‘Red Planet’ is an outer-space expedition that ultimately goes nowhere

July 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 8, 2015

Fifteen years ago, two big red cinematic bombs were unleashed upon the movie-going public. The marginally superior of these two films was Mission to Mars, a Brian De Palma helmed effort that debuted in March 2000 and starred Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle and Tim Robbins. The other Mars movie was Red Planet, a November release headlined by Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss and Tom Sizemore.

Mission to Mars was an ideas movie with action, an attempt by a great director to make a successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey. By contrast, Red Planet was an action movie with ideas — an effort to replicate the original Jurassic Park in a science fiction milieu. By this I mean not that Red Planet is a monster movie, as Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster is, but that, like the earlier movie, Red Planet attempts to envelop its candy-coated center with a veneer of scientific concepts.

There are plenty of differences between the two movies, of course, one of them being that Jurassic Park had an excellent script. Red Planet can’t claim the same, unfortunately. It was penned by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, who between them have no credit more impressive than Navy Seals or The Devil’s Advocate. Which isn’t to say that these movies — or their other outings, such as Virus or Shooter — are bad; it’s just that, like Red Planet, they’re simply not very distinguished.

This excursion to Mars is further hampered by the indifferent handling of its director, Antony Hoffman, a South African native whose screen activity has primarily involved commercial advertising. (The Internet Movie Database lists Red Planet and a 2014 short as Hoffman’s only film credits.) Hoffman seems all but incapable of staging a scene in which the actors relate to each other like normal people, or even sort-of-realistic astronauts, might.

The movie gets off to an uneven start right away, as Moss’s character, Kate Bowman, spends about a minute pummeling the audience with expository narration:

By the year 2000, we had begun to overpopulate, pollute and poison our planet faster than we could clean it up. We ignored the problem for as long as we could. But we were kidding ourselves. By 2025, we knew we were in trouble. And began to desperately search for a new home — Mars.

For the last 20 years, we’ve been sending unmanned probes with algae, bioengineered to grow there and produce oxygen. We’re going to build ourselves an atmosphere we can breathe. And for 20 years it seemed to work. It looked like we pulled it off. We’d done it. Then all of a sudden, oxygen levels started to drop. We don’t know why.

Bowman is commander of the uncreatively named Mars 1, the first manned flight to the fourth rock from our sun. Bowman and her five crew members set out in the year 2050 or so to determine what has happened to the re-engineered Martian atmosphere and how the oxygen supply can be replenished.

Much as in Mission to Mars, an unexpected stellar hazard — in the case of Red Planet, an unexpected solar flare or something of the kind — wreaks havoc on the spaceship just as the crew is preparing to descend to the Martian surface. Bowman stays behind on the disintegrating spaceship to fix a glitch that threatens to hinder the landing craft’s departure.

Copilot Santen (Benjamin Bratt) gets the lander down in one piece, but just barely. He isn’t able to land near the habitat and supply depot that was sent on a prior mission; he isn’t able to track the lander’s position relative to the habitat module; he has to eject the lander’s cargo module; and senior scientist Chantilas (Terence Stamp) sustains devastating internal injuries during the bumpy descent when, essentially, his seat breaks. (Yup.)

Since their spacesuits only carry about seven hours of oxygen, the crew needs to locate the habitat as soon as possible. Chantilas, who is all but immobilized, orders the others to leave without him.

The quartet of survivors forge ahead, but as they encounter problem after problem — some manmade, some not — their resources and numbers dwindle. Meanwhile, in orbit, Bowman is able to repair the ship. Since she initially lacks radio contact with her crew and can’t pinpoint their position, mission control orders her to prepare to return to Earth.

Red Planet has a decent setup, with built-in tension on several levels: The characters’ survival is threatened by on-screen events, and humanity’s chances of survival will drop precipitously should the mission fail. However, the movie’s likability is seriously impaired because, aside from Chantilas, all of the characters are either hopelessly bland or thoroughly unlikeable.

Let’s start with the latter group: Santen is bursting with an over-the-top brand of machismo that would seem to disqualify him for any deep-space mission. The ace biologist Burchenal (Sizemore) is just as annoyingly full of himself, although his arrogance centers on his intellect rather than his skills as a pilot. (In Burchenal’s favor, he’s far more effective as a scientist than Santen is as a pilot or astronaut, and his character at least generates some entertainment value.)

Team Bland is led by Bowman. The group shouldn’t include Gallagher (Kilmer), the mission’s “mechanical systems engineer,” a.k.a. space janitor; alas, this protagonist manages to display all the characteristics of a well-rounded individual without having much of a personality.

Gallagher is well-versed in the scientific tradition, like Burchenal; unlike the biologist, however, he’s open to Chantilas’ vague religious and spiritual notions. He has a huge sentimental streak — he refers to AMEE, the malfunctioning mission robot, as sweetie — but he’s pragmatic enough to flip the bird and shout “Fuck this planet!” in what was evidently meant to be an applause line. He also volunteers to sacrifice himself when mission control devises a way to rendezvous with Bowman’s orbital craft that will only accommodate two people.

The final crew member is Pettengill (Simon Baker), and this character earns a slot on both Team Bland and Group Irritation. Pettengill is so anonymous that it wasn’t clear to me what his role on the mission was even supposed to be. He ends up devolving into a self-serving villain of sorts. The event that sets this narrative arc in motion is interesting — Pettengill acts rashly, with unforeseen and undesired consequences — but the script flattens out the character’s depth, making him seem cartoonish.

As for the movie’s scientific ideas, well… while I was happy that the movie had intellectual pretensions, the science in this fiction straddles the border between outrageousness and plausibility. One big problem is not so much what Red Planet postulates about the development of life on a terraformed Mars but the timeline in which it happens. (As the great Richard Scheib points out on his movie review site, Moria, evolution doesn’t work in 30-year time frames.)

To top it off, the action and special effects are just as uneven as the rest of the feature. The lander’s rocky descent is moderately exciting; the near-destruction of the spaceship, which is intercut with the descent, isn’t very convincing; and the final action sequence, which involves an orbital rescue, contains minimal drama.

If you’re a hopeless science-fiction movie devotee — or if you’re someone who idolizes Kilmer or even Moss (are there are such people?) — then Red Planet is for you. If not, well, feel free to steer clear of this crimson mess.

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