Friday November 10, 2000
If looks were everything, "Red Planet" would have it made. On the visual level, this space epic is completely convincing in its depiction of the barren landscape of Mars, the mission there to save mankind from an over-polluted Earth, and all the elaborate equipment and technology involved in the undertaking.
When it comes to special effects, the filmmakers have spared no expense. But when it comes to the story, audiences have been shortchanged. "Red Planet" plays flat: There's precious little sense of adventure, suspense or excitement and no sense of fun. Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin's script and Antony Hoffman's direction is as mechanical as all the machinery involved.
In voice-over, mission commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) tells us that by 2025 Earth has become so polluted that a project has been launched to harvest algae on Mars to generate enough oxygen to make it habitable. By 2056, as Earth continues to die, oxygen readings suddenly cease transmitting. Hence Bowman and her fellow astronauts--mechanical systems engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer), scientific analysis team leader Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), Air Force captain Santen (Benjamin Bratt), youthful scientist Pettengil (Simon Baker) and chief science officer Chantilas (Terence Stamp) take off for Mars, along with AMEE, a robot that looks like a giant metallic spider.
A solar flare cripples the ship, which leads to a crash-landing of its shuttle containing the crew, leaving Bowman alone in the space ship. One catastrophe leads to another and on to the eerie truth of what happened on Mars with Kilmer emerging as the superhero who must solve the crisis on Mars and try to get back to the ship alive.
There's no denying that as space exploration has become a reality, it gets tougher to make space adventure movies because filmmakers feel pressured to be as authentic as possible--something that George Melies didn't have to contend with nearly a century ago when he made his timelessly delightful "A Trip to the Moon." The scarcely unique problem with "Red Planet" is that the technology, much of it incomprehensible to the layman, overwhelms plot and characterization. Moss, fresh off "The Matrix," and the seasoned Kilmer manage a strong, credible presence, even overcoming a first encounter that has Kilmer inadvertently happening upon her in the nude as she steps out of a shower. (She orders him to think of her as he would a sister!) Sizemore, playing a crude but decent guy, is solid, but Bratt has little chance to register anything except machismo, and Baker, a lack of confidence and cowardice. This crew is on the whole so lacking in personality that it seems conceivable that "Red Planet" might just play better with the dialogue track turned off.
Red Planet, 2000. PG-13, for sci-fi violence, brief nudity and language. A Warner Bros. presentation in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment. Director Antony Hoffman. Producers Mark Canton, Bruce Berman, Jorge Saralegui. Executive producers Charles J.D. Schlissel, Andrew Mason. Screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin; from a story by Pfarrer. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editors Robert K. Lambert, Dallas S. Puett. Visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun. Music Graeme Revell. Costumes Kym Barrett. Production designer Owen Paterson. Art director Catherine Mansell. Set designer Judith Harvey. Set decorator Brian Dusting. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Val Kilmer as Gallagher. Carrie-Anne Moss as Bowman. Tom Sizemore as Burchenal. Benjamin Bratt as Santen. Simon Baker as Pettengil. Terence Stamp as Chantilas.