As those involved with the “science” of COVID today will tell us, Science evolves; and as these fresh discoveries come to light we adapt to what might inevitably be a whole new set of circumstances. As the Science grows and we learn what we didn’t know before, so does the storyteller find an alternative set of dynamics from which to spin his or her webs of adventure and intrigue. Likewise, the technological advances that go hand-in-hand with mechanical evolution typically mean there are new ways to tell such stories, and these developments push storytellers in even bolder, perhaps crazier, perhaps more inventive directions.
Such was the predicament of SciFi in the early 1950’s.
Mankind was just entering its Atomic Age, and this burgeoning Science was at one time thought to be the harbinger of serious space exploration. Consequently, Hollywood rushed to deliver films that tapped this fertile ground, picking man up off his Big Blue Marble and throwing him out amongst the stars. Features like Forbidden Planet (1956), Destination Moon (1950), and Rocketship X-M (1950) showed audiences what hope the future could hold (or even what catastrophes waited in the wings); while It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Thing From Another World (1951) reminded us to keep our guards up because not all that was green was good when it came to terrestrial and extraterrestrial encounters.
Flight To Mars (1951) found itself smack dab in the middle of these a’changing times.
Clearly, it’s simple story – five travelers on a trip to the Red Planet – was something screenwriters had already explored. Without anything to distinguish itself visually or scientifically, the film could easily be lost in the shuffle between what was and what was becoming the wide, wide world of cinematic Science Fiction. Thankfully, it turns seventy years young this year and is still around, at least so much so in this 4K restoration from The Film Detective so those of us who appreciate from whence we came can go back and take another look at a genre just becoming the entertainment juggernaut it was destined to be.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to my last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Five Earthlings land on Mars and are greeted by a team of friendly Martians. Fearing they have depleted the key mineral used to power their life-support systems, these Martians are determined to get off the red planet by any means necessary – including stealing the Earthlings’ ship and invading Earth! Can this group of Earthling space travelers outsmart these diabolical Martians?”
As stories go, you really can’t get more basic than boy-meets-girl; and that’s mostly what Flight To Mars is at its core … a two-fer boy-meets-girl – one Earthling and one Martian – with astronaut Cameron Mitchell falling for brainy ‘Earther’ Virginia Huston just as U.S. scientist Arthur Franz is falling for Martian lovely Marguerite Chapman. (My two cents? Both ladies are definitely keepers!) On the face of it, Flight is little more than a space-age road trip with a pair of romances thrown in to keep viewers invested, and there’s nothing wrong with that. While other Science Fiction and Fantasy films of this era were trying to up-the-ante on the seriousness of boldly going where no one had gone before, this Flight pretty much coasts on screenwriter Arthur Strawn’s color-by-numbers approach, something Monogram Pictures’ releases were known for.
Alas, what truly grounds so very much of the film is the fact that it lacks any central conflict: though the trip to Mars gets depicted with some treachery, far too much of the journey is a stoic affair. There’s more talk about risk than there is any true risk depicted, and it isn’t until the film’s second half when the dastardly Martians’ plot to steal the rocket and invade our planet that the pace quickens (just a tick). Even then, director Lesley Selander does so little with building the tension that one wonders if anyone involved with the picture seriously wanted it to be seen outside the studio. All too much of it remains formulaic: no new ground is broken, no marquee performances are heightened, and our heroes predictably win the day come the flick’s closing scenes … just as you thought they would.
Still, I’m a SciFi purist, and I’d argue that films like Flight To Mars – while a mostly benign and mediocre experience – still offer entertainment in the form of escapism. The Martian city is visually exciting, and its clear that production designer Ted Haworth saw more than a thing or two about 1936’s tempting Things To Come that he liked and incorporated into his Martian landscape. (If you’re gonna steal, then steal from the best.) While not particularly exciting, there’s no performance that comes off as painful or downright out-of-sorts. The completed feature clocks in at an unalarming seventy-two minutes, so it’s over almost before you know it.
Plus, there’s the added benefit of truly watching where we were as storytellers at a time when the genre was just blossoming into something greater. As I said, there are moments when Flight reaches for the stars; it just misses connecting with any singular issue the way so many earlier trips to the heavens did.
Flight To Mars (1951) was produced by Monogram Pictures. DVD distribution for this particular release is being handled by The Film Detective. As for the technical specifications? This 4K restoration is reportedly sourced from the original 35mm Cinecolor separation negatives, and it all looks and sounds very good. As for special features? The disc contains a colorful and informative commentary from film historian Justin Humphreys (one of the better hosts for this type of track); a pair of mini-documentaries (they relate more to the studio and the production personnel than they do this specific film); and a collector’s booklet that features a solid essay regarding Hollywood’s continuing fascination with Mars. All-in-all, it’s a solid package.
Mildly Recommended. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in admitting to a passing guilty pleasure in exploring a forgotten feature like Flight To Mars, but I’ll admit that there’s very little to make the trip memorable (aside from some pretty spiffy production details on the Red Planet itself). It boasts no big performances, no cutting commentary, and no winning performances. It only toys with big ideas – and even does so fleetingly – and builds to a pretty big ‘thud’ of an ending, all-too-rushed, all-too-convenient. Still, it’s probably worth a single view if for no other reason than it was produced when Science Fiction was starting to change, creeping onto society’s radar toward respectability, and the film might just represent a format that Hollywood was slowing leaving behind in search of greater meaning and deeper consequence.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at The Film Detective provided me with a Blu-ray of Flight To Mars (1951) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.