It's no small achievement to be worse than a movie as thick-skulled as Mission to Mars, in which Brian DePalma's admittedly cool set pieces were the only saving graces. Given an even less ambitious script, director Antony Hoffman, who previously oversaw TV commercials, brings little flair or energy to the cinema's latest treatment of a botched interplanetary sojourn.
At some point in the next century -- it's fuzzy as to exactly when -- Earth's worsening environment has inspired the long-distance "terraforming" of Mars, which involves seeding it with algae to create a breathable atmosphere and making the planet inhabitable.
But when things begin to go wrong, Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) leads the first manned team to the planet to investigate. Of the crewmen, we're most meant to identify with Val Kilmer's "space janitor" Gallagher, because he chews gum and spent time on the NASCAR circuit.
Especially during the film's first act, you cannot tell if the script started out as hash or was edited out of coherence. As is, character traits and relationships are so thuddingly presented you can practically hear a speaker-phoned voice say, "Give the leads a little romance, so women will like it! And people in sci-fi films talk about God a lot, so stick in some God stuff!" That role is filled by Terence Stamp, a charismatic character actor who here may as well be DeForest Kelly. His Dr. Chantillas is the soul of the crew, as you can tell when Bowman says via voice-over "He's the soul of the crew."
The trend in Mars movies is supposedly inspired by a national interest in a potential manned Martian mission, so why are the fictitious astronauts always so inept? Red Planet's ship is crippled by a solar flare, for which the ship has no apparent protection, prompting Bowman to stay behind while sending the others down on a lander. The subsequent crash landing leaves one crewman with a fatal injury, and later they discover that the prefabricated human habitat -- their goal on landing -- has been destroyed. Shouldn't they have confirmed its presence before leaving?
Most menacing of all, the all-terrain robot "AMEE" is damaged and slips into military mode, meaning it intends to stalk and kill all the humans on the planet. It's an option that, in retrospect, probably wasn't such a good idea. AMEE, granted, isn't a bad special effect, stalking on all fours like the skeleton of a mechanical panther, but as an antagonist it's hilariously contrived.
It's hard to care whether the characters survive or not, from Tom Sizemore's slovenly scientist to Benjamin Bratt's pissy pilot: "Technically, I didn't fail," he shrugs when the mission is ruined. The only cast-member who emerges looking good is Moss, whom you'll remember as Trinity in The Matrix. Here she has more time in the spotlight and makes an appealingly tough-but-tender impression. But the film leaves her for long stretches with nothing to do but hang around in orbit wearing tight Space Pants and no bra.
Mostly the film's special effects compare unfavorably to M2M, although the ruddy, dimly-lit Martian landscape looks credibly alien. But Red Planet's less impressive with its comparable zero-gravity sequences, rescue attempts with space suits and tethers, and depictions of the vacuum of space. At least Red Planet's homages to 2001 are more subtle ("Bowman" was Keir Dullea's name in the Kubrick film), and its references to the Rolling Stones and the Police less annoying than M2M's Van Halen.
And Red Planet's anticlimactic revelation about Martian life forms is less pretentious than M2M's bid for grand statements about the origins of mankind. Neither film has confidence in a realistic, nuts-and-bolts portrayal of the dangers of a Martian mission, perhaps out of fear of boring the audience. But solidly written and researched depiction of space travel is far more compelling than a monster show, as evidenced by Apollo 13 or the comet scenes of Deep Impact.
Somehow, I don't think next year's John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars will reverse the trend. Granted, Mars is a hostile environment for human habitation. But as Val Kilmer says, "Fuck this planet," and gives it the finger at the end of Red Planet, humanity's only response, apparently, is to be hostile right back.
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