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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Call it the Curse of the Red Planet

Written by Kirk Baird, film critic and Detroit Film Critics Society member

Soviet probes sent to Mars fail to connect with home in the 1980s. A few years later several NASA spacecraft turn silent when they reach their distant destination or simply burn up in the planet’s thin atmosphere. Clearly, our Mars encounters have had their share of problems.

And now the same mysterious menace that has plagued our Red Planet missions has reached across the inky void to bedevil Hollywood with back-to-back colossal box office failures of two Mars-centric films.

Mars Needs Moms was an ambitious motion-capture animated tale (the creepy computer animation that’s supposed to be lifelike) produced by filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. Based on a Berkeley Breathed children’s book, the 2011 film centered on a boy who comes to appreciate his mom after she's kidnapped by Martians and he must rescue her. The film cost $150 million to make, but made only $60 million back worldwide. That was a staggering loss for Walt Disney Studios.

And then Disney released John Carter (also based on a book) in theaters this past March. With a production budget estimated at $250 million, the film hasn't even yet made $65 million domestically as of the end of March. In foreign markets, the film looks to be in better shape, making nearly $173 million, for a worldwide haul of nearly $235 million so far. But even Walt Disney has conceded it will lose money on John Carter. Of course, the film could pick up steam in the home video market.

Mars has proven a popular destination for movies through the decades, beginning in 1910 with the five-minute silent film A Trip to Mars, which was produced for Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope.

George Pal’s 1953 sci-fi masterwork War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells novel, riveted audiences with state-of-the-art effects of Martian war machines decimating Earth that still hold up even today.

The 1964 classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars took Daniel Defoe’s timeless tale of a stranded sailor, turned him into an astronaut, and rocketed him to our celestial neighbor.

In 1977’s Capricorn One, O.J. Simpson costarred as one of three NASA astronauts forced to fake a Mars landing, only to have the government hunt them down to keep the hoax a secret.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 box office hit Total Recall featured a construction worker whose memory has been altered and searches for clues to his past on Mars. (Look for the remake starring Colin Farrell late this summer.)

And in 2000 Hollywood gave us two science fiction films, Red Planet and Mission to Mars, both with similar themes of astronauts exploring and colonizing Mars and the troubles they find when they arrive.

And you can’t overlook the 1964 cult classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The film proved to be the launching point for a young actress named Pia Zadora.

Talk about curses.

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