½*/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Rock Hudson, Gayle Hunnicutt, Bernie Casey, Roddy McDowell
screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
directed by Michael Anderson
by Walter Chaw There is and probably always will be a warm place in my heart for Ray Bradbury. The author of my childhood in many ways, Bradbury taught me about poetry in "April Witch," about fear in The Dark Carnival and Something Wicked This Way Comes, about dry irony in "A Sound of Thunder" and "There Will Come Soft Rains," and about vengeance reptilian and cold in "The Veldt." His only real work of science-fiction, Fahrenheit 451, remains an interesting touchstone of unintentional messages couched in seriomythic terminologies, but his output is moored deep, intractably deep, in the literary. Bradbury doesn't transpose well to different mediums (and a book of poetry, When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, was somehow even more disastrous than the multiple attempts to export the author to television and film)--he's too purple, his philosophies too immature, his worldview embarrassingly simplistic and only really current for children or the childish. I'll never be able to exactly express the thrill, the horror, of my first reading of "Mars is Heaven" when I was in third grade. Nor have I been able to replicate it by reading it again since.
There's a reason that only one Bradbury short story ever found expression on Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" (which Serling himself articulates: he didn't translate), and a reason, too, that the work of author Richard Matheson became a steady resource for the same program. Matheson was brought on board to adapt Bradbury's anthology The Martian Chronicles to mini-serial TV in 1979--and the result is a long discussion in three parts that finds Matheson winnowing away most, though not all, of Bradbury's fluffy poesy to reveal the essential emptiness at the core of Bradbury's flights of social speculation. Matheson is lean and a little icy; Bradbury is corpulent with grandfatherly warmth. And their collaboration is as disorienting as a shot of vodka in a brandy snifter. Directed by Michael Anderson, who did something enduring and thoughtful with Logan's Run and something infamous and ridiculous with Orca, the schizophrenic The Martian Chronicles finds the right captain at the rudder. But while it's occasionally haunting, more often it's broad kitsch fabulism that in the end, because of its insistence on drawing from the colonization of Mars a treatise on the white man's manifest aggression against Native Americans, encroaches on the insensitive.
Col. John Wilder (Rock Hudson) is the framing element to The Martian Chronicles' vignette shorts (three per episode, three episodes in total), an astronaut who organizes the first expeditions to Mars in the late 1990s and then moves there himself in the early '00s with his cardboard-cutout family. The first episode deals with the initial expeditions to the red planet, each of them doomed. Part one's victimes are killed variously by Martian sexual jealousy, by--in the passage based on the abovementioned "Mars is Heaven"--a mass delusion that should have been the basis for The Majestic but wasn't, and lastly by a rogue astronaut (Bernie Casey) who gains a conservationist's morality and is, conveniently, the only black person of the piece. The second episode involves colonization with one former flyboy, Sam (Darren McGavin), opening a cafe in the middle of nowhere; a pair of monks (Fritz Weaver and Roddy McDowell) who find that Mars has its own gods; and Stanislav Lem's potent idea of the mysterium tremendum, which alas devolves into another Bradburian reductivist screed on man's pettiness so far as he can frame it. The last episode, also the weakest, is set after some sort of war wipes out Earth in a montage stolen and weakened from the end of Dr. Strangelove (indeed, Sam's cafe sports a sign that recalls Slim Pickens's last ride in that film) that betrays a lot of misogyny on top of its shoebox pontification.
It feels like I'm coming down a little hard on Bradbury (and perhaps I am), but I maintain that there's a place for him in letters. Though I'm tempted to say that that place is 1945, it's fairer--certainly more charitable--to say that Bradbury, this man who's never ridden an airplane and doesn't know how to drive, is best when he's looking backwards. In truth, even his speculative fiction is eternally looking backwards, eyes wrenched back-ways like the hero of Clive Barker's "Hell's Event." The Martian Chronicles begins with human settlers inadvertently wiping out the Martian civilization with a feral plague (chicken pox) and ends with Col. Wilder declaring himself and his family the true inheritors of Mars. They're the spoilers, of course, the White Man armed with his sense of manifest expansionism making antebellum statements about the tragedy of a lost culture without much taking-of-responsibility for being the prime movers in the extinction of the indigenous race. When a group of Martians suffers endless rounds from a bottomless six-shooter just to give Sam the deed to the planet, there's something broadly political happening here: condemnation of our spotted past, we surmise. But it's not a condemnation when humans, particularly white humans, are seen as the rightful heirs to what they've taken by force: The Martians are mysterious not because they look all that different, but because they look almost the same and yet don't have the moxie to offer up force for force, choosing instead to fight their battles through subterfuge, negotiation, and capitulation. For the United States, particularly in January of 1980 (the dawn of Ronald Reagan's morning in America), anything less than a gun and a grudge is loathsome and effete.
So the messages in The Martian Chronicles are muddy beyond salvation. If Bradbury's historical naivety is charming in the Dances with Wolves style, it's dissected by Matheson's cruel blade and the unforgiving nature of network programming into something that feels unsure and disorientingly fey. A much-lauded scene where Wilder talks with the apparition of a Martian who has time-travelled either from the extreme future or the extreme past suggests something interestingly quantum, but ends up being a variation on gathering rosebuds while one might. Carpe diem as the backbone for an alien religion--no wonder the spaced-out hippies got mowed down. Likewise, a scene where a shapeshifting Martian appears to Father Peregrine (Weaver) as Christ in his passion threatens to examine the cruelty embedded in the idea of a literal communion mass (this was the series' most controversial sequence)--but washes out as a meek variation on the series' theme that mankind is rather small-minded. Until they're not.
The disappointment of The Martian Chronicles isn't that it's boring (and it is, something that Bradbury found to be his only major complaint with it), or that its special effects are horrible even by the standards of the day. Rather, it's that the series is always on the cusp of a wider, more probing discussion and never gets there. There's nothing interesting to talk about in regards to the The Martian Chronicles, a malady that afflicts the series more than the book, though it afflicts the book as well. At the end of the day, its only controversy is that it seems to ultimately support what it initially decries, and that its only major women characters--Genevieve Selsor (Bernadette Peters--who, really, has never looked better in anything) and Alice Hathaway (Nyree Dawn Porter)--are respectively an irredeemable bimbo who deserves her abandonment and a robot housewife incapable of experiencing emotional depth. Oh, Ray.
MGM brings The Martian Chronicles to DVD on two double-sided platters encapsulated in a standard-sized keepcase with swing-tray interior. (The last side of the second disc is blank.) The fullscreen video transfer suggests fidelity to the source material--which, while relatively free of debris, is hopelessly hamstrung by the production values. Most of the picture is shot through a red filter to simulate the Martian landscape (I want to complain about all the clouds and the blue skies and the full canals, but that's dork talk), an effect that gives the terrain a sort of alien feel, for certain, but also tends to render everything a little dark. Shadow detail, then, is non-existent; if you have an uncurtained window in the house, you're not going to be able to make out a lot of the action. A DD 2.0 mono audio mix presents the dialogue (spoken, it seems at times, at half-speed--one gets the image of director Anderson off-camera making the "prolong, prolong" hand gesture to his soporific cast) with little pop or hiss, though the track never really comes alive at any point--a mixed blessing given the half-disco/half-experimental/all-bad score by Stanley Myers. While the case boasts of twenty minutes never-before-seen, as they're not annotated in any way and as I'm not privy to the original broadcast from almost three decades ago, let's just say that it's only of concern to two or three people on the planet. There are no special features of any kind, paving the way for a special edition somewhere down the road should the flick turn out to be a hit on DVD. I wouldn't bank on that, though: The Martian Chronicles is too somnambulant for camp and too stupid for cult. And besides, Bradbury is better in the rearview mirror than in the headlights. Originally published: September 8, 2004.