Mars — the red planet. One of the closest planets to our own, Mars has excited human imaginations for centuries. Some ancient civilizations believed the heavenly body to be a literal god, and not too long ago some scientists believed the planet was teeming with intelligent life. These days, with more sophisticated astronomical tools — including the Perseverance rover exploring the surface of the planet — we have a lot more hard information about Mars, but that hasn’t stopped us from dreaming about the planet’s possibilities or the movie studios from making bank from those visions. Filmmakers have been using their imaginations to explore Mars since the early twentieth century. From outlandish fantasy to fiction rooted more securely in science, here are our picks for the best movies you’ll find about Mars.
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The Martian (2015)
Shipwrecked on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has no one to speak to beyond the video diaries he keeps of his struggle to survive, to escape, and initially to make sure NASA knows he isn’t dead. Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian‘s lead is perfectly cast. In spite of Watney’s near-hopeless situation, Damon’s comic sensibility keeps the movie surprisingly upbeat and humorous without letting you forget how desperate the hero’s situation is. There is no good reason for Watney to still be alive, and that truth feels as present to viewers as it must to The Martian‘s hero. Suspenseful and epic, The Martian is a testament to humanity’s capacity to survive against all odds.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Genre: Sci-Fi, Adventure
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 144 minutes
Total Recall (1990)
Sure, there was a remake in 2012, and the special effects may seem ancient compared to today’s CGI wonderland, but there’s no beating the original Total Recall. Directed by Paul Verhoeven — who also gave us great kill-happy sci-fi flicks like 1987’s RoboCop and 1997’s Starship Troopers — Total Recall is an Arnold Schwarzenegger action extravaganza filled with Verhoeven’s apt social commentary and dark humor. Schwarzenegger’s lead, Douglas Quaid, believes he’s a construction worker in a happy marriage with the seductive Lori (Sharon Stone). But after growing curious enough to make a trip to a company called Rekall, which promises to install memories of exotic vacations in his brain, he learns he’s really secret agent Carl Hauser — or he’s gone bonkers, depending on which fan theory you believe. An adventure unfolds, revolving around a Martian rebellion, a star-crossed romance, and crazy mutants with body parts where body parts shouldn’t be.
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Thriller
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Runtime: 113 minutes
Mars Attacks! (1996)
What do you do when you assemble a huge ensemble cast including big names like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, and on and on? Well, clearly you make an alien invasion movie based on a ’60s trading card game. Duh. At least that’s what director Tim Burton did for 1996’s Mars Attacks! This violent sci-fi comedy doesn’t dig into any deep philosophical issues or explore the possible social impact of humanity discovering extraterrestrial life. No, it’s just a big, fun movie featuring an army of diminutive skull-faced, big-brained aliens going wild all over Earth with death rays and having boxing matches with Jim Brown. It’s a darkly silly flick that you should treat yourself to at least once.
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker
Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 106 minutes
While it doesn’t take place on Mars itself, the 2017 sci-fi horror film Life instead includes a very unwelcome visitor from the red planet. In the not too distant future, the International Space Station intercepts a probe containing evidence of life on Mars. But when Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) tries to study that life, he learns it doesn’t feel like being very cooperative. The story that follows doesn’t break the mold of films like Alien, but it’s a chaotic, gory thrill ride with top-tier talents like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds.
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Genre: Sci-Fi, Horror
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Runtime: 104 minutes
John Carter (2012)
Based on the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs — the same author who brought us the first stories of Tarzan — John Carter is a gorgeous and pulpy adventure based on the writer’s Barsoom novels. Daryl Sabara plays Burroughs himself, discovering his uncle’s adventures through his journals. Through his eyes, we see how John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported from the Arizona territory to the distant Mars. Just as Superman’s Kryptonian body makes him super on Earth, Carter’s body is super on Mars — he can’t fly or shoot heat beams out of his eyes, but he’s super strong and can jump like a Jedi. With beautifully rendered creatures and wonderful action sequences, John Carter is a fun and engrossing serving of escapism.
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Adventure
Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe
Director: Andrew Stanton
Runtime: 132 minutes
Ad Astra (2019)
You might argue we’re cheating a little bit here since Ad Astra isn’t just a Mars movie, but a list of the best Mars movies would feel incomplete without it. The film is a surreal epic starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride. Roy’s father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), was the head of a doomed project meant to search for intelligent life in the stars and U.S. Space Command taps Roy to find Cliff, whose actions could endanger all life on Earth. Roy’s journey takes him to the Moon, Mars, and eventually as far away as Neptune, unintentionally leaving a trail of death in his wake. The final question Ad Astra struggles with goes in the opposite direction from most space adventures — asking not what we do if there’s more life out there, but what do we do if there isn’t.
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Director: James Gray
Runtime: 123 minutes
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