which I assume is only the setting because Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the books on which the movie is based thought it was cool. Ditto on pretty much every other movie with a tie to Mars—it’s a little further away from the Moon, and we haven’t had human contact with it, so it’s easy to project ideas of wacky things onto it. But that doesn’t mean those wacky aliens or evil forces derive anything interesting or significant from the fact that they come from or are based on Mars.

By contrast, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy works because there are very specific reasons for the characters to be going to Mars—an international consortium has decided it can viably made habitable (as a way to make it potentially mineable and a population escape hatch for Earth)—and a great deal of the novel’s plot is drawn from Mars-specific forces. The amount of radiation the characters are getting both drives them close together in protected habitats and encourages the experimentation that leads to a treatment to reverse aging. The religion that develops on Mars, the areophany, is specific to the planet. The political and philosophical debates are directly tied to how people feel about Mars’ geography and geological history. It’s really a shame that we can get an infinite number of failed and hugely spectacles set on Mars, but we can’t make a series or a television show out of a fully-realized, very smart Martian adventure that (other than some special effects work to show the Martian gravity) could be made pretty darn cheap.