Our favorite Martians: The red planet, a pop culture history

Aug. 08, 2012 | 11:42 a.m.

Carl Sagan once said, "Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our earthly hopes and fears." Click through the gallery to see how that projection has glowed in pop culture and the arts.

In 1898, H.G. Wells ushered in a new era's perception of Mars and Martians with "The War of the Worlds" -- he also created a template for alien-invasion fiction, a genre with recent additions such as "Attack the Block," "Battle: Los Angeles" "Super 8" and "V." (University of London)

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of a major Martian moment that also qualifies as the most infamous radio broadcast in U.S. history: The Mercury Theatre group led by Orson Welles, above, updated "The War of the Worlds" for a Halloween episode and presented portions of the story as fake news bulletins. After some confused listeners believed real aliens were torching New Jersey there were weeks of headlines, debate and outrage. (Los Angeles Times archive)

Next February marks the 60th anniversary of producer George Pal's "The War of the Worlds," part of his run of game-changing sci-fi spectacle films. Like 1950's "Destination Moon" and 1951's "When Worlds Collide," the Martian film won the Oscar for special effects. (Paramount Pictures)

Aspiring writer Edgar Rice Burroughs was selling pencil sharpeners in 1912 when All-Story magazine published his tale of John Carter, a Civil War veteran transported to the kingdoms of Mars. Twelve novels followed and Mars was again ascendant in the public imagination. (McClurg)

Walt Disney Co. had high hopes that "John Carter," the mega-budget adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, would launch a film franchise. But moviegoers weren't ready to embrace Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe, above, and his universe. The project racked up $200 million in losses. (Disney)

The name "Mars" has a long heritage of power, danger, inspiration, story and art. In Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war and occupied a special place in the martial heart of the empire -- he was second only to the mighty Jupiter in importance. The month of March was named after the battlefield deity. (Diego Velazquez's 1640 painting of Mars. El Prado Museum)

What was the first sci-fi expedition to Mars? Probably Percy Greg's 1880 book "Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record," written as a sort of grandiose safari journal. Still, Greg was a Mars fiction pioneer and in 2010 a 62-mile wide crater on the planet was named in his honor.

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (1950) is a mosaic of two worlds running out of time. Bradbury, who died this year, cited Edgar Rice Burroughs as his north star: "I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities." (Spectra)

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" became a major NBC mini-series in 1980 with a cast including Rock Hudson, left, and Bernie Casey, but the author was among the critics who found the final product slow and ungainly. The classic may get another chance: Paramount Pictures has been developing a new feature-film adaptation. (SyFy)

The 1962 "Mars Attacks!" trading cards featured the art of comics titan Wally Wood and full sets of all 55 cards have been sold for $15,000 or more. A 50th anniversary card set and a lavish new Abrams book arrive in October and last month the first issue of the new IDW comics series was a brisk seller. (Topps)

Inspired by the 1960s trading cards, Tim Burton delivered a somewhat deranged all-star satire in 1996 with Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close and Jack Black among the players. In the end Earth is saved by ... Slim Whitman? (Bruce W. Talamon / Warner Bros.)

Space invaders were ripe for parody by 1948 when animation greats Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc gave Bugs Bunny a cosmic foe: Marvin the Martian, the ant-like conqueror who carries a ray gun but dresses like the Roman god Mars, above, opposite Daffy Duck in Duck Dodgers mode. (Warner Bros)

From 1963 to 1966, America brought an alien into its living room with the CBS sitcom "My Favorite Martian," which starred Ray Walston as the marooned visitor and newcomer Bill Bixby as the Los Angeles Sun reporter who agrees to keep his secret. (Warner Bros.)

The Three Stooges saved Earth from Martians in 1962's "The Three Stooges in Orbit," a film that recycled props from "Forbidden Planet" and gags from every Stooges short or film in the previous decade. (Columbia Pictures)

Like Superman, the Martian Manhunter is a noble and powerful alien who flies over earth in the DC Comics Universe. Like the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," the Manhunter's great weakness and fear is any open flame. Like Kermit the Frog, the Manhunter is green and sees no need for shirts. First appearance: 1955. (DC Comics)

Mars exerts a powerful pull on musicians whether they're looking for a band name (Mission to Mars, M/A/R/R/S, the Mars Volta), a stage name (Bruno Mars, Mick Mars of Motley Crue) or music inspiration (David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," Paul McCartney's "Venus and Mars.") (MCA, UMG, Elektra/Atlantic, Capitol Records)

The volatile colonization of Mars was also the backdrop to director Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall" (1990), which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, above, as a construction worker troubled by his Red Planet dreams. A remake is now in theaters but has been anemic at the box office. (David James / Carolco Pictures)

Don't underestimate the gravitational pull of a catchy book title. John Gray's 1993 bestseller "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" created a mini-empire (videos, seminars, a one-man Broadway show, a sitcom deal, etc.) even as mental health experts said it was Pluto-sized when it came to meaningful heft. (HarperCollins)

In 1975, the old Flight to the Moon ride at Disneyland was reopened as Mission to Mars. It lasted until just after Halloween 1992. What took it's place? Redd Rockett's Pizza Port.

Before "Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," the first Disney feature film built around the name of a theme park attraction was Brian DePalma's "Mission to Mars" (2000) with Gary Sinise, left, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O'Connell. (Rob McEwan / Touchstone Pictures)

The characters in John Carpenter's "Ghosts of Mars" (2001) had vivid names like Big Daddy Mars and Desolation Williams, but reviewers said the story was lost in space. The film's production budget was $28 million but it only made $14 million in in global box office. (Neil Jacobs / Screen Gems)

Steven Spielberg's unsettling (and underrated) 2005 hit "War of the Worlds" gave the sci-fi classic a modern-day East Coast setting and a cast led by Tom Cruise, flanked in this scene by Tim Robbins and Dakota Fanning. (Andrew Cooper / Paramount Pictures)

After "Mars Needs Moms" tanked in 2011 (it cost $150 million and brought in $39 million) there was talk in Hollywood that any title with the word Mars in it was off-putting, especially to women. Against that backdrop, Disney chopped the last two words off of the 2012 project "John Carter of Mars." (ImageMovers Digital)

The most successful Martian epic in pop culture in recent years? The video game "Red Faction" arrived in 2001 and was followed by four more installments -- including last year's "Red Faction: Armageddon," shown above -- and a TV movie. (THQ)

The travels and findings of NASA's Curiosity rover may inspire the next era of Martian fascination -- or maybe the mystery of Mars won't return until the first human steps foot on the planet. (Artist's rendition of the Mars Science Laboratory. NASA/JPL)

After traveling 352 million miles, NASA‘s Curiosity rover is rolling into history amid the rust-colored ridges of Mars. But pop culture and the arts have been mapping an imaginary landscape on the Red Planet for centuries. So move over, rover, and let fiction take over — flip through the photo and image gallery above to revisit a planet that invades our dreams more than any other.

– Geoff Boucher


‘Twilight Zone’: Step through a doorway…

Mars as muse: The planet’s sci-fi history

The Sci-Fi 50: TV’s greatest characters

‘John Carter’: Andrew Stanton’s Martian history

Moebius: The Hero Complex interview

Ridley Scott: Magic comes over the horizon

‘John Carter’ set visit: Martian dreams in Utah

Jonathan Frakes light years past ‘Farpoint’

‘Star Trek’: Benedict Cumberbatch lights up

RARE PHOTO: When Spock met Hendrix


3 Responses to Our favorite Martians: The red planet, a pop culture history

  1. dre says:

    No Stranger in a strange land? your list is a complete fail.

  2. richard schumacher says:

    And where is the very best Martian invasion movie, "Five Million Years to Earth"? Feh!

  3. Big Dugano says:

    @dre I know, only reason I clicked the article

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