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The Martian Chronicles

Though superficially sprawling in scope, spanning some 27 years, the great power of Ray Bradbury's masterful science-fiction novel The Martian Chronicles is the dispassionate brevity with which the author relates the tale of humankind's inevitably calamitous colonization of the neighboring red planet. Written at the dawn of the nuclear age, Bradbury's look forward is overwhelmingly, yet justifiably, pessimistic, and he offers the reader no comfort, depriving them of a steady protagonist through which the doomed endeavor might be viewed. Indeed, the novel reads like a history put down thousands of years ago. Meanwhile, Michael Anderson's 1980 televised adaptation of the work (produced as a three-part miniseries for NBC) often feels like it was made at least 50 years ago, so hampered is it by special effects that would've been laughed off the screen on a 1950s double-bill. The cheapness starts with a string-showing recreation of the Viking 1 Lander touching down in 1976, which afforded NASA the first surface images of the planet. No Martians were found, of course, but what if, wonders the narrator, the Lander was simply pointed in the wrong direction? This is a dubious, dumbed-down beginning to a vital and intelligent piece of science-fiction, and its silliness is all the more startling when one considers that it's the work of Bradbury's sci-fi peer, Richard Matheson. Charged with fleshing out only a handful of the many vignettes that populate the novel, Matheson shoehorns them into the "Twilight Zone" template, while establishing John Wilder (Rock Hudson) as an ersatz protagonist who comes and goes with a little more frequency than he does in the novel. The narrative proceeds chronologically, depicting the first manned landing through the perspective of a Martian couple (the husband, jealous and protective of his wife and his planet, murders the strange intruders), then shifting to the human point of view for the rest of the picture. The second landing, which finds its trio of astronauts getting tricked by the Martians into believing they've landed on a strange approximation of heaven, returning to their hometowns, and reuniting with dead parents, is one of the more effectively adapted episodes. Also provocative is the plight of Father Peregrine (Fritz Weaver), whose dream of a face-to-face meeting with Jesus Christ is disturbingly realized through Martian meddling. But these are rare, hardly brilliant gems scattered amidst a nearly five-hour work of dramatic inertia. Many of the episodes — particularly the opening scene with the Martian couple and a later, post-apocalyptic scenario in which a lonely Christopher Connelly discovers one of the last women on Mars, only to have her turn out to be a self-obsessed harpy in the comely form of Bernadette Peters — are interminable, lurching along toward telegraphed resolutions and padded out by more pregnant pauses than can be found in a regional theater production of Miss Julie. There's also a good deal of camp, which is largely at odds with the somber tone of the source material. That The Martian Chronicles should even be a miniseries is a strange idea; sure, it's chock full of characters and incident, but it's also a mere 182 pages long. This isn't Dostoyevsky, and it would probably benefit most from a more lively and pared-down approach that isn't so intimidated by Bradbury's words. Adaptation requires a ruthless and inventive mind — something that Richard Matheson certainly possesses but was sadly unwilling to apply to his colleague's greatest achievement. For better or worse, Hollywood has been circling the novel for many years, suggesting that a second pass at this daunting material may be in the offing. The quest to successfully transfer The Martian Chronicles is beginning to mirror its own narrative in a quite unfortunate manner. MGM presents The Martian Chronicles in its original full-frame transfer, which looks great. Audio is a clean Dolby Digital 1.0, and extras are absolutely nil. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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