Sunday, 25 May 2014

Visions of the Planet Mars

Mars has always been a popular choice of setting for science fiction, and by extension other more fantastical stories as well. Even today, after the planet has been mapped and photographed it still continues to fascinate and inspire us. Why is this?

Well, for the longest time it was believed that if any alien life existed in our solar system, the two most likely candidates were the two closest planets to Earth: Mars and Venus, and subsequently many stories were written incorporating those two worlds. Venus has since been proven to be the most inhospitable planet in the solar system, meaning it is incapable of supporting anything letalone an intelligent civillization (unless you consider the more far-fetched theories of microbes living in the upper atmosphere), but we still continue to focus on Mars. None of the probes we have sent have yet found evidence for life, although there is still the (admittedly faint) possibility of life that existed in the past or life underground. Still, the visions of mars are quite diverse depending on the work. Let's examine a few of them.

The earliest record I am aware of regarding a story incorporating Mars is H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. In that story, Wells envisioned an intelligent race of Martians, but from what is described his vision of the planet itself wasn't too far off the reality. In fact, the cold and dry environment of Mars is used as an incentive for the Martians, and the reason the whole war happens in the first place- they've used up their resources and hope to start over on Earth. The planet was also used as their homeworld in the 1953 film adaptation, where we are entitled to a brief glimpse during the opening narration.

Now for the time, this would probably have been a reasonable guess. Here George Pal enlisted the help of artist Chesley Bonestell, who from what I understand Bonestell was known for making a lot of space-themed paintings using the best science available at the time (you can see a few of them here). In this case we do see a cold environment and a fantastical image of a Martian city in the background. This certainly has the right sort of atmosphere but is far from the real thing.

Moving a few years ahead, George Pal, Byron Haskin, and Chesley Bonestell would end up crossing paths again to make the 1955 film Conquest of Space. Given this film centers on the first mission to Mars, it should hardly come as a surprise that we see more of it than in The War of the Worlds. However, the vision presented in this film is a bit closer to the reality, at least as close as they could get using the information available in 1955.

The planet is much redder, but impressively for the time the movie correctly assumes that there is no life to be found. On the other hand, it did fail to anticipate the presence of frozen water under the surface (which would have made finding water much easier for the crew). Also the cold weather means that water can't turn into gas and evaporate, which means that precipitation, like the miraculous snowfall that saves the crew, would also be impossible.

Let's move ahead a little bit, looking at Mars as envisioned at a later time, as in a film like 1990's Total Recall. It does take some time to get to Mars, given the first 30-40 minutes are actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale before getting into all the really weird stuff. \However, what we do see of Mars looks almost nothing like the real thing (although depending on how you interpret the film this it's possible that this is because it's all in Arnold's head and not actually happening).

As you can see, the planet is even redder than was envisioned in Conquest of Space. Far more obvious however, would have to be the infamous "face melt" scenes. Although the red sky suggests the presence of an atmosphere, the characters when exposed start to swell up and explode. Even in a vacuum this never happens, your body would just have the oxygen quickly sucked out and you would die very quickly from asphyxiation. The atmosphere of Mars is hardly breathable for us, but its composition would certainly not cause you to explode if you were exposed to it.

Jumping a few years ahead, we have John Carpenter's 2001 movie Ghosts of Mars. This movie takes a very different approach, being set on a terraformed Mars after colonization has been going on for some time, so the planet is going to be noticeably different from what we've seen in NASA photographs. Much like the other films the planet is a lot redder than the actual planet. By the time the movie takes place, Mars already has a semi-breathable atmosphere, unlike the previous depictions where people had to wear some kind of suit.

There is also an interesting spin on how life is treated on the planet. In this case, it runs with the idea that Mars had some sort of life in the past (from which the titular "ghosts" originated). Humanity discovering the one remaining trace of these ancient inhabitants is what sets the ghosts (intended to cause harm to anyone who tries to take the planet)  loose in the first place.

So there we are: four different films with very different interpretations of one planet. We see drastically different visions of what the planet looks like alone, most of which are noticeably different from the real thing. 

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