Rock Hudson Stars in Ray Bradbury TV Miniseries About Life on Mars
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL ANDERSON/1980
STREET DATE: JUNE 26, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
When I was six, I only wanted to see Martians. It was January, 1980, and my dad was watching The Martian Chronicles, a three-night, high profile television miniseries on NBC. Based upon Ray Bradbury’s 1950 novel of America’s future efforts to colonize Mars, with a teleplay by fellow science fiction writing great Richard Matheson, the project wielded tremendous star talent even at the initial “pile of paper” stage. Bradbury and Matheson are no slouches.
The cast list is an irresistible array of beloved era-centric curios (TV’s original Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond, the ubiquitous Bernadette Peters, or Christopher Connelly of TV’s Peyton Place, to name a few) and varying levels of movie stars (Fritz Weaver, Darrin McGavin, Roddy McDowell). Rock Hudson, as the central figure of Col. John Wilder, gets his name above the title. The whole five-hour affair (sans commercials) was directed by the recently departed Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Around the World In 80 Days).
I, however, had no regard for any of impressive pedigree associated with the project; only that martians are in the title, and therefore promised. I remember sitting and waiting and squirming and leaving and coming back… nothing but frustration. The brief glimpse that fueled me was of a bald humanoid martian with shiny eyes and no ears. No ears. That’s what stuck.
Over the years, the chance to see The Martian Chronicles became even more rare than the appearance of said martians in the movie itself.
The chance to finally get a look at this vaguely-recalled mini-series many, many sols later, through grownup eyes has proven to be far more rewarding than my first go-round all those years ago. In the interim, I must admit to having never read the source material, itself a literary “fixup”- a collection of related short stories both new and/or old, reworked into a complete novelized version. While Matheson’s adapted teleplay maintains the book’s anthological structure, it also infuses a greater episodic connectivity.
Competing with a cultural appetite that was collectively drooling for the imminent first Star Wars sequel, it’s easy to understand how the languid conceptualism of this tale might’ve left audiences cold in 1980. Each extended segment focuses on different characters as their interplanetary relocation efforts give way to various unexplainable encounters rooted in hopes, assumptions, entitlement, and perception. The impacts are slow but effective, be it the realization of a well-intentioned missionary (Fritz Weaver) that just because God is present doesn’t mean religion travels well; or Wilder’s disturbing reunion with a friend whom he comes to realize has replaced his deceased family members with ideal synthetic versions. To its credit, The Martian Chronicles never explains itself outright (especially bold for anything produced for television at that time), even as revelations of martians with telepathic abilities and non-corporal bodies come about.
Compound the deliberately paced and unexplained narrative with the frankly embarrassing visual effects (the film opens with obvious toys on monofilament landing on Mars) and all-around obviously stretched budget (don’t look too closely at the building facades of the New Texas colony), one gets why Bradbury himself publicly dismissed the whole effort as “boooooring”.
But with all due respect to Mr. Bradbury, Michael Anderson’s The Martian Chronicles is not boring. Though it’s true that a portion of its effective allure lies in its aforementioned shortcomings, it’s not out of irony or mockery. Somehow, in that overreaching way that was all too common within the production parameters of vintage network television miniseries’, the haphazard matte effects, the corrugated sheet metal veneer of the colonies, the arbitrary blinking light consoles of Mission Control… it can be eerily complimentary to the story. Sure, the astronauts sport pre-1960 forty-eight star U.S. flags on their wide-collar jumpsuits. And sure, the electronic disco soundtrack is a bit too uppity and even jarring. And maybe the ruins of the ancient martian civilization (a central location to the storyline) really is just a few freestanding geometric shapes carefully arranged, ala The Outer Limits. But through it all, the intended allegory of colonialism and the subjectivity of perception is forefront.
The Martian Chronicles is divided into three feature length parts, “The Expeditions”, “The Settlers”, and “The Martians”. This years-spanning tale begins in the far-flung year of 1999, as the first manned mission to Mars is initiated by the United States. With Earth in environmental and political disarray, colonization of the Red Planet has become an imminent necessity. With the discovery of an ancient Martian city, the question as to whether there was ever life on Mars is quickly laid to rest.
One astronaut (a brilliantly haunting Bernie Casey) becomes first enlightened by the recently killed-off Martian culture (inadvertently done in by chicken pox, brought by a previous U.S. landing team), then radically indoctrinated by it. He announces himself as “the last Martian”, adopting their garb and one of their ceremonial masks. (The Martian masks as incredibly cool, a highlight into themselves). From this point, things only grow increasingly dire, subtly so on Mars; quite pronouncedly so on Earth.
The new Blu-ray edition of The Martian Chronicles is a handsome two-disc affair (parts one and two on disc one; part three and the bonus features on disc two), complete with a very cool illustrated slipcover. Transfer-wise, this has to be the finest this film has ever looked, outside of some very limited overseas theatrical runs that happened back in the day. It maintains an appropriate old-school television aspect ratio of 4:3, meaning that the picture is pillarboxed on today’s 16:9 television screens.
If you’re like me and watched this movie on NBC thirty-eight years ago, or even since then, you had to have been watching it in standard definition. KL Studio Classics doesn’t let anyone down with their new high definition presentation. It maintains The Martian Chronicles’ 1980-era television look, but serves up a wealth of new detail- including but not limited to unintentional monofilament and the forty-eight star flag patches, but also the uninviting metal and decadent signage of the new American colonies.
The only bonus feature is a strange twelve minute interview with actor James Faulkner (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey), who played the prime featured Martian, Mr. K. Faulkner basically shrugs off this entire exercise of being asked on camera to recall participating in this film. He does, however, talk briefly about what it was like to physically become a bald, earless, shiny-eyed resident of the fourth planet. The lack of additional significant extras, though understandable, is a disappointing missed opportunity. Not even a Bradbury scholar is on hand. The only other extras on the disc are a few trailers for other KL releases.
Though I failed to get my wish to see lots of martians when I was six, the chance to finally revisit Michael Anderson’s The Martian Chronicles as a comprehending adult has proven to be worth the long wait.
Though the populace cynically scoffed off President George W. Bush’s one-time attempt at Kennedy-sequence space travel inspiration when he vowed to put a man on Mars, Bradbury shows us that perhaps there are other realities, other considerations, that we must take seriously before attempting to deliver our way of life to very different cultures in very different places. And above all, we must see to it that our own Earthly house is in order before we galavant off to any kind of far-flung escapism, spacefaring or otherwise.
Like the characters of The Martian Chronicles, the film adaptation’s reach exceeds its grasp in several ways. But in its glaring imperfection, this cautionary tale is rendered all the more compelling, perhaps even prophetic.