Ridley Scott is reportedly in talks to direct outer-space adventure The Martian, starring Matt Damon and based on a self-published Amazon novel by Andy Weir. It's described as "Apollo 13 meets Cast Away," with Damon playing an astronaut stranded on the red planet trying to survive. Sounds like it could be a real tour de force for Damon, a year after Sandra Bullock's success holding the screen mostly by herself in Gravity, but there's one problem: movies about Mars never, ever, ever make money.
There's a long Hollywood history of films defying a genre's long history of failure, of course. Ridley Scott's own Gladiator was the ancient sword-and-sandals epic that hit after so many failed; Pirates of the Caribbean succeeded where its watery forbears had flopped. But still, there's no sub-genre with a more definitive pattern of disaster than Mars movies.
In the early 2000s, there was a one-two-three punch of Mars flops that scared Hollywood off the topic for a while. Antony Hoffman's Red Planet saw Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss stranded on the deserty hellhole, and ended with Kilmer giving Mars the finger and shouting, "fuck this planet!" Brian de Palma's Mission to Mars took a serious, weighty approach but forgot to be interesting; John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars banished the king of genre filmmaking from Hollywood forever.
After a dormant period, there was another recent bunch of Mars movies that flopped just as hard. Harmless Robert Zemeckis-produced animated kids adventure Mars Needs Moms was one of the biggest financial disasters in recent Hollywood memory; Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation John Carter drove a stake in Taylor Kitsch's movie-star career, and that was even after they nixed the "of Mars" from the title; and the Liev Schreiber-starring Last Days on Mars made all of $24,000 at the box office.
Look at the math: the combined budget of the Mars-set films of the last 15 years (Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, The Last Days on Mars) was $620 million.
The combined domestic box office takings of those films: $179 million.
Just to put this in perspective, the cost of sending an ACTUAL MANNED MISSION to Mars is estimated at $6 billion. If Hollywood keeps this up, they might even hit that figure before NASA gets its act together.
I'm not saying Hollywood should abandon Mars forever, but be careful about it at least. This is Ridley Scott we're talking about. The man is searching for a good solid hit after years of majorly hyped, somewhat disappointing epics (Robin Hood and Prometheus in particular). Even Matt Damon hasn't really carried a mega-hit since the Bourne movies. If I'm them, I want to stay as far away from Mars' harsh surface as possible. Now is not the time to take risks.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.