Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 4 Hours and 53 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Full Frame (1.33:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Monaural
September 7th, 2004
Based on the outstanding novel by renowned science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles tells the tale of humankind’s first serious effort to escape the confines of a decaying planet Earth, via a well orchestrated and large-scale attempt to colonize planet Mars. There are a variety of complications and moral issues explored through this premise though, as once there, the human settlers must confront both the dying Martian race and the more sinister aspects of their own nature, as they attempt to establish a thriving civilization on the red planet.
Please indulge me while I take a step backward though, so I do not give you the wrong impression that this is an epic and violent battle between the predominant life forms from the two neighboring worlds. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that Bradbury’s tale, as skillfully adapted by screenwriter Richard Matheson, is more like a not-so-subtle commentary on the self-destructive nature of human beings than a sci-fi adventure filled with laser beams and alien creatures. As such, The Martian Chronicles may not appeal to folks who prefer their sci-fi heavy on such things.
Getting right back to The Martian Chronicles’ examination of human nature though, it draws parallels to the moral quandaries that have arisen throughout human history when expansionist peoples have encroached on inhabited lands and ran roughshod over the independent natives living there. In the case of this miniseries, the ability of the Earth to sustain life is failing, so humans launch an attempt to colonize Mars and unexpectedly encounter a sophisticated, noble population of native Martians with the ability to use telepathy.
Initially, two very small exploration missions were carried out by teams of highly trained astronauts, and overseen by Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson). Unfortunately, both teams mysteriously disappeared, so Colonel Wilder resolves to personally lead a third group of brave space explorers to Mars, in order to ascertain what happened to the previous teams, and to determine whether human colonization of the planet is feasible.
Wilder’s expedition to Mars reaches the planet safely, but shortly after making the trip, a member of the team, Major Spender (Bernie Casey), begins behaving erratically. To be more specific, Casey claims to have communicated with Martians, most of who were eradicated by the chicken pox, which they caught from the first two groups of astronauts to reach Martian soil. Unfortunately, the situation escalates when Major Spender becomes consumed with the desire to right the wrongs he perceived humans have inflicted on the Martians. To prevent Mars from being colonized, he even murders some of the expedition’s company.
Obviously, this tense scenario leads Colonel Wilder to make some difficult choices, including whether or not to liquidate Major Spender. Being a hard-nosed military man, Wilder proves up to the task, and right or wrong, the planet is eventually opened up to colonization by an extremely interesting cavalcade of characters, including those who have come to Mars in search of God. As you might expect, however, simply packing up and moving to a new planet does not mean that all the bad traits humans have, like their propensity for violence, greed, and extreme selfishness will be left behind, so it all comes along with the settlers and their hope for a fresh start. As the film plays out, however, one begins to wonder whether Mars will not suffer the same fate as Earth, and whether or not mankind will finally bring about its own end?
Now I have already inferred how well written I believe this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s story is, so let us delve further into the technical aspects of The Martian Chronicles. In addition to the stellar script, one of the main reasons the final product was so entertaining was the excellent all-around performances by a star-studded cast that included such legendary actors as Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell (who plays Father Stone), Darren McGavin (who portrays Sam Parkhill here – and Adam Sandler’s father in Billy Madison ), and Gayle Hunnicutt (who played Ruth Wilder).
Further, although it is certainly more deliberate and thoughtful in its approach than most recent science-fiction fare, The Martian Chronicles holds up pretty well for a 25-year-old telefilm, thanks to the efforts of the talented production designers and their crew. To be more specific, the desolate, arid landscapes chosen to serve as the Martian surface by the filmmakers give the miniseries an authentic look and feel, as they look strikingly similar to photographs of the real red planet’s surface that have been collected by NASA’s probes and rovers over the course of the last couple years. OK, some of the effects (like the hovering blue lights) are really lame by today’s standards, but for a very early ‘80s TV production, I think they were ambitious enough.
Finally, I would be remiss not to at least mention the design and fabrication of the Martian architecture, the costumes, and the film’s spacecraft. Again, although they appear to be a product of their age in certain instances, these objects, craft, and buildings make the amount of care and dedication that went into the project readily apparent. No matter what the era, I can appreciate that!
All in all, The Martian Chronicles is a very good (albeit slow paced and “talky”) science-fiction epic, highlighted by superb acting and a fantastic adaptation of Bradbury’s story for television. Granted, this five-hour telefilm may not be action packed enough to please some of those who have grown up with Aliens, Starship Troopers, and Pitch Black, but if you have an appreciation for “old school” science-fiction, I feel very comfortable recommending that you check out Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles!!!
NOTE: The Martian Chronicles is spread over three halves of two double-sided discs (Side B of Disc Two is blank), so a little manual labor is required, even if you are using a DVD changer!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
The Martian Chronicles is served up by MGM in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1), and the result of their efforts is very pleasing. Over the three sides of the two discs (remember one side of Disc Two is blank) that comprise this set, the picture is consistently clean and clear, and colors are reproduced quite vividly for a 25-year-old television miniseries. Further, the deep, rich blacks ensure that there is an ample amount of detail in shadows, and edge enhancement or compression artifacts never seemed to plague the image.
Although slightly “soft” in appearance, the image also boasts a satisfying amount of fine detail, and as a result, the barren landscapes of Mars, the silky smooth Martian attire, and the varied costumes worn by the settlers all look very nice. Undeniably, there are some little things (notably the appearance of some of the effects) that offer clues to the age of this fine little series, but I really cannot imagine The Martian Chronicles looking too much better than it does here.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
As might be expected from a monaural soundtrack of a dialogue-heavy film like this, it does what it needs to do in a pedestrian fashion, but little else. To begin with, it is always easy to discern what characters are saying, but this should be no surprise given that dialogue is almost never competing for space within the narrow soundstage against the score or sound effects. Additionally, the overall volume level seems a tad low, but if you turn the volume up on your system a notch above your normal listening volume to compensate, you should have little trouble hearing not only dialogue, but the rather limited amount of effects and music in the film as well.
Other positive aspects of this soundtrack are the absence of noticeable abnormalities, like hissing, popping, or distortion, and generally satisfactory frequency response (with the exception of low bass response). Since most of the audio information consists of speech, the under-whelming low end does not normally make itself evident. Still, however, I would have liked a little more “oomph” in certain instances, especially during the gun battles at the end of Part One and during Part Two, when a chaotic shootout/chase ensues between a settler and a small army of Martians.
On the whole though, while this monaural presentation is not particularly dynamic, it does offer the source material in a very clear, crisp manner, and that is what matters. Unfortunately, that means you can even hear the ultra- cheesy score and rather lame weapons effects in a clear, crisp manner as well.
I don’t really consider it an “extra”, but apparently, 20 minutes of additional footage have been reinserted into The Martian Chronicles. Sadly, I cannot tell you what that footage consists of. The reason for this is that the last time I saw this I was very young (maybe 11 years old?), so I don’t remember the entire miniseries in near enough detail to point out differences. That being said, I am hoping that an “expert” on this title will be able to provide some insight into the footage that has been added.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
For people that grew up with action-oriented science fiction adventures like Star Trek, Aliens, or Starship Troopers, the slow pace and “talky” nature of The Martian Chronicles might make it a tough sell. On the other hand, those with an appreciation for “old-school” science fiction will find that Ray Bradbury’s concept is executed very well on almost every level (only the score is weak), especially in terms of the actors’ fine performances and the strength of the writing.
Further, although this DVD has no extras to speak of, the telefilm has had approximately 20 minutes of footage reinserted, which might offer hardcore fans something new to discover, and its audio and visuals are rendered quite solidly as well. In consideration of all this, I am confident that fans of this particular type of science fiction will enjoy The Martian Chronicles!