The first act of Flight to Mars is quirky enough and soapy enough I had hopes for the finish. The film’s about the first crewed expedition to Mars, and I knew it had them landing there and meeting Martians, so I figured there’d be time for more quirkiness and soapiness at the end. It seemed like it’d be a fun, weird conclusion. Unfortunately not.
The quirky in the first act is second-billed Cameron Mitchell’s reporter interviewing all the people going to Mars. It’s a big surprise—the Air Force hasn’t told anyone about it, and the launch is secret because they can’t afford crowd scenes. Mars also doesn’t have the Space Race going in the background—and no one was in space at this point either, so there’s no general understanding of the science; the combination gives it a little charm. And Mitchell’s all right. He’s got the job of exposition dumping, scene after the scene, and he can do it. Most of the actors can do it.
Not unbilled William Forrest, he’s terrible as the general. For a while, it seemed like he wasn’t going to get any lines; he was better without any lines.
Mitchell goes from team member to team member to introduce them, starting with team leader John Litel. He’s the principal scientist. Litel’s not great, not bad, not distinct in any way. It’s not good writing, and Litel gets out his lines, but he’s pretty background for the team leader. Then there’s Richard Gaines, who’s the folksy geologist with family tragedy going on, and Mitchell bonds with him over it. That bonding is the aforementioned quirky. Mars hits pause on the exposition to have this quiet character moment for Gaines and Mitchell. It’s interesting. In that moment, Arthur Strawn’s script is actually interesting. Then it’s over.
And we get to the soapy. Pilot and rocket scientist Arthur Franz (who, despite being third-billed, is the star of the movie) is oblivious to the affections of his assistant and copilot, Virginia Huston. Huston probably ought to be second-billed. She’s fourth. But Huston’s real important for the first half. She stops being important in the second half when Martian girl Marguerite Chapman shows up and draws Franz’s eye. Mitchell’s after Huston, so he tries to aggravate the situation with Franz. It’s at least energetic plotting. Until Mars blows off a second solo scene for Mitchell and Huston. It’s still soapy, just not enthusiastic.
The Mars portion of the film has a dying planet, white guys with symbols on their chests, and technology, so women aren’t trapped in the kitchen. On Mars, women get to work. They can be assistant scientists like Chapman (or spies like Lucille Barkley), just so long as they wear short skirts and high heels. Even Huston gets into the short skirts and high heels (in Mars, do as the Martians do). Meanwhile, all the Earthling males wear these black leather jackets. The silliest costumes are the Martian spacesuits, which look like pajamas with foam helmets.
Mars is in color, which maybe brings it more personality than it really needs. The color’s nice and crisp, but Mars’s costumes and sets can’t withstand too much crispness.
There are some slightly inventive low budget effects—like two good matte paintings, with a big asterisk on the word “good”—and director Selander’s got his moments. But Chapman and Franz aren’t compelling leads, and the script’s not there for Morris Ankrum and Robert Barrat’s political squabbles to make the third act dramatic enough.
Mars isn’t without amusing, diverting moments—especially for fans of serials; I spotted a bunch of serial actors—but it doesn’t live up to the first act. There is one good team conversation while traveling to Mars where the film actually pretends the characters have thoughts; the actors do well with that scene. The movie really lets the cast down (especially second-billed Mitchell).
Also, the rocket ship model makers didn’t pay attention to the spaceship interior gravity logic and the frequently obvious mistake grates. Speaking of gravity… the actors are terrible when they’ve got to pretend to be experiencing acceleration. It’s not budget, it’s not 1951, maybe it’s bad direction, but wow, they all look very silly.