The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
lurks on the
'Red Planet'

November 23, 2000
By Franklin Harris

Ever since telescopes revealed what appeared to be canals on its dusty surface, Mars has fascinated us.

Before he created Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs sent John Carter to conquer the Red Planet. In turn, Burroughs' tales captivated an entire generation of young boys and girls. One of them, Ray Bradbury, imagined a Mars populated by a dying race of poets and artists and penned "The Martian Chronicles."

So why are movies about Mars so bad?

From left, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker and Val Kilmer survive on Mars even without their helmets in ''Red Planet,'' proving that you can't let a little thing like breathing interfere with your stars' close-ups.
Courtesy Photo Copyright Warner Bros.
From left, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker and Val Kilmer survive on Mars even without their helmets in "Red Planet," proving that you can't let a little thing like breathing interfere with your stars' close-ups.
I walked into "Red Planet," the year's second film about Martian exploration, with only one expectation -- that it would at least be better than the plodding, schmaltzy monstrosity that is "Mission to Mars."

Twenty minutes into the movie, it was all I could do to keep from gouging my eyes out.

"Red Planet" is a boring, nonsensical mess that makes "Mission to Mars" look like "Solaris."

It stars Val Kilmer, which should be clue enough. Kilmer's dismal taste in scripts has led him to star in the likes of "The Saint," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and "Batman Forever." His name in the opening credits is a warning light blinking disaster.

The plot goes like this: In the near future, we've made such a mess of our environment that we've had to begin looking for a new planet to live on. So, we start launching rockets loaded with oxygen-producing algae at Mars in hopes of turning that barren rock into something habitable.

Everything goes fine for a while. Mars slowly turns green, and the algae slowly pump out breathable air. Then, for no apparent reason, the algae disappear.

So, Kilmer and company board a space ship and go to Mars to find out what went wrong.

If "Red Planet" were actually a serious science-fiction film instead of a big-budget B movie, the answer would be obvious.

We're probably centuries away from having anything near the technology necessary to terraform a dead planet into a living one. And one thing is certain -- no one is going to make Mars livable just by shooting algae at it. Any algae set loose on the Martian surface would die in seconds. The planet is too cold, and its atmosphere is too thin, never mind all those nasty peroxides in the dust.

As it is, the answer Kilmer and crew discover is just plain silly and raises its own questions.

I might let all these scientific absurdities pass if there were anything else about "Red Planet" to redeem it, but unfortunately there isn't.

What could have been a decent science-fiction film rapidly devolves into just another man-against-nature tale, as most of the crew find themselves stranded on Mars with only a short time to live.

Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker and Terence Stamp round out the cast.

As in "The Matrix," Moss delivers a performance that blows her leading man off the screen. (Lucky for Kilmer, they spend most of the movie separated.) But her character has little to do but sit in orbit and talk to herself and to engineers back on Earth.

Yet Moss gets off luckier than Stamp.

I'm spoiling nothing by telling you that Stamp's character buys it early on. He has "dead man" written all over him from the moment he appears.

As for the rest, they are so utterly forgettable it's impossible to care whether they live or die.

Oh, and then there is AMEE, a dog-like robot who accompanies the crew to Mars and then does what all sci-fi-movie robots do. She malfunctions and goes HAL 9000 on everybody.

Just once I'd like a sci-fi film that reflects reality, where humans kill computers and not the other way around.

Add to this one murderously psychotic crewmember courtesy of central casting (doesn't the space program do psychological evaluations?), and you have a routine, dumb, paint-by-numbers sci-fi flick.

If this is all there is to exploring Mars, it's no wonder we don't seem in any hurry to go.

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