Timing, they say, is everything. In October 2003, a full half-century had passed since George Pal’s movie adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic alien invasion novel The War of the Worlds opened in theaters around the country. Then, as in 2003, Mars was in opposition to the Earth—meaning that it was at its closest point to our planet as its long, irregular orbit would take it. But even then, back before the days of artificial satellites, deep space probes and Hubble telescopes, serious scientists believed that Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, was an unlikely candidate to harbor life. Only in the public mind did such a thing seem possible, thanks to the mistranslation of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s statement in 1877 that the surface of Mars was crisscrossed with canali meaning grooves or channels, not canals. Its thin atmosphere, its barren deserts, its great distance from the Sun, and its extremes in temperature argued persuasively against the possibility that life could thrive there.
Thankfully, that did not stop pioneering filmmakers like Howard Hawks, George Pal and William Cameron Menzies from imagining that world as being inhabited, or that beings from Mars might be hostile toward us; might journey here across the vast millions of miles of naked space to lay claim to planet Earth.