Originally made in an early 3D system (Teleview) which had special screens like giant lorgnettes fitted to the arms of cinema seats (!), this survives only in a flat version. It’s hard to see how the dimensional effects would have worked, since it doesn’t look notably different from most other 1922 films – it might be a tad stiffer, even, with few close-ups or moving camera shots to mess up the process, but it has no obvious depth tricks and nothing is thrust at the audience.
Unpractical cleverclogs Arthur Wyman (Grant Mitchell) is evicted from his lodgings the same day he wins a money prize for an essay on Einstein’s theories, and moves into the home of landlady Mrs Langdon (Gertrude Hillman) – whose lively daughter Mary (Margaret Irving) is unaccountably interested in the uncharismatic, not-very-responsive genius. Inspired by a news item about Marconi, Arthur invents a super-radio and tries to contact the planet Mars – though when Martians signal back, he assumes for a while someone is having him on since he reasons the aliens wouldn’t speak English. The staid, small-scale film opens out somewhat in a lengthy section set on Mars, where the people with names like Buz Buz, Gin Gin or Pux Pux have bulging brains, big stuck-on ears and the sort of art deco weirdo costumes seen in the Soviet Aelita (an early instance of a mainstream Hollywood movie absorbing upscale influences like Caligarism and Futurism?). From his Martian radio pals, Arthur gets a lot of scientific advances (processes for making gold or diamonds, for a start) which enable him to become a rich industrialist. A skewed bit of comedy comes when he introduces advanced Martian fashions to Earth, and Mary is shocked to learn that of the several boxes the outfit comes in the tiniest is for the flimsy piece that goes ‘above the waist’ (by Flash Gordon or deMille slave girl standards, Martian flapper dresses aren’t that revealing). A set-piece scene has Arthur and his assistants playing with an ball of metal that has a negative weight, which goes from funny novelty to something with obvious applications.
However, just when H.G. Wells would have shown how all this sudden scientific advance affects society as a whole, Arthur wakes up and it turns out he’s only dreamed about contact with Mars. It really seems there’s an act missing – surely, the Martian tech should wreck the Earth economy and Arthur should learn that there are no easy courses to wealth as rioters destroy his factory? Even with an all-a-dream finish, a climax like this is necessary to give point to the drama – which otherwise flickers out disappointingly. Directed by Roy William Neill, whose talkies are mostly interesting and underrated (besides the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes films, he did Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Black Room and Black Angel), it’s not a grabby or engaging picture, but that faintly comic, faintly sinister vision of Mars is mildly memorable.