Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mission Mars

Another cheap science fiction movie by the director who made SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS? What could go wrong (I ask sarcastically)?

Well, we could start with the cloying ballad sung by Sturg Pardalis (!) that opens 1968's MISSION MARS — a gurgling mess that definitely does not put the audience in the mood for thrilling space opera. Aside from the song, the film’s first ten minutes consist only of grainy NASA stock footage and three (!) different scenes of astronaut wives sobbing to the heroes how much they’ll miss them. Again, not exactly setting the stage for adventure.

Appropriately for a movie co-written by Aubrey Wisberg, who penned bad ‘50s monster movies like CAPTIVE WOMEN and THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, MISSION MARS feels woefully outdated for a 1968 release, rehashing story points and characterization from films more than a decade old and failing to freshen them for an audience that would watch Americans walk on the moon a year later. The astronauts grimacing during liftoff? Check. Meteor storm? Check. Walking on Mars with a glass shield over their space helmets that doesn’t connect to their suits? Yep. Amateurish special effects shots haplessly recycled? Of course.

At least MISSION MARS didn’t hurt the careers of its two big stars. Darren McGavin, best known as night stalker Kolchak, continued a busy career as a TV guest star and occasional leading man of note. And Nick Adams was already dead by the time MISSION MARS was released, though it can be argued the film was no step down from his previous star turns in MONSTER ZERO and FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (it is though). The rest of the cast seems to be local Florida actors (director Nicholas Webster lensed the movie at Miami’s Studio City) or perhaps friends of the director.

Mike Blaiswick (McGavin) leads a three-man crew, including geologist Grant (Adams) and pilot Duncan (George DeVries), on an eighteen-month round trip to Mars on the rocket Mars One. By the time they actually touch down to begin Act Three, you may have already drifted off. If you’re still watching, however, you’ll get to see the film’s only touches of imagination. Mars is replicated through cardboard STAR TREK-style stages (though without Gerald Perry Finnerman’s evocative lighting) and phony tabletop miniatures (usually the same two shots shown over and over). The first thing Webster does when the movie gets there is shoot interminable scenes of the astronauts filling balloons.

However. Are you still hanging in there? Finally, something happens. Grant encounters a dead cosmonaut, still standing and frozen solid. (“Can you get him back to the ship?” McGavin asks. How Adams is able to carry a frozen corpse that distance, we’ll never know.) Blaiswick and Duncan encounter real live Martians, which are cheaply constructed, but at least unusual-looking creatures that shoot beams from stalks. In the film’s one genuinely unsettling moment, a creature burns the eyes out of one of the astronauts and magnetically drags his corpse into a mysterious sphere.

That part aside, MISSION MARS is a terrible movie, sunk by a script with too few ideas and a production with too little money to make those ideas pay off. McGavin and Adams, pros both, play the danger straight, probably not knowing how silly the menaces they were pretending to react to would look on the screen.

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