People have been making movies about Mars for decades, but the real boom in semi-realistic Mars movies started about a decade ago — and ended pretty soon afterward. A spate of movies about Mars, some of which aimed to show the first human exploration of the planet, started around 1999 and stopped in 2002... just before NASA started launching a ton of Mars probes and President Bush talked about sending humans to Mars. What killed the Mars movie?
First of all, here's a brief chronology of the Mars movie boom:
1999: Escape From Mars. A made-for-TV movie from UPN. Five astronauts journey to Mars in the second decade of the 21st century. They must deal with corporate greed and inferior computer components, plus their own demons.
2000: Red Planet. Okay, this one isn't quite as serious. Humanity stars seeding Mars with algae that's supposed to create a breathable atmosphere. But then the algae vanishes, and a team led by Carrie-Ann Moss goes to investigate. It turns out Mars now does have a breathable atmosphere, but it also has evil aliens and a killer robot.
2000: Mission To Mars. This may have been the most serious attempt to date at portraying the real conditions on Mars, based on the images that were available at the time. The first crewed mission to Mars gets lost, but there's one survivor. So Gary Sinise and pals rocket off to Mars, only to run into trouble as well. In the end, they enter a giant white mausoleum with breathable air, and the movie falls apart when they meet a cute alien who tells them that Martians seeded Earth with life:
2000: Mars And Beyond. An early Web series, on the Cyber Sci-Fi Network, Mars And Beyond was written by former Star Trek: The Next Generation producer Herbert Wright, also known as the "father of the Ferengi." (Not something I would brag about.) It's 2014, and a team of astronauts is sent to Mars. Officially, their mission is just to explore, but unofficially they're there to answer the question: "Are we alone?"
Ghosts of Mars (2001). I almost left this one out, because in some ways it's a throwback to the old pulpy Martian movies, and it depicts a Mars that's long been settled, like Total Recall and other earlier movies. Mars has been terraformed, and you can breathe the atmosphere without a spacesuit. At the same time, director John Carpenter did make an effort to depict a semi-realistic Mars, using tons and tons of red food dye to make the gypsum-mine location look Martian enough and trying to make the sets look as though the Martian winds had battered them. Plus he had a local holy man bless the set before filming. That has to count for something. Plus it has Reavers, before Joss Whedon put them in Firefly.
2002: Lost On Mars. This sounds pretty horrific, and I'm determined to hunt down a copy now. The first ever astronauts land on Mars, to investigate a strange energy reading. They discover that Mars once held intelligent life, and then they find a device that sends them spiraling back in time THREE BILLION YEARS to a barbarian empire that once ruled Mars. With, like, swords and things. They get captured by the movie's director, wearing a barbarian costume. And then it veers off into matriarchal Martian barbarian politics. Turns out there's a sequel, and they're both coming out on DVD soon.
2002: Stranded aka Náufragos. A Spanish movie, Stranded stars Vincent Gallo as a member of an expedition that crashes on Mars. It's shot in a documentary-like style and tries to depict the Martian landscape realistically. The humans discover the remains of an ancient Martian civilization, complete with an area that has breathable air. And they find out they can eat the ancient lichens on Mars, allowing them to survive until they can be rescued.
Where did the Mars-movie trend come from in the first place? The fact that NASA was prepping a much-publicized push to send orbiters and rovers to Mars may have helped inspire film-makers. (NASA also sent up some craft during the 90s, but they were lost on arrival. Also, as Moria points out, the 1990s was a high-water mark for Mars novels, including Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy and Greg Bear's Moving Mars. The development process for the Mars movies of 2000-2001 probably started in the mid-1990s.
So what ended the Mars movie fad? Well, the fact that it was a fad probably had something to do with it. Just like the asteroid-on-course-for-Earth movie fad, this one had to end. But the fact that more real data, and realistic images, were going to start coming back from Mars may have helped as well. The 9/11 attacks, and the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, may have changed the focus of movies in development, away from exploration and towards war. (But that probably wouldn't have had an impact until a few years later.) There's also the fact that none of these movies did that well: Mission To Mars, grossing around $68 million in the U.S., may have been the biggest, but Red Planet only made $18 million as compared to its $75 million budget.