The best scene in Red Planet is the actual arrival on the planet’s surface, a landing sequence not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any other movie (honorable mentions to Indiana Jones and Jackie Chan for having come the closest). Once the crew steps onto Martian soil, though, moments of interest are few and far between.
The film’s dearth of imagination is nowhere more evident than in the flat, tepid dialogue. To be sure, there are a few funny lines ("Well, this is the moment our teachers told us about in high school, when algebra would save our lives"); and a very few thoughtful lines ("I think you underestimate the challenges of the spiritual life; it’s a lot tougher than just being intelligent"). But mostly it’s maddeningly mundane. When we went to the moon, we said things like "one giant leap for mankind" and "magnificent desolation." Now comes the first manned mission to another planet — a milestone specifically described in the opening voice-over narration as "another giant leap for mankind" — and what do we get? In one scene the ground team comes across an immense field of algae that they thought wasn’t there, and in a rare moment of wonder, one of the characters says something like, "I haven’t seen fields like this since I was a kid."
At least there’s stuff worth looking at. First-time film director Antony Hoffman has an eye for visuals; and the Martian landscape, shot in an Australian quarry and a Jordanian wadi, is stark and compelling. Then there’s the constantly swiveling, gyrating AMEE, a preposterous plot device of a robot which, in its (or "her") feline grace and unlimited range of free-flowing motion, resembles a high-tech computer-generated cross between Transformers and Battle Cats. I liked the little touches almost as much: the crew uses nifty, collapsible hand-held computers with a flexible, glossy display that pulls out from and rolls up into a cylindrical CPU like a window shade, looking for all the world like something you might actually see in a Macintosh commercial from 2050, when the movie is set.
And there’s a stab at serious science fiction in the film’s premise: Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable, and mankind is mounting its first manned mission to Mars to find out why an ambitious terraforming project to make a new home for humanity on the red planet has gone wrong, with new oxygen levels dropping and sensors going offline. This could be the start of a sophisticated, engrossing vision of the near future; a story concerned largely with the fate of a crop of bioengineered algae holds hope for a tale with more substance than the recent dismal spate of sci-fi flops (Battlefield Earth, Mission to Mars, Supernova, Hollow Man, Event Horizon). And the alien threat turns out to be more sober and reasonable than the horror-film foes of Pitch Black or Starship Troopers.
Yet from the opening voice-over narration by mission commander Carrie-Anne Moss ("Trinity" from The Matrix), I knew the film was in trouble. After summarizing the situation for us, Moss proceeds to introduce us to the five men of her crew, each of whom merits as many as four words of description for his single personality trait. One is "a hothead but a fine pilot"; another is pretentiously called "the soul of the crew"; there’s also "the janitor," which isn’t technically an actual personality trait but will have to do; and even "the last-minute replacement" (who might as well have been issued a nametag reading "Hi! I’m the wild card!"). All this made me wistful for Aliens, where the space marines also had one personality trait apiece, but at least we got to figure them out for ourselves in engaging establishing scenes. Here, we get spoken title cards. Bad sign.
Another bad sign: The "soul of the crew" is the first to die. (The movie didn’t have much soul to begin with, and apparently felt it best to get away from the whole embarrassing subject as quickly as possible.) This is Terence Stamp (the cult leader in Bowfinger), a philosophical scientist who "realized that science can’t answer any of the really interesting questions" and has been "searching for God ever since." His insufferable attitude is exactly paralleled by that of Tom Sizemore’s skeptical geneticist. None of the characters ever progresses much beyond their title-card placeholders; even the hero (Val Kilmer) is bland and muted, with nothing setting him apart as the hero, except being played by Val Kilmer.
A bit later, Kilmer introduces us to the long-limbed, metallic AMEE (affectionately known as "sweetie"), about whom we learn two things: First, although her task in this mission is to navigate the surface of Mars, she was developed for military use ("They took her knife away, but inside she’s all Green Beret," Kilmer says fondly, with none of the apprehension you’d expect from a man who might as well be dictating his own epitaph, if he weren’t the hero). Second, we are specifically told about the battery that powers her (as if otherwise we might think she got by on Purina Robot Chow). Immediately, with depressing certitude, I understood that (a) there would be a malfunction, and AMEE would spend most of her time on Mars in combat mode, preying on the crew; and (b) sooner or later someone would need a power source, and steal AMEE’s battery. Sadly, I was not pleasantly surprised.
The only character not formally introduced is Carrie-Anne Moss herself; perhaps the writers felt her early, gratuitous shower scene establishes all there is to know about her (at least, as much as possible in a PG-13 movie). And maybe it does: As she steps out of the shower, Kilmer stumbles into the room, and Moss just stands there naked in front of him, languidly asking him to pass her a towel. "This only works if we pretend it doesn’t matter," she tells him. "Pretend I’m your sister." But he isn’t buying it: "I have two sisters; neither of them looks like you." (And if either of them had?)
Later Moss joins her men for a drinking party in which they talk idly about taking Mars for themselves. One of the guys stakes his claim as king of Mars, and explains that Moss will be his queen: "you know, propagation of the species." I expected her either to laugh it off or to take exception. Instead, she simply looks at him with an enigmatic smile and liquid eyes. After an uncomfortable moment, he mumbles awkwardly that it was only a joke; and she leaves without a word. Is this how a female officer keeps a crew of men in line — playing flirty mind-games with them? Or is all this for our benefit, like the spaghetti-string tanktop Moss wears while the men are on Mars?
All of this might be mitigated if there were anything interesting or clever about what actually happens on the planet, or what the characters do. But there isn’t. Although they are supposed to be clever scientists, the thought never crosses their minds that the unmanned Martian station, which is no longer relaying data back to Earth, may have been destroyed; they fully expect to find air and water and tomatoes there, although they are unable to verify this. And while I can’t fault them for not guessing the obvious fact that, when their air reserves run out, the Martian atmosphere will turn out to be breathable (they don’t know they can’t die so early in the story), I do have to wonder why nobody did any tests on the Martian atmosphere once they arrived. (Their last data was over six months old.)
The AMEE subplot falls apart right from the start, when the malfunctioning robot has every opportunity to kill the whole crew in a clean shot, but merely wounds one crewman and then leaves for no reason at all — except of course the same reason the air on Mars is breathable: otherwise it would be a short movie. Kilmer recites nonsense about a guerrilla trick of wounding one opponent to slow the others down, and then picking them off one at a time later. Presumably real guerrillas do this only when they don’t have the opportunity to kill everyone at once.
The film borrows directly from Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey: Moss’s character is named Bowman, after Kubrick’s protagonist; and AMEE has a single round eye a lot like that of HAL, the rogue killer computer in 2001. The precision movements of the space vehicles, too, recall Kubrick’s outer-space waltz set to Strauss. Alas, these reminders of a far better film serve only to underscore Red Planet’s failings and faults. Those who want more from science fiction may have to wait for the project Kubrick left behind: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, due next year from director Steven Spielberg.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.