I've often wondered why many science fiction plots involve a fear that there will be a world-wide panic and breakdown of society if humanity ever found out that aliens existed. I mean, OK, I get it when the aliens are invading the Earth. You'd be kinda stupid NOT to panic in that instance.
But what I don't understand is why the knowledge that we're not alone would cause people to freak out.
This is the premise of "Red Planet Mars." There aren't any space ships in this one, and the only gadget is a special super-powerful transmitter, the plans for which Peter Graves found after Nuremburg among the effects of an imprisoned Nazi scientist, Franz Calder.
The screenplay was adapted from a stage play titled Red Planet, and when one considers that the Communist Russians play a large part in the plot, the title becomes more apt.
And no, I did not choose to review this movie because of the Curiosity mission. It's pure coincidence. Honest.
Seven years after the conclusion of WW II, both the Russians and the Americans are trying to contact Mars, where possible signs of intelligent life were detected in telescopic photographs showing what appears to be melted icewater flowing in irrigation canals. The American effort is performed just about single-handedly by Professor Cronyn and his rather hormonal wife, Linda, whose committment to the project they've set up in their incredibly well-appointed San Diego back yard fluctuates wildly from support to horror at what might happen if they succeed--sometimes in the same sentence.
The Soviets have pinned their ambitions on a somewhat eccentric former Nazi, the inventor of the apparatus Cronyn is using in his lab. Calder has hidden himself in an old monastery high in the Andes, and says he's never been able to get an intelligible signal from Mars. But he knows that Cronyn is sending signals. Calder gets some of the best lines in the movie, and to my taste was the best actor--while everyone else turned in the sort of earnest, staccato deliveries of lines that radio dramas are known for, Herbert Berghof infested his part with leering, cocksure malevolence which was a delight to watch.
When his Soviet handler comments that they could get him better food, upon seeing the cans of beans Calder had out on the table, Calder casually rips aside a curtain to reveal bottles of Champagne and crates of expensive viands. "I did not spend all your money on equipment," he sneers. Popping the cork, he invites the Russian to a toast. "What shall we drink to?" "Your absence," replies Calder dryly.
Meanwhile, Cronyn has been getting perplexing results. His messages come back exactly as transmitted, only at varying lengths of time--which cannot be accounted for by the known time delay of signals sent at the speed of light between Earth and Mars. He calls in a Navy cryptographer to advise him. As they discuss how to find out whether the messages are just echoes of Cronyn's own signal, or represent a genuine effort at making contact, Cronyn's young son enters with a chunk of pie in his hand and asks, "How 'bout pi?"
So after a brief bit of comic relief and a science lecture on the significance of the numerical sequence for pi, they opt to send the first five numbers in the sequence and see if their supposed counterparts on Mars recognize the numbers enough to respond with the rest of the sequence.
It turns out that they do, and Cronyn's success makes headlines. A gay carnival atmosphere erupts as people go giddy over the thought that we have neighbors, neighbors who might be so advanced that they wouldn't mind sharing a cup of high-tech knowledge with us monkeys and make our lives unimaginably better.
However, things don't quite go that way. Cronyn devises a code by which he can ask the Martians questions. When he asks them how long they live, and the response is "300 Earth years," people wonder how in the world they're going to support a population that can last 135 years past retirement age. When it is discovered that Martians can feed 1000 beings on the produce of half an acre, farm commodity prices plummet. And when the Martians say they don't use fossil fuels, but have harnessed "cosmic energy", the coal, oil, and gas industries collapse, taking the steel industry with them, which brings manufacturing in the US and Europe to a virtual standstill. America is on the verge of complete economic collapse.
This, of course, delights the Russians.