Red Planet

Much as I wanted to give Red Planet credit for tackling the evergreen topic of the exploration of our neighbor planet, I had a distinct feeling the director essentially did not appreciate the genre nor the material he was working with. The end product was a disappointingly bland story with all the usual mechanics of a thriller. Not science fiction, mind you, thriller!

Review by SAndman
August 13, 2008

Red Planet Movie

Director: Antony Hoffman

story: Chuck Pfarrer
screenplay: Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin

Carrie-Anne Moss as Cmdr. Kate Bowman
Val Kilmer as Robby Gallagher
Tom Sizemore as Dr. Quinn Burchenal
Simon Baker as Chip Pettengill
Benjamin Bratt as Lt. Ted Santen
Terence Stamp as Dr. Bud Chantilas

Released: 2000

Robby Gallagher: Well, thats about it. I hate this planet. I really miss Earth. I really miss a lot of things.

To start with the plot. In a not too distant future the Earth has become polluted and overpopulated. In response to that we start sending unmanned probes to Mars to create living conditions. At first things look good. There is evidence of a biosphere made up of algae, there is the oxygen production. But after a while the oxygen level starts to drop. That is the moment when "the Earth's best scientific minds" set off to Mars to find out what happened and get things right. The survival of mankind depends on the success of their mission.

As plots go, this one is no better or worse than most.

But when the narrator says "the Earth's best scientific minds" you know that takes some chutzpah. You can't even take that statement as a piece of irony because the director says something to the same effect at the end of the movie so obviously he wants you to take it at face value.

It doesn't take long before you realize the characters in Red Planet are far from exceptional human beings. They are not even exceptionally human beings. As a matter of fact, they are the Hollywood stock characters:

-the old sage - with a religious trait;

-the hands-on commander;

-the intense co-pilot;

-the technically savvy jock;

-the big mouth buffoon;

-the taciturn outsider - it looks like if you do not fit a social role you are bound to turn out to be a bad guy in the end!

Talk about clichés, in the first half of the movie there are hints of the one girl to an all-male crew conflict scenario. The easy-going jock is hitting on the commander but the mission biologist is also interested in her. He so much as admits it himself in a dinner-table meeting during the first leg of their voyage.

Surprisingly enough, the actors do their best to deliver believable performances. Especially Carri-Ann Moss's take exudes natural grace and authority. It is a pity her character gets separated from the male bunch early on. And the theme of male conflict over a sole woman aboard looks like a plot thread the script picked up and then completely forgot about it.

Another obvious glitch is that none of the characters really seem to grow in the course of the movie.

The motivation is lacking and the characters generally seem like they are just going through the motions. The scene in which Lt. Ted Santen and Chip Pettengill fight at the edge of the precipice, which is supposed to be one of the turning points in the movie, seems especially devoid of emotional build-up.

Eventually where Red Planet really falls flat on its face is in its handling of the science fiction material, for which it shows no affinity. I mean, science fiction is so much more than just going to space and repeating how space basically sucks.

And that is exactly what you get in Red Planet in spades:

-An alien life form sucks because it is...well, potentially lethal to humans. No sooner had we discovered life on Mars than we figured it was dangerous and we blew it to smithereens. This may work well in a thriller but you would expect more finesse from a science fiction movie.

-Technology sucks because it does not always fulfill our needs and wishes. And, darn, it can be destroyed or can occasionally go out of whack leaving us to fend for ourselves, or worse, fighting the faulty technology turned hostile! This time the technological menace takes the form of AMEE, which is basically a combat robot "on a loan from Marines". Now why would anyone take a combat robot on a scientific mission is beyond me.

-The planet sucks because it does not resemble our local mall. There is a particularly stupid sequence at the end of Red Planet. The character played by Val Killmer idiotically screams "F... this planet!" and flashes the bird at the screen and the Mars landscape in general.

You feel personally offended by this piece of rubbish. Not because of the expletive or the gesture! No, you get an impression the director turns to you and screams to your face: "F... this movie! I am out of here!"

That last bit was too much for me.

When I set out to watch Red Planet I really expected something more. Maybe I raised my expectations a little too high as I was reading the beautiful Red Mars novel by Kim Stanley Robinson at the time, and maybe it was because I had been waiting for a long time to see a Mars movie worthy of the topic.

At any rate, if you decide to give Red Planet a try, it might elicit some laughs, on condition you are feeling particularly gracious, or - as it did in my case - lots of scowls. And most importantly, remember you are watching a thriller, and not a particularly original one at that. Red Planet is a thriller dressed in the garb of a science fiction movie.

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