One afternoon in tenth grade, when I was home sick with a nasty cold, I curled up beneath some blankets and watched an old 1950s sci-fi movie about a mission to Mars. I ended up drifting in and out of consciousness through most of it. Afterwards, I only recalled bits and pieces, but the images in my mind were perplexing. There were trippy red landscapes, creepy ant aliens, some kind of giant spider/bat creature… had I actually seen those things on the TV? Or had it all been a lunatic fever dream?
One Google image search later, it was abundantly clear that I hadn’t made anything up—though “lunatic fever dream” remained an apt description.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present you: The Angry Red Planet.
The Angry Red Planet was filmed over nine hectic days in late 1959, on a budget of $200,0001. Sidney W. Pink did the script and Ib Melchior directed. To compensate for sparse funds, the producers experimented with a new method of cinematography, which they dubbed “CineMagic.” Essentially this entailed over-exposing photographic negatives until they gained a kind of surreal glow. Not only did they save on converting negatives to positives, since the technique (sort of) accomplished that for less, they could also get away with far cheaper backgrounds and props, since the astronauts appeared fairly cartoon-like anyway. All scenes on Mars were live-action CineMagic footage superimposed on hand-drawn backgrounds, complete with an orange tint for that authentic Martian touch.
The film begins with a framing device. Deep-space sensors have picked up the Mars exploration ship MR-1, which was presumed lost; it is now approaching Earth, somewhat erratically, and ground control cannot make contact with anyone aboard. Uniformed generals meet in the Pentagon and make the decision to land it under remote control. When it touches down, they find two survivors aboard—the mission commander, Tom O’Bannion, unconscious with an alien growth on his arm, and Dr. Iris Ryan, the mission biologist, shaken and traumatized by unknown horrors.
We see the main action of this film through an extended flashback. The outbound flight to Mars goes normally enough—we get to meet the crew, comprising O’Bannion and Ryan, plus MR-1’s elderly designer, Professor Gettell, and the radar specialist (also comic relief), Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs. After forty-seven days in interplanetary space, they undertake a harrowing landing and become the first humans ever to set foot on the Red Planet. Mars, they find, is a cool red planet with a thin atmosphere, much like we know it to be now—nevertheless, this Mars is bursting with exotic vegetation, eerily motionless outside the spacecraft. There are no signs of animal life, save for a specter Dr. Ryan momentarily glimpses through the porthole:
Though she shrieks in horror at the sight, our intrepid heroes are undeterred, and they leave their spacecraft to begin explorations of this strange new world. What follows is the real meat of the film: an adventure through a red-tinted landscape populated by ferocious beasts. There is a giant carnivorous plant, which traps prey with far-reaching rubbery tentacles; and a giant amoeba, rising from the depths to pursue the astronauts at surprising speed; and a towering bat-rat-crab creature (pictured above), which was easily the weirdest thing that stuck in my head after watching this fever dream of a movie. Jacobs’ freeze ray works to ward off some of these foul creatures, but the dangers rapidly mount; eventually the astronauts are forced into a desperate confrontation to save their ship, their mission, and themselves. The Red Planet is a perilous place, possessed almost of a conscious hostility towards human life—it is, dare I say it, angry.
The Angry Red Planet is very much a work of pulp sci-fi, not highbrow art, and the nine-day, $200,000 production is obvious in the finished product. So it’s not a good movie, in a strict sense. I’ve already mentioned the way CineMagic allowed matte paintings to fill in for sets; everything else looks just as cheap and cobbled together, though that is not to deny a certain charm. To show the rocket returning to Earth, they—I kid you not—play stock footage of an Atlas launch backwards. Points for using what’s available, I guess. One positive thing I can say, though, is that the red-tinted Martian scenes have a strangely appealing quality to them—their blurriness and cheapness help to accentuate the strangeness of this alien world.
Characterization here is nothing to write home about. The astronauts are all pretty one-note, albeit likeable. Dr. Iris Ryan, despite being the sole woman in a 1950s sci-fi movie, at least gets a few chances to save the day with her scientific know-how. The plot is similarly unsophisticated; a framing device encloses a long sequence of exploring Mars and braving its dangers. The pacing drags during the Earth-side portions at the beginning and end, but the long flashback in the middle is quite entertaining, with plenty of action as the astronauts move from danger to danger. Without spoiling the ending, I will say it feels kind of silly and tacked-on.
Despite its shallowness, I think the real thematic interest of this movie is in its depiction of a human expedition to Mars, years before that world had been revealed as anything more than a blurry disc in Earthbound telescopes. Many of the spaceflight aspects are at least plausible, for 1959; the MR-1 is based on a real rocket, and the flight out to Mars is a weeks-long process. When I watched them land on the surface, and don spacesuits for the first excursion, I indeed felt a thrill of adventure suitable for exploring a distant world. Mars glows here with a mystery that would be rudely dispelled by the first space probes, which revealed a landscape of rocks rather than exotic life. So there is, perhaps, a genuine sense of wonder and curiosity buried beneath The Angry Red Planet‘s menagerie of monsters. One senses an imagination champing at the bit to seize the opportunity of the nascent Space Age—then marked only by a handful of satellite missions to Earth orbit—and launch humans into the great unknown.
I’ll finish up this post with a comparison to another low-budget sci-fi offering from the era: the Soviet film A Dream Come True, which I reviewed on this site way back in 2019. Both feature Mars missions and first contact with aliens; Angry Red Planet takes a darker approach, and generally has more going on in the way of peril, while A Dream Come True operates at a somewhat higher level, intellectually. Altogether, I do think A Dream Come True is the superior work, largely because its starry-eyed optimism is so damn charming. It leaves an earnest impression, a glimpse into a forgotten world of boundless hope. Angry Red Planet, meanwhile, is definitely a wild ride, and an interesting vision of interplanetary travel right at the dawn of the Space Age, but its kitschy fever-dream aesthetics only carry it so far.
Rating: 6/10. Recommended for a rainy weekend.
- Admittedly, it may have been higher—according to Wikipedia, the American Film Institute reported that the budget was increased to $500,000 shortly before production. However, comments from screenwriter and producer Sidney Pink seem to indicate otherwise. We’ll probably never know for sure, because cut-rate films of that era didn’t leave much in the way of paper trails.