Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Red Planet (2000)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Not A Sound. Not A Warning. Not A Chance. Not Alone.

Houston, we have a very big problem! In the mid-21st century, the nations of a dying Earth look starward for a solution and set out to colonize Mars. But something no one could have expected awaits this latest mission to the Red Planet. Because Mars may be barren, but it's not uninhabited.

Director: Anthony Hoffman
Cast: Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Carrie-Anne Moss, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp
Box Office: Budget: $75 million. Opening Weekend: $8.721 million (2703 screens). Gross: $17.473 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 31 chapters; rated PG-13; 107 min.; $19.98; street date 3/27/01.
Supplements: Deleted Scenes; Cast Filmographies.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/A/D+

No one ever accused Hollywood of being a hotbed of creativity, and often we find “waves” of similarly-themed movies that appear in close succession. Thus was the case in the late Eighties when screens offered a variety of “kid in grown-up body” comedies like Big, Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa. In more recent years, we’ve experienced the “killer meteor” phenomenon represented most famously by 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact.

In 2000, the move was toward space again, but filmmakers concentrated on an old favorite: Mars. However, instead of the very tired “space invaders” plot in which Martians invade Earth, the tendency was to use the somewhat less-tired story in which we go to them. The first entry was Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, and Red Planet appeared later in the year.

I never saw the De Palma entry, so I can’t compare the two, but from what I understand, the plots are similar. In RP, the setting is Earth circa 2057. Our home has become increasingly uninhabitable due to pollution, so projects have attempted to create a livable atmosphere on Mars. As the film begins, the first manned mission to the planet heads there to get the process into high gear after attempts had already been made to create an oxygen supply.

Inevitably, the mission encounters problems. In the process of landing, the ship suffers grave damage, and the crew take a physical toll as well. The planet’s atmosphere hasn’t shaped up as planned, for all of the algae grown has disappeared mysteriously. In addition, their robotic helper AMEE goes haywire and becomes a threat. What a mess!

Unfortunately, although the plot offers plenty of opportunities for intrigue, it effectively pursues virtually none of them. On one hand, RP seems to want to be a high-powered action flick, as seen during the drama of the landing scenes, the battles with AMEE, and various other obstacles, but these are never carried out in a crisp, exciting manner. They felt tacked on, as though the filmmakers sensed a lull in the tale and wanted to spice it up with something.

On the other hand, the film doesn’t work as a character-driven piece either. At times it attempts to become “deep”, but it stays in the shallow end of the pool. The various participants offer little more than bland stereotypes. One departure stems from the inclusion of a female commander, Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix), but her presence seems pretty gratuitous. She even has a brief nude scene, and there’s a burgeoning romance between Bowman and engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer). What does any of this have to do with the story? Nothing, but it’s supposed to create a more human element, I guess.

It fails, as do the attempts to offer an introspective look at spirituality through Chantilas (Terence Stamp). He spouts a few statements about God and the universe, but that’s as thoughtful as the movie gets, and these segments go nowhere. The other characters consist of glib and cynical scientist Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), gung-ho space stud Santen (Benjamin Bratt), and weaselly Pettengill. None receive much exposition or development, and they stay pretty simplistic throughout the movie.

Red Planet is the kind of shallow film that provides some obvious forms of “commentary”. For example, in the early parts of the movie, we hear a couple of songs play. There’s the Police’s “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” and Sting’s “A Thousand Years”. Both tunes make statements that fit with the movie’s theme, but I thought their inclusion seemed a little clever-clever.

Their use also felt a bit anachronistic - what are the chances these folks will be listening to 60-70 year old music on the trip? The songs aren’t the only examples of modern pop culture seen in the film; we also witness items like a Mr. Potato Head T-shirt. For some reason, these kinds of references bother me more in near-future films than in those that take place hundreds of years from now. I guess that’s because the latter have so little connection to the current time that I’ll forgive them these bits - such as the “Fly the friendly skies” inscription in Aliens - but more recent references appear less logical to me.

Ultimately, Red Planet offered a fairly attractive visual presentation, as the production seemed generally well-executed. I found some of the computer imagery to look excessively artificial - especially in regard to the shots of the ships - but most of the visual material was clean and believable.

However, Red Planet remains nothing more than a mildly watchable but largely uninteresting exploration of anti-climaxes. The film teases us with threats and potential excitement that it never delivers, and the lack of compelling characters makes these faults even more glaring. Red Planet isn’t a disaster as a movie, but it offers little spark or fun to make it worth a screening.

The DVD:

Red Planet appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As one might expect of a recent, big-budget flick, RP looked absolutely fantastic, with almost no problems on display.

Sharpness seemed immaculate at all times. Never did I detect any signs of soft or hazy images throughout the film, as the entire production appeared exceedingly crisp and well-defined. That clarity came without any price; I detected no signs of shimmering or jagged edges in this rock-solid presentation. If any print flaws appeared, I couldn’t find them. The film seemed free of grain, grit, scratches, tears, speckles, or other defects; it’s a fresh and clean picture.

Red Planet used a fairly stylized palette that befit its two locations. On board the ship we found a variety of cool blues and greens, while Mars itself presented a burnished amber tone. All of the hues were clear and accurate within those limitations, and I thought the color schemes seemed logical and well-reproduced. Black levels looked rich and deep, and shadow detail was always appropriately heavy without any excessive thickness. Ultimately, Red Planet presented a terrific picture.

Also excellent was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This was an extremely active affair that almost constantly kept all five speakers in action. The soundfield presented audio that was accurately localized and that moved cleanly from channel to channel. Surround usage seemed very strong, as the rear speakers provided excellent ambiance and also kicked in some fine split-surround effects. The AMEE bits offered the best rear channel activity, as we went into “Terminator” mode to see and hear things from the machine’s point of view. As a whole, however, the entire track worked well and it provided an involving auditory experience.

Audio quality also seemed terrific. Dialogue sounded natural and distinct with no edginess or problems related to distortion. Effects were clean and realistic without signs of distortion, and they packed a serious punch when appropriate; these components often kept the subwoofer active as I heard some solidly deep and tight bass response. Music sounded clear and bright, and it also portrayed good dynamic range. All in all, this is the kind of powerful, crisp soundtrack one expects of this sort of film, and the mix for Red Planet worked well.

We find few supplements on the Red Planet DVD. In addition to cast filmographies - no information appears for any crew members - we discover seven “Deleted Scenes”. These last for a total of 14 minutes and 20 seconds and are really extended versions of existing clips. As such, we witness nothing particularly revelatory here, as the moments simply expand upon material that already appears in the movie. Still, some nice character moments show up, and fans of the film will be happy to see them.

Unfortunately, I can’t classify myself in that category, as I found Red Planet to provide a fairly bland and lackluster experience. The film seems unsatisfying on most levels; it offers too little action for that genre, and the characters aren’t developed well enough to make interest in them or the situations sustain the program. The DVD offers absolutely spectacular picture and sound but skimps on extras. Ultimately, Red Planet isn’t a terrible movie but it seems fairly mediocre and offers little to recommend it.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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