Kurt Neumann’s 1950 Rocketship X-M may be the progenitor of space exploration films, at least if you believe the claims its video box makes for it. If this is true, then it’s a wonder the space-mission movie genre ever caught on: the box-copy fails to mention how god-awful Rocketship X-M is, a movie founded on the jaw-droppingly ridiculous premise that the first ever crewed mission to the Moon flies to Mars by mistake. Whoops.
As the rocket’s flight crew begins their trip to the Moon, or Mars, or wherever, the navigator (Hugh O’Brian) watches the Earth recede through a porthole and sweet-talks one of the crew’s scientists (Osa Massen). “It’s a marvelous sight, isn’t it?” he says. “You study maps and globes and try to visualize, but the actual experience… it’s hard to express it.” Never mind that the awe-inspiring spectacle is in fact a cloudless globe hanging on a wire. In a movie conceived seven years before Sputnik made orbital photographs of Earth possible, Rocketship X-M‘s Blue Planet looks from space to be a literal version of what map-makers restricted to ground-based data and maybe unaware that the thin vapors of Earth’s clouds might be visible from orbit had long imagined it might be.
Fifty years, several moonshots, and thousands of orbital missions later, Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars reminds us that the practice of shooting terrestrial metaphors into space is pretty durable. Rocketship X-M projects its era’s Cold War preoccupations into the universe at large by giving us a Martian utopia done in by atomic conflict. Mission to Mars exploits millennial interest in tabloid theories and wrath-of-God-style Armageddons by proposing that the “face” earthlings think they see on Mars is real, and by giving us a Martian race scattered throughout the cosmos by an asteroid blast. Like Rocketship X-M, Mission to Mars also features an awe-inspiring sight that defies description: a three-dimensional model of the solar system that a doe-eyed, Close Encounters-ish alien uses to illustrate the asteroid strike that ended Martian society. Never mind that this special effect is essentially an interactive planetarium. With Rocketship X-M, Kurt Neumann taught us a half-century ago that cinematic science fiction, when at a loss for better ideas, isn’t afraid to hitch earthbound cosmological visions to a rhetoric of speechless wonder. Neumann and De Palma both forge the illusion of exploration and discovery without really creating anything new.
Mission to Mars opens with a yard party to celebrate the imminent launch of the first crewed Mission to Mars, “Mars I,” which is being sent to explore a portion of the Red Planet known as Cydonia. When an unknown force demolishes Mars I, “Mars II” is sent to investigate. This second mission bears married couple Terri Fisher and Woody Blake (Connie Nielson and Tim Robbins), Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise, looking none the worse after being grounded with the measles in Apollo 13), and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell). Mars II encounters some problems and is also destroyed, while still in orbit around Mars.
The remaining crewmembers find their way to the Martian surface in a stunningly improbable way, and retrieve the only survivor of the ill-fated Mars I, Luke Graham (Don Cheadle, Boogie Nights‘s stereo salesman). Luke babbles a fair bit about the “secret” that destroyed his ship and crew, prompting his rescuers (who are, incidentally, just as marooned as he is) to doubt his sanity. They become believers when Luke shows them a gigantic stone face near the site where the original crew was killed. The face also broadcasts radio signals that are decoded to resemble a strand of human DNA with some of the information missing. At first the crew believes this signal to be a map of the Martian genetic structure, a self-portrait of whatever created the face. They later discover that it really is incomplete human DNA, a sort of authenticity check the Martians issue to make sure that only humans come knocking. When the crew broadcasts a reply containing the missing information (using a cuter, perkier version of the Pathfinder probe), the passcode is provided and a door opens up on the side of the face. One half-expects to learn the movie was underwritten by the Human Genome Foundation.
It makes sense that De Palma cocoons his extraterrestrial mystery in a pale reflection of humanity. He reduces the human species to a product placement, in a foreshadowing of the DNA plot when Phil arranges a zero-gravity helix of floating M&Ms in the air. After Jim flicks some of the M&Ms away, Phil’s genetic model provides the flash of inspiration the crew eventually needs to figure out the purpose of the Martian signals. The M&Ms are even superimposed on the screen when the crew realizes what the alien signal is, in case the audience missed the connection: just like Phil’s name-brand sculpture, the signal is simply an incomplete encoding of humanity, waiting for humans to come along and complete it. The Mars II crew unlocks the signal not by thinking outside the boundaries of human civilization, but by examining humans exhaustively, completing the signal with the aid of a comprehensive catalog of human DNA. Encyclopedic knowledge of one’s own species seems a reasonable prerequisite when, later on, the friendly Martian immerses the crew in a little virtual solar system, a planetarium. Sure, we’d have to know ourselves perfectly before learning the secret of the universe, as long as this secret turns out to be simply a reiteration of the same universal view we’ve had all along.
The crew expresses their sense of oneness with the alien species through product placement, also, with a gut-churningly cheesy evocation of an “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”-style ethos. The planetarium pays off, horrendously, as the Mars II crew holds hands around a holographic Earth. “They’re us,” says Terri, meaning the Martians, “We’re them.” But I think Rocketship X-M summed up this fatuous view of universal oneness a little better fifty years ago. The mastermind of Rocketship‘s moonshot, Dr. Ralph Fleming (Morris Ankrum), explains that scientists have turned their attention to the Moon because “they visualize the successful lunar expedition as the first step toward practical interplanetary travel. Today, there is even the possibility that an unassailable base could be established on the Moon to control world peace.” Mission to Mars pretends to embrace a dream of cosmic love when all it’s really doing is restating a standard, solipsistic view of the universe. Rocketship X-M is at least a little more upfront when its space-flight engineers “envision” an outer space conquered by and enforcing Western science: what the engineers in fact envision is a night sky in which all earthlings see is other earthlings, looking back.