BY Kristin Jones in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Mars attracts

Probing our fascination with the red planet

BY Kristin Jones in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

The Martian frontier is closer than ever. NASA's Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter will arrive in October, and the European Union's Mars Express orbiter is scheduled to depart in 2003 with Britain's Beagle 2 probe on board. Numerous groups are making plans for colonization. Meanwhile John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001), which pits humans against vengeful long-dead aliens, is the latest in a stream of new Mars movies. Carpenter's scenario implicitly acknowledges the planet's hold on the popular imagination, as did Tim Burton's delirious spoof Mars Attacks! (1996) and, more resonantly, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), which depicted Mars as a nightmarish mining colony and the source of powerful repressed memories. It's fitting that our dusty neighbour has been equated with the labyrinth, that metaphor for the unconscious treasured by the Surrealists. As a pre-teen, Kenneth Anger made Prisoner of Mars (1942), marrying poetry to pulp by collapsing the Minotaur myth into a Flash Gordon story. Anger cast himself as the 'Boy-Elect from Earth', an adolescent who is rocketed to Mars, where he 'awakens in a labyrinth littered with the bones of his predecessors'. The Minotaur metaphor is also echoed in the name given by scientists to a tangle of deep canyons near the Martian equator: the Labyrinth of Night.

Celestial fantasies in movies are almost as old as celluloid: Méliès shot Voyage to the Moon in 1902; eight years later Enrico Movelli made Un matrimonio interplanetario (An interplanetary marriage) about an earthbound astronomer smitten with the daughter of his Martian counterpart. The genre's long fall from innocence perhaps began when it became tinged with political ideology. Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), by Soviet director Yakov Protazanov, envisioned Mars as an autocratic dystopia, whereas Cold War-era Hollywood produced a rash of red-baiting Mars movies such as Red Planet Mars (1952). The 1950s - the golden age of alien-invasion stories - spawned apocalyptic shockers such as The War of the Worlds (1953), morality tales involving visitors from unnamed planets, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and It Came from Outer Space (1954), and a swarm of Martian horror flicks. As space technology grew in sophistication, its ethical complexities surfaced in cinema. Professor von Braun in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) is a sinister shadow of Werner von Braun, the German scientist who fled from Hitler before chairing NASA's Apollo space programme during the 1960s. In his book The Mars Project (1952) von Braun outlined a staggeringly ambitious strategy for travel to Mars via a fleet of ten rockets. His design for a giant wheel-shaped space station at which ships would dock was dramatically incorporated by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick into 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Nixon, however, preferred the space-shuttle, which better lent itself to military use. One symptom of growing cynicism towards space exploration in a nation wearied by the Vietnam War was the supremely paranoid Capricorn One (1978), in which a reporter, played by Elliott Gould, discovers that a Mars expedition has been faked.

Capricorn One, in fact, followed on the heels of NASA's successful Viking I and II expeditions. The failure of the Soviet Mars III mission in 1971 - poignant in the light of the race to land before the US - alerted NASA scientists to the planet's vicious dust storms. My father, one of the engineers who designed the Viking lander camera, recalls one glitch that drove home the difficulty of overcoming ingrained expectations. After Viking I arrived on 20 July 1976, photographs initially relayed from the surface were oddly distorted. In their excitement technicians had calibrated for a blue sky, rather than first pointing the camera at a colour card painted on the side of the vehicle. (Damien Hirst is designing a similar card for Beagle 2.) The first accurate close-ups of the stunningly austere Martian landscape revealed a sky that is delicately tinted rose from the fine red dust suffusing its thin atmosphere. As for the initial reaction to Viking data among the scientific community, many were profoundly disappointed to find the planet so dead.

Subsequent expeditions, of course, have shown that not only did Mars probably once contain life, having flowed with rivers, lakes and oceans, but that water remains on the surface in the form of polar ice. Beagle 2 may yield concrete evidence of past or present life. In proving the rock formation called 'the face' to be entirely natural, recent fly-bys have also debunked one mystery triggered by Viking's aerial photographs, an enigma that fuelled the narrative of Brian de Palma's vacuous but elegantly shot Mission to Mars (2000). That several NASA scientists, as well as colonization advocate Robert Zubrin, served as advisers on the film reflects an unsettling convergence between NASA and Hollywood. (Titanic director James Cameron, an outspoken supporter of Mars exploration, also plans to produce and co-write a feature about a manned expedition.) However, Red Planet (2000) - a movie for which NASA declined to provide assistance - suggests, albeit incoherently, the riskiness of tampering with the Martian atmosphere through 'terraforming', a much-touted technique that would involve artificially generating a greenhouse effect. The dire consequences of this might include dangerous dormant micro-organisms being resuscitated through the change in climate, or an inadvertent overheating of the atmosphere that would destroy any opportunity to inhabit Mars or conduct archaeological research. In the meantime we may face a scenario straight out of another 1970s downer, The Andromeda Strain (1970): although it's expected that Martian rocks could be brought back to earth by 2008, a panel of US researchers recently noted that it will take at least a decade to design and build a facility capable of safely housing the samples.

In the end, do we really want to colonize a planet that has been such a potent embodiment of earthly fears and desires? In Andrei Tarkovsky's metaphysical reverie Solaris (1972) a scientist on a space station haunted by phantoms from his unconscious sorrowfully reflects, 'We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror [...] We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want.' As transforming Mars becomes a less fantastic prospect, disappointment may loom as vividly as Carpenter's fictional ghosts.