If you're planning to take a look at Antony Hoffman's Red Planet, it is highly advised that you squint. This way, instead of observing a facile romance lightly spiced with danger and heavily laden with rawkin' effects, you'll see the movie for what it really is: a cadre of little boys playing space man, with tin cans for radios and a cardboard box for their ship. In lieu of a script, they have cut and pasted familiar swatches of sci-fi (technical blather, desolate planet, killer robot, pernicious bugs), and--generously--they have even let one of the neighborhood girls in on the action. All of this would be charming if the play sets weren't terribly expensive and produced by big people.
It's not as if the thing lacked potential. Although the movie's basic structure closely resembles Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars from earlier this year, the makers of Red Planet try hard to navigate a different trajectory. Instead of fleshly characters who suffer hard knocks en route to a fairly routine rehash of Arthur C. Clarke, we get sketchy caricatures who bicker over quasi-spiritual claptrap while skittering willy-nilly to their doom--unless, of course, they happen to be in love. Focusing on yuppie mysticism there, cheap adrenaline here, both projects desperately slather themselves in self-important bombast and laborious meditations upon mortality.
Blasting off with farcical voiceover exposition (paraphrased: "Hiya, it's the future, and I am the female lead; we humans are almost finished destroying the Earth; now lemme tell ya about my crew!"), we immediately find ourselves on the hard road to Mars, to discover why terraforming operations have failed, halting hopes of colonization. To stave off our yawning, Hoffman trots out with flashing lights, deafening thrusters, and a reworked rock song from the glory days of The Police ("When the World Is Running Down," natch), introducing us--with a heavy-lidded wink to 2001: A Space Odyssey--to Mission Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss). In essence, her job--much like that of Sigourney Weaver's in Alien two decades ago--is to fight for her ship, to talk tough, and, in service of "the hope and survival of mankind," to spruce up the industrial corridors by occasionally stripping down.
Also aboard the huge can of cosmic Cheez Whiz is science officer/poofy philosopher Chantilas (Terrence Stamp), whom self-serving geneticist Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) finds totally irksome. To make peace, the hepcat systems engineer (and self-appointed "janitor") Gallagher (Val Kilmer) transforms some of the ship's equipment into a distillery, and even Bowman is willing to drop by for a cocktail. ("I learned how to drink in the Navy, boys."). The mission's loosest cannons are Air Force Capt. Santen (Benjamin Bratt) and terraforming expert Pettengil (Simon Baker)--the former a womanizer, the latter a case study in toxic guilt--who are less people than fodder for the movie's attempt to wangle itself into a morality play. Once the ship reaches the orbit of Mars and a surprise solar flare summons some loud havoc and spooky blue emergency lighting, we get the boys stranded below, the girl floating above, and Houston very, very far away.
This view of Mars does indeed look impressive--more gritty than ethereal, shot in an Australian quarry, among other places--and, for a while, the movie cashes in on the prefab sense of mystery that comes with any strange world. Low on oxygen and several episodic plot points away from discovering an abandoned Russian probe designed by a deli owner in New York, the men busy themselves by urinating and dying while Bowman sasses her onboard computer into repairing the ship. To sustain interest (and perhaps to comment metaphorically on an ex-girlfriend), screenwriters Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin also include a merciless, doglike robot called AMEE, accidentally stuck in "kill" mode. As soon as we get past the actors' dramatic rendering of near-asphyxiation, and they learn--as we knew coming in--that they can breathe without their helmets, it's a race to dodge the CGI beastie, to escape the nasty rock.
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Moss and Kilmer are professional but detached in their roles; she futzes about in a baseball cap, playing the Winona Ryder spunky-gal shtick, and he mopes about the planet, in dire need of a facial. Even their big moment together--basically a perfect reversal of the lovers' separation horror from Mission to Mars--feels rote and obvious. Similarly, Bratt and Baker are given very little to do, and, in the thankless role of spiritual mentor, Stamp seems to be exercising little more than his patience. Sizemore gets the meatiest role--a geneticist who doesn't give a damn about humanity--but the flashy effects and frenetic cutting eclipse even his work. Unlike the vastly superior Pitch Black, which successfully employed a hostile alien environment as a stage for human conflict, Red Planet is too busy with nuts and bolts to lure us into its red realm. Hoffman should have listened more closely to Kilmer's line: "I don't think it's about the math; it's about the picture."