Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 27, 2012)
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. After that, we 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 very tired “space invaders” plot in which Martians assault 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, they came with similar plots. In Planet, we go to 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 deals with 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, Planet 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) 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 (Simon Baker). 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.