Thursday, July 4, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part V

Red Planet Mars (1952)
Given its name, I had expected Red Planet Mars to be either one of a number of mission to Mars movies or a Martian invasion film. Well, it turns out to be neither and was actually one of the more surprising movies I watched during the May Day Marathon. There will be spoilers, as usual.

Using an experimental communications device called a hydrogen valve, Chris and Linda Cronyn attempt to make contact with Mars. Telescopic images of the planet show that enormous changes have occurred on the planet's surface in a short period of time, including the melting of huge quantities of ice to fill the canals that crisscross the face of Mars. It seems apparent that an advanced society exists on the planet, but the only response that the Cronyns are receiving is a repetition of their own signals. As the scientist couple and their military backers debate whether or not the signal is an echo of the original or simply a failure to communicate with the Martians, the Cronyns' son suggests that they use pi to communicate. Certainly an advanced race would understand the concept of pi and, if sent the first few digits of the sequence, would recognize the pattern and continue it.

The nature of the hydrogen valve means that the signal can't be intercepted unless someone else has one. In an isolated shack on a snowy mountainside, Nazi war criminal Franz Calder, the hydrogen valve's inventor, has been listening in on the Cronyns. Calder's employer is the Soviet Union, which sprang him from prison in exchange for their own hydrogen valve system. The Nazi scientist has been unable to contact Mars himself, but he has been able to eavesdrop on the Cronyns' signals. Calder's handlers are displeased by the lack of contact with the Red Planet, but they're intrigued by the ability to listen in on the American's attempts. The Soviets are nearly as excited as the Americans when Calder reports that the Cronyns have finally received a response that wasn't merely the repetition of the original signal; a continuation of the pi sequence.

The Cronyns begin exchanging mathematical formulas with the intention of forming a basis for an extraterrestrial dialog. Their first real questions are very simple, but the responses have a devastating effect on Earth and especially the Western world. When the Martians are asked how long they live, the answer is "300 Earth years". Further responses reveal that Mars can feed 1000 beings with a half an acre of farmland and that they harness cosmic energy to run their advanced society. With the realization that Martian technology could make wide swaths of the West's economy obsolete, chaos ensues. Each revelation causes prices to plummet and industries to collapse. Obviously, the Soviet Union is delighted. With their Western adversaries on the ropes, the Soviet Central Committee begins to plan a preemptive strike.

Upset at the effect their work is having on the world, the Cronyns finally ask how the Martians have avoided destroying each other despite the amazing power at their command. Strangely, this question doesn't receive an immediate answer like the others did. Concerned that subsequent responses could make things even worse, the military decides that all further signals received by the hydrogen valve will be sent directly to the Pentagon for translation without being released to the public or the Cronyns themselves. However, when the surprising response to the last question is translated, it starts a debate between the military and the President on whether or not the answer should be revealed. When it's finally released, chaos again follows, but in the Soviet Union.

The Martians say that they took the Cronyns' question to their supreme leader, although the context of the Martian's term "supreme leader" suggests a godlike being. The leader's response: "Seven lifetimes ago you were told to love goodness and hate evil. Why have you denied the truth?" The time frame mentioned (seven Martian lifetimes is around 2,100 years) and the content of the response implies that the Martians follow a Judeo-Christian religion(!) and that the "godlike" supreme leader may be more than just godlike.

Subsequent messages begin to arrive from Mars, each more overtly religious than the last. Franz Calder reports the messages to his handlers faster than the Pentagon can get them to the press. Although the Central Committee attempts to hide these messages from the Soviet people, there are enough concealed radios to get the word out and the Soviet system rapidly begins to collapse. Hating his Soviet masters as much as he does the Americans, Calder becomes more delirious with each message until, one night, his cabin is buried in an avalanche.

As the religious messages restore stability to the Western world, the Soviet Union is restructured and an interim government composed of long-oppressed spiritual leaders is formed. An Earth that was on the brink of nuclear war has finally found peace and Chris and Linda Cronyn are happy to have been a part of changing the world. However, they're disappointed that they've stopped receiving any additional signals. It's at this point that Franz Calder shows up.

Calder survived the avalanche and had made his way to the United States to confront the people who had been using his design. The war criminal pulls out the notebook he had kept in his cabin and gleefully reveals that he had sent the early messages for his own amusement. By timing the response just right and bouncing the signal off the atmosphere, he had made it look like the answers were coming from Mars. But, he admits, it was brilliant of the Americans to start making up their own religious messages to destabilize the Soviet Union. When the Cronyns asked how the Martians had avoided annihilating each other, Calder had intended to answer with "one tribe must hold the power". But when he saw what the religious messages were doing to the Soviets, he decided to keep his handlers in the dark. Although Linda refuses to believe that the latter messages were faked by the President or the Pentagon, Chris isn't so sure. It doesn't matter what either of them thinks, says Calder. The first few messages were faked and there have been no transmissions since Calder's shack and hydrogen valve were destroyed. He's taken the liberty of inviting the press to the Cronyns' lab with the intention of revealing the hoax he had played on the world.

With only a few minutes left before the press arrive, and knowing that the revelation would inevitably lead to war, the Cronyns make a desperate decision. The hydrogen valve is aptly named; hydrogen is a vital element of the device's function and Chris secretly starts to release the flammable gas into the lab while Linda prepares to light a cigarette. The Cronyns' suspicious behavior gives them away and Calder prevents them from sparking the lighter just as another message arrives. Knowing that only another hydrogen valve (or a genuine Martian transmission) could send such a message, Calder fires a gun at the transmitter and blows the Cronyns and himself to smithereens.

When the U.S. President gives the eulogy at the Cronyns' memorial, he announces the Pentagon's translation of the final, incomplete message; "ye have done well, my good..."

Compared to the other '50s sci-fi films I've seen, this one was very unusual. While many of them had religious overtones (e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)), few were as overtly religious as this one. Additionally, most films that I've seen from this era portray American fears of nuclear war or the spread of communism metaphorically (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)) rather than explicitly. What surprised me most about the film was the Cronyns' willingness to kill themselves and Calder to cover up what they briefly believed to be a hoax. Before the final transmission was received and the truth of the religious messages was confirmed, the heroes of Red Planet Mars were preparing to blow themselves up to protect a pious lie. While I expect this kind of thing in the more cynical films of later decades (protection of a pious lie is the whole point of the climax to The Dark Knight (2008)), I certainly didn't expect it in a film from the early '50s.

Although an interesting film, Red Planet Mars has a few weaknesses, several of which I didn't realize until well after seeing the movie. First of all, I found it a bit unbelievable that the "Martians'" response would so quickly lead to an economic collapse. Even if the Western world believed that the Martians could feed 1000 people on a half acre of crops, why would Earth's food prices drop so quickly? Why would so many people think that the Martians would necessarily share that technology with us, that they would do so immediately, and that humanity could implement it at once? Maybe there would be some effect, but I don't think humanity is quite that rash.

The fact that some of the messages were Calder's and the rest were genuine introduces several plot holes. The "seven generations" statement in the first real message is meant to coincide with the time of Christ, indicating that the Martians follow His teachings. However, the film's climax tells us that all the previous messages, including the one saying that Martians live up to 300 years, came from Calder. Did the Nazi simply guess right on the Martian lifespan? Why were the Martians silent during the time that Calder was sending the Americans false transmissions? In light of the fact that only the religious communications were genuine, how was the Pentagon able to translate them using the methods developed to translate Calder's false ones? Why didn't the Martians start their communications with something more basic like "Greetings, we'd like to share an important message with you"?

It's worth noting that the scene before Calder's appearance in the U.S. shows the Cronyn family listening contently to the declaration of world peace on the radio. In other words, it could have acted as a happy and heartwarming '50s movie ending. The apparent finality of this scene, combined with Calder's unlikely survival and appearance in the Cronyns' lab, has caused some reviewers to suspect that the movie's final sequence was a last minute addition. I believe that the plot holes introduced by Calder's claims confirm that the final scene wasn't part of the original plot and was added to increase the drama of the film. All internal consistency goes at the window the very moment the Nazi scientist claims that the first transmissions came from his shack. While it's an affecting scene, and quite possibly my favorite of the movie, it shows a degree of sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers.
B+

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