Mars is awesome. The Curiosity rover is awesome. So why can't I find a single good movie about the Red Planet? Why, Leslie, why?
—Andrew P.W., St. Louis, via the inbox
I can feel the despair rolling off of you like waves of solar radiation, son. Or gamma rays. Or whatever sci-fi analogy makes you happy in these dark, anti-Martian days.
Bad movies about the Red Planet are an American tradition, one that goes back decades, way before we were launching probes with twee names like Curiosity. But what if I were to tell you that the most recent slew of Martian movie failures—John Carter, Mars Needs Moms, Ghosts of Mars, Red Planet—is actually your own darned fault? Hear me out.
For the record, there are a few flicks that are—sort of—worth your time. The 2005 remake of War of the Worlds garnered a 74 "fresh" rating among Rotten Tomatoes critics, and featured the always-welcome bonus of Tom Cruise running really fast.
And the original film is, of course, a classic.
But far more Mars movies have failed utterly. The Taylor Kitsch-led John Carter cost nine figures to make, but died at the box office with a $30-ish million opening. Last year's Mars Needs Moms got slammed for, of all things, a lack of imagination.
What else? Let's see: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars had Ice Cube in it. I like Ice Cube, but critics did not appreciate what they called bad dialogue and bad acting. Mission to Mars and Red Planet, both released in 2000, aren't exactly adored among movie buffs either.
Even Tim Burton couldn't make a successful movie about the fourth planet from the sun; his 1996 Mars Attacks!, an homage to 1950s camp that featured top talent like Natalie Portman and Jack Nicholson, was considered a box-office disaster.
So why all the Martian-flavored failure?
Well, maybe you need to blame your own hangups. That's not me talking, that's pop-culture critics who follow this stuff.
These days, "everyone knows that there is no life on Mars except for bugs and bacteria or something," notes Texas Tech film historian Rob Weiner. "So, it's difficult for people have that suspension of disbelief when it comes to a movie about Mars."
In fact, our mental hangups with that planet go further than that.
"Martians have became such a cliche that the genre has become corrupted," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture guru at Syracuse University. "There's such a history of kitsch and camp attached to it" that people actually expect new Martian films to suck.
Add it all up, and the takeaway is this: Martian films just might be doomed before they can even fire up their death rays. And all because we, as an audience, have developed a sort of mental block against them.
Maybe John Carter was a good movie, and we just don't know it yet?