Val KilmerCarrie-Anne MossTom SizemoreTerence Stamp
Red Planet
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Antony Hoffman
Writer: Chuck Pfarrer, Jonathan Lemkin
Keywords: SF
Country: USA, Australia
Actor: Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp
Format: 102 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 20 October 2010
In 2000, Hollywood made two "manned mission to Mars" movies. It's just another of those coincidences, like the two CGI animated movies with talking ants in 1998 or the two unlicensed Bollywood Superman films in 1960. What makes this more interesting though is that this was the year Hollywood stopped visiting other planets. (The exceptions are the two big franchises: Star Wars and Star Trek.) We had lots of superhero movies instead. Of course there was still SF, but that tended to have the aliens coming to us (Matrix, Terminator, War of the Worlds, Alien vs. Predator, District 9, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, etc.)
The other "mission to Mars" movie, by the way, was Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars. Both received negative reviews, but at least the De Palma film's total earnings just about scraped past what it had cost to make. Red Planet bombed. It had a 80 million budget and grossed 33 million worldwide.
I'm not surprised, to be honest. It's worthy, but dull. It's realistic space travel, putting it in the same genre as Danny Boyle's Sunshine, and seeing the characters at work is like watching the cogs in a machine. They talk technobabble and they're focused on the mission. Don't expect laughs. It's the year 2057 and the Earth is dying due to environmental damage, so the plan is to seed Mars with oxygen-generating algae and start colonies there instead. No one mentions the fact that the natural speed of oxygen molecules in an atmosphere is greater than Martian escape velocity. Anyway, something's gone wrong with the algae and we're following the crew that's been sent out there to find out what and fix it.
When something goes wrong, coincidentally they'll discover that they've landed on 4 km away from useful resources in the shape of an abandoned rover from 1997 (presumably NASA's Phoenix Mars lander). Mars's surface area is 0.284 of Earth's, which is roughly the same as Earth's non-underwater surface area. In other words, the odds of this are akin to being teleported to a random location on Earth and finding yourself 4 km away from your friend's house.
There are six crew members: Carrie-Anne Moss, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker and Terence Stamp. Moss is the team leader and she's her usual dour self, although on the upside she does get naked in the shower. Val Kilmer is the team rebel ("not my first choice") and there's sexual tension between him and Moss. The script hammers you over the head with this. Gee, I wonder who'll survive to the end of the film? Terence Stamp is a philosopher who likes talking about God and deserved more screen time. The others are... um, people. The performances are fine and I wouldn't say that the characters aren't badly written, but they're focused on the job and not really giving you any reason to care about them or work too hard at remembering who's doing what. When ostensibly off-duty, they discuss science and religion. It's realistic, though. I'll give them that. They're on a mission to save mankind, after all, so the nearest anyone comes to flouting regulations (Kilmer) is to distill some home-brewed alcohol while the captain's not looking.
Admittedly someone does something silly much later in the film, but by then they're all under stress and that doesn't really count. Besides, it's relatively underplayed.
The story is what you're expecting. There are no real surprises and you can watch all the plot pieces clicking into place, although there's a scientific puzzle that begins with the disappearing algae. Sometimes a game-changingly bad thing will happen without warning, which didn't feel scary but instead just an arbitrary script-randomiser. However I did like the way in which they're willing to kill or incapacitate people and tech that we'd assumed were important.
My theory is that this film and Mission to Mars (and Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys) were inspired by the similar head-to-head of 1998's Armageddon and Deep Impact. The former was a Bay-Bruckheimer production and worldwide the highest-grossing film of the year, despite unkind reviews and flawed science. After that, I can see how a studio executive would get enthusiastic about a mission to Mars film. In fairness this one's trying to be less dumb than Michael Bay, but it's doing it by Being Very Serious and yet still leaving you wondering, for instance, what the men on Mars are eating and drinking. Nothing? I suppose that must be the case. This is one of those movies that you respect in a purist "this is what SF should be!" way, but without ever really getting caught up in it. It's formulaic (and occasionally cliched) underneath the serious surface, but that's an expensive and well-produced surface. It looks and feels right. That's worth something, at least.
It's nothing to do with the Heinlein novel, by the way.