"Red Planet" is the second of three high-profile releases about man's exploration of our nearest neighbor, in-between the much-maligned "Mission to Mars" that came out this past spring, and the trouble-plagued production of John Carpenter's "Ghosts of Mars", due in theaters in 2001. At first blush, it may be difficult to distinguish between "Red Planet" and its predecessor "Mission to Mars", as both are movies about how the first manned mission to Mars goes terribly wrong due to some unknown secret about the planet. However, there is a distinct difference: "Red Planet" is a better movie, and is almost (but not quite) good enough to warrant a recommendation.
The clunky opening monologue by mission commander Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss, trading in her leather from "The Matrix" for a spacesuit) sets up the tone for the film. The year is 2056 and all the frogs are dead, as Earth has been irreversibly ravaged by man's wasteful ways. With little time left before conditions on the Earth become inhospitable, humanity trains its eyes into the vastness of space for another planet to start polluting-- Mars. Over the past few decades, the surface of Mars has been bombarded with algae-carrying rockets in an attempt to terraform it for human habitation. For the most part, the plan has succeeded, with green algae spreading across the surface and generating the much-needed oxygen to support life. However, in recent months, the algae have been disappearing and oxygen levels have been declining, with no explanation.
As a result, Bowman and five other astronauts are dispatched on the first manned mission to Mars to investigate the disappearance of the algae. Joining Bowman are flight engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer of "The Saint"), lead scientist Burchenal (Tom Sizemore of "Saving Private Ryan"), co-pilot Santen (Benjamin Bratt, formerly of TV's "Law & Order"), agricultural specialist Pettengil (Simon Baker of "L.A. Confidential"), and scientist-cum-philosopher Chantilas (Terence Stamp, seen recently in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace").
Similar to developments in "Mission to Mars", the six-month trip to Mars is uneventful, but as soon as their spacecraft Mars-1 enters orbit of the red planet, everything goes wrong. A freak solar flare forces the crew to attempt a pre-emptive landing, while Bowman stays on board to repair the damage to the mothership. The ground crew manages to survive a very bumpy landing, but soon they find evidence that they are not alone on the planet surface, which may have something to do with the disappearing algae. Unfortunately, they face more immediate danger from AMEE, a military robot that develops a lethal malfunction as a result of the landing, and trains its deadly abilities on the ground crew.
As an action-adventure film, "Red Planet" does a passable job in creating suspense and tension, thanks to some crackerjack pacing by first-time director Antony Hoffman, and the disaster-movie basis for its plot. Fans of "Apollo 13" and "The Abyss" will appreciate the way "Red Planet" focuses on the survival efforts of both the ground crew and Bowman in the orbiter, as well as the mystery as to why the algae disappeared. The script by Chuck Pfarrer ("Virus") and Jonathan Lemkin ("The Devil's Advocate") piles on plenty of danger for the characters to deal with: a robot-gone-berzerk, a crew member hiding a deadly secret, a broken radio, an unseen alien threat, a limited supply of air, a decaying orbit, and a ticking clock. Granted, many of these elements are contrived, but by focusing audience attention on them, it makes it easier to ignore the other more glaring weaknesses of the film.
Most noticeable of all is that there are no real characters to be found in "Red Planet". Every character plays a function, whether they are the level-headed hero, comic relief, or wise father-figure, and that is about all we get to know about them. As a result, there's little emotional pay-off by the time the final reel kicks in, since we have no idea what these characters wanted in the first place, what personal demons they had to deal with, and what they sacrificed to survive. Subsequently, most of the dialogue is functional also, as the characters only speak to make observations, bark out commands, or clue-in the audience. Contrast this to this past summer's "Space Cowboys", which had four really unique characters who were not only likeable, but always had interesting things to say, even when their conversations weren't necessarily work-related. Who would you rather have lunch with, the crew of "Red Planet", who spend most of their time talking about work, or the crew of "Space Cowboys", who actually have personalities?
With thin character sketches and bland dialogue, it is not surprising then that "Red Planet" ends up wasting several fine actors with roles that are almost inconsequential or just plain uninteresting. The most noticeable casualties are Terence Stamp, who is given little to do other than wax philosophical about finding God, and Benjamin Bratt, whose only purpose is to set up some tension between the ground crew survivors. With respect to the leads, Val Kilmer becomes the blandest of action heroes, while Carrie-Ann Moss, despite being the most likeable and credible character in the whole film (think Ripley-lite), ends up spending most of the time talking to herself or interacting with a smart-aleck computer. Thankfully, despite having to work with such thin material, the actors do manage to play the material with straight faces, and they manage to avoid the awkward thesping that was seen in "Mission to Mars".
As a space-based disaster film, "Red Planet" certainly hits all the right notes in terms of creating suspense and tension. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of having to spend two hours watching mostly uninteresting characters saying uninteresting things before getting knocked off by some threat. However, with that said, it still ends up being a much better film than "Mission to Mars". Though the earlier film also had uninteresting characters saying uninteresting things, it was also saddled with a meandering script that dissipated whatever tension it tried to create, as well as actors who didn't really seem to know what to do with the material. In summary, "Red Planet" could have been far worse, but then again, it could have been better. Let's just hope that the third time's the charm, and John Carpenter gets the formula right with his "Ghosts of Mars" due out next year.