In most space movies, the villain is the void. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the supercomputer HAL flushes astronauts out into the airless vacuum; in Gravity, Sandra Bullock fights to navigate her way home before running out of air; in Interstellar, explorers are at the mercy of a gargantuan black hole. The underlying tension of any film set in space is that knife-edge between life and death.
Not so on Mars. While space is an alien landscape, Mars is always a recognizably human one, warped to the harshest extremes: Survival is within reach, but complicated by the elements, or natives, or both. In the subgenre’s newest and best entry, The Martian, the most nerve-wracking moment doesn’t involve any zero-gravity derring-do, but rather the astronaut Mark Watney’s potato farm.
The Martian has barely been out for a week, but initial box-office returns suggest it’ll break a long tradition in Hollywood history of films set on Mars bombing. Certainly, the rave reviews helped, but even for a film that focuses more on hard science than many of its forbears, it shares the same wide-open spirit of the Mars films that came before. No matter what their plot, Mars movies are the closest things to Westerns in the sci-fi genre, visualizing the unknown not as the inky blackness of space nor the fantastic landscapes of fictional galaxies, but as a harsh yet conquerable desert.
In The Martian, Watney (Matt Damon) is an astronaut stranded after his colleagues mistakenly think him dead in a storm. As he plots to survive long enough to board a return mission, he delivers many (often funny) monologues to the camera about his plans. He grows potatoes using his own collected waste, creates water by burning hydrogen fuel, and sends messages home by digging up old NASA rovers. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it,” he tells his audience at one point. “So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
The line is mostly sarcastic, since Watney’s doing everything he can to get back home to Earth. But explorers of Mars are usually painted similarly: as pioneers trying to tame a world that has so much in common with our own, but that violently pushes back. The Martian was mostly shot in Jordan to simulate the planet’s dramatic landscape; other entries have been filmed in the Australian Outback, a gypsum mine in New Mexico, or by the sandstone arches of Moab in southern Utah. The Martian is the rare example that embraces the planet’s hostility to anything but bacterial life; in most films, it’s some form of Martian life that drives humans away.
The tradition of Mars movies as Westerns can be traced back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series—landmark sci-fi literature from the turn of the century featuring John Carter, a Civil War veteran transported to Mars after running afoul of Apache warriors while prospecting for gold in Arizona. For Burroughs, the two landscapes are inexorably linked: Carter has to navigate the warring tribes of Mars with the same cunning he needs out west. 1912’s A Princess of Mars, the first Barsoom novel, helped establish the subgenre of the “planetary romance,” which transposes exotic cultures and landscapes with the worlds of the barely understood Solar System. Mars, due to its reddish hue and desert landscape, was destined to be the Wild West.
A Princess of Mars is so foundational that it feels clichéd now, and Hollywood attempted to film it for decades while always balking at the production costs. Disney finally followed through with 2012’s John Carter, directed by WALL-E’s Andrew Stanton. The film was a colossal bomb, bafflingly marketed, and overloaded with CGI visual splendor and backstories of warring alien clans. (Its ambition has at least earned it a little more respect in the years following its release.) John Carter is the Mars film closest to the grand, outlaw Western setting of literature, but its far-fetched tale of multiple alien races fighting wars in its skies couldn’t jibe with modern knowledge of the planet as a blasted tomb.
In 2000, two films emerged that were obviously inspired by recent successful NASA missions that uncovered evidence Mars had once borne water (and possibly life). As such, they felt less rooted in that Western spirit—instead, both serve as darker parables on the dangers of exploration. Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss, is a grunting techno-thriller with a terrific electronic score but horrible, muddy visuals. In the 2050s, Kilmer’s character and his NASA team discover evidence of giant insect life on Mars, somehow awakened by human exploration. It’s ultimately a grim tale of survival against the odds, with its colorful ensemble (including Terence Stamp and Benjamin Bratt) getting picked off one by one. At the end, Kilmer blasts off the surface with a middle finger raised to it, screaming “Fuck this planet!” Budgeted at $80 million, Red Planet grossed only $33 million worldwide.
Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars is a more elegant beast in the hands of a director who happily apes Stanley Kubrick’s greatest hits from 2001. The film is most assured when its crew is in space, en route to Mars to rescue the survivors of an exploration mission gone wrong. It also plays on some of the planet’s most recognizable and strange surface features, like the Cydonia region that features an outcropping that looks, from satellite imagery, like a giant face. But on the whole, Mission to Mars feels like a religious pilgrimage. There are nasty moments, like when a sand tornado rips one astronaut into pieces, but the film dwells on its final realization that the planet once harbored alien life that seeded human existence on Earth. Like its genre-mates, Mission to Mars is best when it focuses on the science, and it loses its grip when the story turns hokey.
That’s the ultimate achievement of The Martian. When Watney grows his potatoes, the director Ridley Scott makes each sprout feel like an achievement; every effort to cross Mars’s terrain follows weeks of forethought. Though it’s lacking Martians, ancient edifices, or even a threatening algae bloom, it comes closest to Burroughs’s original romantic conception of the world as one so similar, yet so frighteningly different to the one we know. There’s a reason pundits are predicting the film will set off renewed interest in manned exploration of the Solar System. Though Watney clings to survival throughout, the idea of creating life and a home in such an empty new world is as challenging and stirring as the most idyllic visions of the Wild West.