Review of Stanley, et al.’s Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet

Review of Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet by O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani

Thomas J. Morrissey

O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani. Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 246 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 9780786498932.

As a life-long Marsophile and having reviewed Robert Crossley’s comprehensive Imagining Mars: A Literary History and Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, edited by Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin, and having been drawn by this book’s clever title, I jumped at the chance to read and review a new text on Martian cinema. However, the experience was not entirely satisfactory. 

Martian Pictures is a collection of thirteen essays that are reworked versions of conference papers amalgamated into a single critical text. The chapters are subdivided into three parts: ‘Exploring Mars,” “Invaders from Mars,” and “Mars and Society.” The main text is preceded by a short essay on the book’s origins, a Preface and Introduction; a Martian filmography, an extensive list of references, and an index follow. Thirteen well-chosen black and white stills from film and TV illuminate the text.

Quoting several times from Hendrix et. al., the Introduction imagines Mars as a blank canvas onto which are projected images of human frailty and the precariousness of our planet’s biosphere. These projections are shaped by the interaction between film and audience and the need for Hollywood to psyche out the audience in pursuit of success at the box office. If I am reading the authors’ intentions accurately, then these points need further discussion and consistent reinforcement in the main text. 

The chapters in Part One focus respectively on three major themes: the similarities between Martian and combat films., the role of deviant thinkers in bringing about successful missions, and the depiction of space agencies modeled on NASA. Chapter One is a rapid review of Martian film since WWII emphasizing the evolution of the genre from the Cold War-obsessed 1950’s to the early twenty-first century with its extensive Martian exploration and societal fear that science is in danger of running amok. Chapters Two and Three focus on the role of the prevalence of non-conformist characters that save the day, including those who thumb their noses at NASA, a situation best illustrated by The Martian (2015).

Although the topics are important and the theories employed to explore them interesting, the chapters do little to solidify the book’s central themes and are not user-friendly. Phrases like “as mentioned above” (32), “as mentioned in Chapter One” (36), or “as mentioned earlier” (42) occur far too frequently, especially when accompanied by lengthy plot summary without many strong transitional sentences between paragraphs. Repetitive plot summary is an issue throughout the book.

The three chapters in Part Two are loosely connected by the theme of Martian invasion. Chapter four considers the Martian as Other. Of note is the discussion of how the perennially hostile Martians of films like Invaders from Mars (1986) and Independence Day (1996) contrast with Martians as mirror images of ourselves in the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). Chapter five offers an engaging treatment of serials in general and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) in particular. I do not know why 1938’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is not included since it would fit here very well. Chapter Six does what the book does best, apply theory—in this case mythic criticism—to Martian texts. The Prometheus myth has played a key role in SF since Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus gave birth to the genre in 1818. The film chosen for discussion is Prometheus (2012), which has nothing to do with Mars. The argument is that there are Martian films that also rely on the myth but not as well as Prometheus does. 

The third section consists of seven chapters, more than half the book’s total. Topics include class, gender, climate and comedy, among others. Chapter Seven is an ambitious discussion of feminist utopia/dystopia, especially the stories of Eve and Lilith, and their application to Martian films. The individual film discussions are convincing, as is the chapter’s conclusion. The brief chapter on climate (eight) celebrates the few Martian films that are concerned with environmental issues. Think about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and you will get a good idea of just how much richer print SF is when it comes to climate. 

Total Recall figures in two chapters, one of which is about capitalist exploitation and the other of which focuses on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (1966) and the 2012 remake of the 1990 film. The authors see the ending of the 1990 film as a victory over capitalist hegemony, which I think is too simple a reading of this rhetorically complex movie and its final scientifically farcical or dream-like scene. 

The chapter on Mars and religion (ten) is consequential. Much of the discussion concerns Ray Bradbury’s classic novel The Martian Chronicles (1950) and the 1980 mini-series derived from it. The authors recognize the genius of Bradbury’s text and never claim that the TV version is its equal. The authors tell us that Bradbury called the 1980 production “boring,” a judgement with which it is difficult to quarrel, then write that “for our purposes, the religious themes and messages of the book and series are relatively similar, so perhaps major differences in other respects are not necessarily important” (156). I disagree; the other differences are quite important; however, the discussion of the Father Peregrine episode—a filmic representation of “The Fire Balloons”—and the transformation of a hapless Martian into a suffering Christ is well done. These events are more effectively adapted than are most of the installments in the mini-series. 

Although Martian Pictures does a good job of cataloging a large number of video productions, some quite obscure, the book has a rhetorical looseness that a unified critical text should not have. In this sense, it has not made the complete transition from a collection of conference papers to finished critical book. There is much to be learned here about the fascinating filmic history of Mars, but the book really should have had one more round of editing for clarity. 

Review of Rickman’s Philip K. Dick on Film

Review of Philip K. Dick on Film by Gregg Rickman

Terence Sawyers

Gregg Rickman. Philip K. Dick on Film. Arrow Books, 2018. Paperback. 176 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780993306082.

Gregg Rickman is an established commentator on Philip K. Dick who occupies contradictory positions within the broad community of Dick fans and scholars. On the one hand, Rickman’s retrospective psychoanalysis of Dick in To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962 (1989, repeated in truncated form on page 114 of this text) is treated with much suspicion within this community of fans and scholars. Yet he remains a trusted source of first-hand material and collector of Dick anecdotes. Furthermore, Rickman moves between the spheres of academic and non-academic publishing, a boundary that is traversed by only a select few Dickian commentators.

Rickman’s liminality is relevant when approaching his recent monograph Philip K. Dick on Film, as there is some slipperiness when trying to establish the best contextual frame from which to review it. Even the title is suggestively ambiguous. Is this a book about Dick’s attempts to make films and contribute to TV shows, Dick’s own opinions of film as an art form, or the adaptation of Dick’s work into film by third parties? Ultimately, all three of these positions are touched upon, though the latter represents the primary focus.

Rickman’s text can be divided into two sections, with the first comprising chapters one through five and covering Dick’s biography, a discussion of Dick’s major themes and an insight into Dick’s relationship with Hollywood and filmmaking more generally. These chapters offer a neat overview to the key debates in Dick studies as well as providing some keen insights from Rickman. The little over four pages dedicated to Dick’s biography succinctly introduces the reader to Dick’s biographical highlights as well as communicating the complexities and contradictions that make Dick’s biography so exciting. For a casual fan of Dick who is interested in why media organisations keep returning to his literature as a source for film and TV adaptations, these early chapters are a helpful roadmap. While the more dedicated Dick scholar may fail to find anything new in these chapters, they will appreciate both the chapters’ concision and the many suggested routes (trailheads) of further investigation.

However, chapters six through twelve discuss the direct adaptations of Dick’s fiction into film and TV, and for those interested in Philip K. Dick, film studies, or adaptation studies, these chapters will disappoint. This is due to three problematic positions that inform Rickman’s methodological approach. First, he engages in a comparative analysis that heavily favours Dick’s fiction as an originary source. Following this form of analysis, any adaptations must strive, and ultimately fail, to “live up” to the original. This tautological argument is not uncommon in cycles of fandom, and therefore is not unheard of within SF studies; the “original” is always best at being the “original.” The argument’s circularity makes it uninteresting and provides no opportunity for serious discussion.

Second, Rickman purports to be offering readers a juxtaposition of his own comments and Dick’s (hypothetical) opinions on the various film and TV adaptations. This interpretative strategy seeks to extrapolate the opinions of a deceased writer based on his extant commentary. As dangerous as this strategy is, and in the case of Dick it is fraught by added complications due to his well-documented capriciousness, one needs to ask whether it is at all interesting. This approach assumes the primacy of the star-author as a site of meaning-making and authority (at the expense of critics, scholars, readers, and fans) and by contemporary standards is an outmoded method of engaging with texts, adapted or otherwise.

Third, Rickman takes for granted that contemporary commercial filmmaking is in an “unhappy state” and he rests this reductive criticism on rather narrow shoulders (89). For Rickman, the formulaic nature of storytelling is the primary cause of a creeping mediocrity that has been developing within Hollywood since the 1980s. Rickman goes on to argue that, although there are many vectors via which these formulae have been disseminated, the primary method is via screenwriting manuals, and he reserves particular attention for the successful 2005 manual Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.

There are many problems with this claim, and it reveals a writer who is not conversant in the history of film, the current debates in film studies, or the contemporary reality of commercial filmmaking. To tease out just one of these problems, it exposes a logocentrism that assumes films can be equated with their scripted antecedents, reducing the complexities of an audio-visual text to nothing more than its content or story. The irony here is that Dick’s fiction has highly repetitive qualities that often follow a generic formula. A reduction of Dick’s fictions to their story and a map of their plot points (“beats”) will emphasize sameness while overlooking what distinguishes Dick from other SF writers or Dick’s stories from each other.

Turning to the formal qualities of this monograph, the publisher, Arrow Films, has not helped here, with poor editing, formatting, and design choices. For example, an error where the wrong film is referenced and inconsistent use of footnotes, that sees some tangential anecdotes footnoted and others left within the text, should have been picked up on and corrected before publishing. From a formatting perspective, inconsistency is again the watchword, with the footnote superscripts switching between grayscale and salmon. While throughout the body of the work the font oscillates between grayscale and black, sometimes within the same sentence. These inconsistencies are very distracting for the eye while also undermining the legitimacy of the work.

As part of the design, cover pages from Dick’s published fiction are interspaced throughout the text. As nice as these are to see, they bear no relevance to either the overall aims of this monograph or to the specific sections that they are included within. This is an odd design choice that stands in contrast to the book’s cover, which includes an arresting panoply of icons from the various Dick adaptations under discussion. These cover pages highlight the confused focus of a text that seems trapped between what it sought to talk about, the film and TV adaptations of Dick’s literature, and what it couldn’t help talking about, how much Rickman likes Dick’s literature.