Greedy billionaire/explorer/developer Eli Cologne (Benjamin Wood) can now add the title of astronaut to his impressive resume. He’s built a privately owned space ship that he’s determined to go to Mars with. The launch is supervised by Dr. Martine Munro (Marcelle Shaneyfelt) who’s been in love with Cologne since she was a teenager. The launch of the billionaire’s space ship is a success and before long Cologne finds himself exploring the surface of the red planet. However, contact with an unusual piece of golden Mars rock starts to change Cologne. He begins to transform into a bloodthirsty monster. Mission control tries to stop the mutated Cologne from getting back to Earth, but the man/monster engages his ship’s manual override and after a long voyage back, crash lands in the Louisiana swamps. Now crazed, deformed and hungry, the Cologne monster begins terrorizing the countryside and murdering anyone he comes in contact with. Can Dr. Munro and her two assistants (Joey Harmon and Sam Cobean) stop the monster and change it back into the beloved billionaire?
“First Man on Mars” is a goofy and likeable homage to some of the glorious drive-in b-movies from the 1970s. To me, it most closely resembles William Sachs’s 1977 magnum opus “The Incredible Melting Man.” Both films feature similar plots; a heroic astronaut goes out into deep space and changes into a blood thirsty monster. But while “The Incredible Melting Man” mostly played it straight, writer/director Mike T. Lyddon opts for the silly and the sly wink from the opening credits, and this light touch helps the film merrily bounce along. Lyddon fills the movie with wonderful touch points to classic drive-in cinematic fodder and he even names some of his characters after actors and writers and directors from those drive-in days (including Fritz Leiber, Don Dohler, Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro).
The film is full of tongue in cheek performances. Marcelle Shaneyfelt is a panic as Dr. Martine Munro. She plays the scientist as a haughty know-it-all bitch who’s blinded by her love of Cologne. Joey Harmon and Sam Cobean are also good as Munro’s scientific lackeys. Both seem to be channeling the late Paul Bartel since a lot of their physical exaggerations remind me of the antics of the late great actor. Kelly Murtagh is also a hoot as a Russian bikini model who’s posing for the latest issue of “Bullets and Bimbos” magazine out in the Louisiana swamp.
I want to make one thing very clear. “First Man on Mars” is not a dazzling and cerebral sci-fi experience. It’s a low budget indie wonder that knows that it’s stupid and plays it that way brilliantly. Writer/director Lyddon knows his cinematic roots, and while he doesn’t stray far from the monster on the loose formula, he makes sure that his flick has a lot of reference points for classic movie monster lovers to enjoy. Gory and goofy, “First Man on Mars” is a pizza and six pack masterpiece.