It’s the year 2020, and the first manned mission to Mars has ended in catastrophic disaster, with nothing but a cryptic message to explain what’s happened to the Mars One crew. Four astronauts, including a Mars rescue specialist, are sent to investigate and to see if there are any survivors to bring back. What the “Mission to Mars” crew finds on the red planet might explain the origins of Earth.

Flash back to the present, and you’ll soon discover that 2000 is the year of Mars. One of the first signs is Friday’s theatrical landing of Brian DePalma’s new epic. As people the world over monitor NASA’s painstaking progress in collecting information on the distant planet, Hollywood is doing its part for the U.S. space program.

“Mission to Mars,” which has been described by actor Gary Sinise as a combination of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apollo 13,” has been endorsed by NASA. While the Touchstone Pictures movie promises inspiration, heroism and perhaps even a clue to Earth’s origins, Warner Bros. isn’t far behind with its offering, “Red Planet.” The Web site for the much-delayed astronauts-to-Mars flick, now slated for a Nov. 16 release, claims the film will probe no less than the “doubts, fears and questions about God, man’s destiny and the nature of the universe become defining elements in their fates.”

Ironically, the films also come just one year before the date Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic presumed that man would be capable of flying to Jupiter. As it turns out, the time line was not only optimistic about the progress of space technology, but also Hollywood’s explorations into science-fiction space. Although not the first, “2001” remains one of the rare forays into science-fiction movies that emphasizes plot instead of “gee whiz” special effects.

“2001” debuted one year before man landed on the moon. Now, more than 30 years later, sci-fi cinema is gearing up to pair intelligent life with actual intelligence, signaling that humankind, at last, might be ready to do the same.

Suspicions of long ago

Before “2001,” the so-called golden era of sci-fi cinema encoded fears Americans had about communism, competing world powers, technology and the specter of humanity, as well as more optimistic messages of what could be accomplished.

Kubrick’s sprawling epic came during the era when nations were in the grips of the Cold War. “2001” captured the public’s fear that the same technology that was pushing the frontiers of space could enslave us as well.

“That’s the harder lineage to follow,” says Alan Spiegel, an English professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo. “It’s a riskier kind of film, because it’s not trading off in pure fantasy.”

At the same time, “2001” presented us with a space and technology that were coolly sensual, balletic and complete with their own orchestral score. Mankind, on the other hand, remained the same territorial, passive and banal creature not much different from their ape progenitors. The evolution of the race the giant step for mankind had to be in the stars.

“Kubrick purified the genre by aestheticizing it, rather than politicizing it,” says Spiegel, whose American Film History seminar always includes “2001.” “He emphasized the scientific part of science fiction,” separating it once and for all from “Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and, nowadays, George Lucas.”

Director Brian De Palma who majored in physics went for real science in “Mission to Mars.” In making the film, De Palma was inspired by 1950’s “Destination Moon,” which aimed for technical accuracy. “I was struck by how authentic that film looked,” De Palma said in the studio press release. “What we’ve tried to do is make Mission to Mars’ as authentic as possible The film is all the more exciting because you feel like it’s extremely real.”

Dose of reality

Gary Westfahl, who edited the new anthology “Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction,” says the desire to see and create reality in the genre came with the harsher realities of America’s space program. Before then, he said, offerings such as “Star Trek” “sought to make space travel seem as comfortable and familiar as possible.”

In the 1980s, Reagan-era machismo was reflected in the “Star Wars” fairy tales and “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s history of the U.S. space program. The fantasy came full circle the proposed strategic missile defense system borrowed its nickname from “Star Wars.”

Then came the catastrophic 1986 shuttle mission that killed seven astronauts. “The Challenger disaster served as a kind of wake-up call,” he said. It also led to a “reawakening of interest in space travel as it actually is and actually will be no warp drives, no magical transporter beams, just men and women in space suits facing constant death in fragile tin cans in space.”

So while “Star Trek” dwindled in popularity in the 1990s, movies such as Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” which showed heroism in the face of tragedy, did well. As NASA reinvented itself and the U.S. space program began to succeed again, science-fiction cinema mirrored the public’s sense of optimism and humanity.

Ironically, paranoia and fears of dehumanization, endemic in ’50s sci-fi flicks, are examined over and over again in today’s so-called cyberpunk futuristic thrillers. Films such as “The Matrix” and “The Thirteenth Floor” delve into corporate domination, addictive virtual reality and the suppression of free will.

On the other hand, space has become to paraphrase “Star Trek” the final Hollywood frontier. In fact, some of the movies are beginning to look like the Westerns of old, with the stars of old. Nowhere is that more evident than the upcoming “Space Cowboys,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, with Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner as three NASA astronauts a la John Glenn coming out of retirement for one more mission.

Emphasis on Earth

Despite the move toward realism, in a way postmodern science-fiction cinema has become a quasi-religious quest. The early days were really about how mankind could manage on Earth the actual likelihood of space exploration was nil.

Today, the Cold War has thawed and space is only a matter of time and technology. More than that, human beings are fast assembling knowledge about their planet and themselves, and are even cracking the genetic code to their own existence.

While Americans might feel good about our accomplishments, science can’t figure out what it all means, how mankind came about, or where it’s going. And we can’t quite be trusted to find the answers. After all, the same capacity that created the means for space travel has also created the means for destruction.

So even in these secular, scientific times, Americans have been reaching back for ancient wisdom, from Indian healing to Chinese feng shui. It’s no wonder that even our flights of cinematic fancy fall back on religion, “this kind of a mythology of a god or superpower who would create a new dawn of man,” Spiegel says.

“Clearly in both 2001′ and Contact,’ aliens are in a sense God-like,” Westfahl agrees. The UFO cults that sprang up in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” reached out to this unseen life as a substitute for older religions.

The alien messiah, to borrow a film term, is a familiar figure that originated with the benevolent alien Klaatu in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Klaatu threatened the Earth to get it together or else. But when Jodie Foster’s character finally meets up with a Vegan in “Contact,” it has assumed the comforting form of her father, who promises to help her and humankind take the next faltering step. We’ve done pretty well now, but now we need this “divine extraterrestrial creature to resurrect or redeem man entirely, who has gotten as far as he can go with his infantile knowledge,” Spiegel says.

Popular Mars

The question remains: Out of all the planets in the solar system, why the current focus on Mars? Human self-interest, of course, prevails. “Even though we now know it’s barren and lifeless, it remains the planet most like Earth,” Westfahl says. It has the same thin atmosphere, occasional tolerable temperatures, and the remote possibility of Martian bacterial life.

Another theory is that life on Earth might have come courtesy of micro-organisms borne on a meteorite from the red planet. “Mars may have been where life originated (and) we are all descendants of Mars life forms,” Westfahl says. “Mission to Mars” hints that it will explore this interplanetary connection.

The future of science-fiction cinema might then be all about redefining our past and, ultimately figuring out why we are here. Westfahl points out, “the more we learn about the universe, the more we look at ourselves very differently.”