We earthlings have forever been fascinated by the next planet over.
While lots of pop fiction has speculated about aliens from other planets, the Venusians, Plutonians, Vulcans and Daleks have always been outnumbered by Martians — and interpretations of what they might be all about have been enormously varied.
In “The War of the Worlds,” the classic 1898 H.G. Wells novel that inspired the new Steven Spielberg film, invading Martians are described as having a quivering, V-shaped mouth; no brow ridges or chin; tentacles; huge intense eyes; and fungus-y, oily brown skin. They are essentially huge brains with tentacles, using robots for their manual labor. When producer George Pal turned Wells’ novel into a movie in 1953, the aliens gained bodies, but retained the tentaclelike arms and three-fingered hands with suction-cup tips. Their faces house three huge eyes — one red, one green and one blue.
They’re part squid, part projection TV.
Actually, one bizarre-looking Martian did hit movie theaters before “The War of the Worlds,”
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and it may be the most popular one of all. In the 1948 Warner Bros. cartoon “Haredevil Hare,” Bugs Bunny is sent to the moon, where he encounters a hostile little Martian with a round head, clad in skirt, helmet and sneakers, full of intent to blow up the Earth (which blocks his view of Venus). While he was originally unnamed, we’ve come to know him as Marvin the Martian, and he’s become one of animator Chuck Jones’ most beloved characters.
In 1953’s “Invaders From Mars,” there’s a mixture of Martians shown for the first time in color. While the Martian Master is more akin to Wells’ literary creature, the workers are humanoid, with ping-pong eyeballs and three fingers. And they’re resplendent in their oversized hoodies with zippers running up the backs.
Throughout the primordial special-effects era of the ’50s and ’60s, movie Martians were rarely visually impressive. Whether due to budgetary constraints or lack of vision on the part of the mostly B-filmmakers, in movies such as “Flying Disc Man From Mars” (1950) and “Flight to Mars” (1951), they look just like us. In “Rocketship X-M” (1950), they’re humanoid, although they appear as cavemen suffering from radiation burns. Sometimes they simply had green face paint, and they almost always wore a jumpsuit of some type.
But every once in a while, the slight difference between humans and Martians unintentionally made them memorable. In “Devil Girl From Mars” (1954), we meet Nyah, a tall, beautiful woman trolling England for suitable men to take back to Mars for repopulation. And what better way to lure Earth fellas off the globe than by wearing a skintight black leather outfit? In the cult classic “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964), the invading aliens look like a band of futuristic sewer workers who are bent on revenge for having to wear ill-fitting bodysuits with embarrassing logos, belts on loan from the WWE and really, really cumbersome headgear.
One big exception to the “green man” standard was 1960’s “The Angry Red Planet.” In this film, there’s no shortage of vicious Martian beasties: giant green bat-spiders, man-eating plants, amorphous slithering blobs with one eye and more three-eyed Martians with devil horns.
On TV in 1963, “My Favorite Martian” Ray Walston was only made distinct from humans by his retractable antennae, which looked like they came off a TV set rather than anything organic. In the 1999 big-screen remake, Christopher Lloyd took over the role of Uncle Martin, and it was established that the remarkable resemblance between Martians and humans was due to shape-shifting abilities. (Fellow Martian J’onn J’onzz from the Justice League counts this among his powers, as well.)
In Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” (1996), the aliens are small beings with skulls that look like giant green brains — with the exception of the obligatory tall, beautiful female Martian, played by Lisa Marie. The movie is based on the classically gory trading-card series of the 1950s that, in tandem with EC horror and sci-fi comics, shocked parents and jazzed kids. (EC, incidentally, featured some of the most creative interpretations of visitors from other planets.)
When the Mars Rover landed on the red planet in January 2004, few people expected it to beam back photos of little green men. Still, no doubt some people were disappointed that tentacle tracks weren’t found on “Purgatory Dune.” Which just means that Hollywood’s gonna have to keep moving further away as it comes up with alien menaces.
It’s too bad, really; “Uranusians” just doesn’t have a very nice ring to it.
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