The Martian Chronicles (1980) Blu-ray Review: Is There Life on Mars?

Despite the fact that it has been released on virtually every form of media since the dawn of home video itself, it wasn’t until I sat down to review Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Michael Anderson’s The Martian Chronicles that I witnessed the TV miniseries for the very first time. And what an interesting endeavor it proved to be. Boasting a rather enviable list of names with their own individual cult followings, this 1979 co-production between the UK and the U.S. has not aged very well over the years. In fact, it was probably already outdated by the time it debuted on American television in late January of 1980.

But don’t let the microscopic budget, laughable special effects, outrageous costumes, and funky disco score fool you, kids ‒ because when you put all of those factors together, you only wind up with something sublimely surreal. Which could very well be the reason the series remains so popular to this day. Co-produced by American television icon Charles Fries and British horror legend Milton Subotsky, The Martian Chronicles presents a wholly different vision of Bradbury’s famous story, as adapted for the small screen by none other than I Am Legend author Richard Matheson.

Possessing equal parts of heart, humor, and horror, these three feature-length episodes ‒ which Ray Bradbury was kind enough to describe as “boring” ‒ The Martian Chronicles depicts the various trials and tribulations associated with mankind’s attempt to colonize the Red Planet. Leading the pack is the great Rock Hudson, who has to come to grips with losing two manned expeditions to Mars in the first episode, before venturing off to the surprisingly Earth-like world himself along with experienced astronauts Bernie Casey and Darren McGavin (Kolchak, The Night Stalker) ‒ all of whom sport bell-bottomed polyester track suits ‒ to figure out just what the heck is going on up there.

Alas, things just aren’t that simple. After some initial interference on the Martians’ part, the explorers slowly start to learn the hard way that the main factor in all of the bad juju goin’ on is the human element ‒ an oversight of extreme ignorance in outer space which eventually culminates in the destruction of Earth itself in the second episode. The final chapter in the mini-series takes a much lighter tone to it, even as rogue castaways roaming the Martian landscape struggling to find a reason to go on living. It’s odd, to say the least, but I made it all the way through without looking around the room too terribly much. Especially when the tale set its sights on some of its many talented guest stars.

Sure, Rock is always fun to watch, but cheesy low-budget television sci-fi really wasn’t his bag, so it’s easy to get lost in translation throughout the whole of the series. Among them are Nicholas Hammond (the original live-action Peter Parker) as a doomed astronaut, Roddy McDowall and Fritz Weaver as priests, Gayle Hunnicutt as Rock Hudson’s wife, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Connelly as a pair of stranded survivors in the third episode, Maria Schell, American TV favorite Joyce Van Patten, and The Fugitive‘s Barry Morse. But it is a superb cameo by Jon Finch (The Horror of Frankenstein, Frenzy) that takes the cake here.

James Faulkner (Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones) also appears as a mysterious Martian in the first episode, and the actor is on-hand to laugh at his own performance (as well as the production itself) in a newly-produced featurette for this Kino Lorber release, entitled My Favorite Martian with James Faulkner. Though his sarcasm may rub some people the wrong way, he is the only living contributor to The Martian Chronicles who was willing/able to recount his experience on the production. An assortment of other Kino Lorber Studio Classics are also included with this release, ranging from Avalanche with Rock Hudson to a number of guilty-pleasure dystopian sci-fi classics.

Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, The Martian Chronicles has received a new High-Definition master especially for this release. And, though I have no basis of comparison to go on here, I can say the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode is quite stunning for a show that made next to no effort in getting viewers to believe they were on another planet. Granted, classic fans of the show are more than likely bound to see even more wires on the obvious model shots now than ever before, but, in a way, that only adds to the overall element of surrealism inherent throughout. The accompanying DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio comes through nicely, and English (SDH) subtitles are included with this release.

Nearly 40 years after The Martian Chronicles wrapped production, the show is still entertaining. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it does have its moments. Longtime admirers of the series will undoubtedly pick this one up out of unconditional love, while the curious may want to rent it first. Either way, it’s an interesting series, and deserves a look from anyone with an interest in science fiction. Even if it does look like a bad Canadian sci-fi series for kiddies most of the time.


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Luigi Bastardo

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