Red Planet

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Some science-fiction movies surprise us with their innovative visions of the future. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave us a sterile future of cold, slick surfaces. Blade Runner gave us grunge, smog, and textures. Aliens gave us war-games sensibilities and evil contours. I wish I could say Red Planet offers a similarly innovative view of the future, but the most surprising thing about Red Planet is how ordinary it looks. First-time director Anthony Hoffman (a veteran director of television commercials, such as the football-playing Clydesdales spot for Budweiser) gives us a generic vision of the future where the machinery and set designs--as well as the characters--are all stock equipment. Rarely do we get any camera shots that don't look like they were culled from other (better) movies. Rarely do we get any dialogue that doesn't leave a thud. Rarely does the plot find any unexpected turns.

Director Hoffman tires to camouflage the movie's routine elements by cranking up the noise level. The first half hour is directed as if every other scene is a climax. In the process, Hoffman never establishes a sense of rhythm. Red Planet is a clumsy, pedestrian effort that is always just a few seconds away from becoming downright boring.

Not helping matters one bit is the smirking, smart-alecky performance of Val Kilmer in the lead role. As recent as Tombstone (1993), Kilmer was capable of giving a truly inspired and captivating performance. But since then, he has frequently delivered lazy, smarmy performances--as in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Maybe he can sense a floundering production and in the face of failure he distances himself from the movie at hand beneath a veneer of uncaring coolness. Whatever the case, in Red Planet, Kilmer's too-cool-to-be-slumming attitude helps wreck the movie. In the first scene, he chomps his bubble gum, refusing to put on his space helmet until the last moment, while an assistant with palm outstretched waits for Kilmer to spit out the gum. Kilmer quickly becomes an annoying brat too enamored of his own superiority to care about the humanity he is supposedly attempting to save.

Luckily, Tom Sizemore is also on hand and he lends the proceedings a needed dose of down-to-earth behavior. He's gritty, he's sexist, he's a bit flabby, and he's also very real. He's someone we can care about despite his shortcomings. Carrie-Anne Moss (last seen in The Matrix) is also on hand, but she's relegated mostly to the role of observer. Imagine if Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) had remained alone on the spaceship Nostromo throughout Alien and you'll have an idea of how Moss is underutilized.

stills from Red Planet
[click photos for larger versions]

Red Planet is set in the mid-21st century, when pollution has so damaged Earth that mankind attempts to colonize Mars. Probes carrying algae are sent to Mars with hopes that the algae will multiply and pump oxygen into the atmosphere. The plan goes well for over 20 years as the oxygen level steadily increases and then the oxygen level suddenly starts to drop. Why? Kilmer, Sizemore, and Moss are part of the mission sent to investigate (in addition to Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, and Terence Stamp).

When a solar flare hits their spacecraft, they're forced to abandon ship. Commander Bowman (Moss) stays behind to make sure the others get away safely, and in the process, she rides the ship to a stable orbit around Mars. Meanwhile, the men ride to the planet's surface in a highly improbable spherical contraption that bounces down Mars' rocky gorges like a pinball before finally coming to rest. Circuiting the planet in the mothership, Bowman barks out instructions while guiding the men across the planet. Complicating matters is a dog-like robot named AMEE (pronounced like the woman's name "Amy") that becomes damaged during the landing and is now stuck in "war games" mode. Every so often when the action threatens to bog down, AMEE returns to do her best Terminator impersonation, suddenly morphing into a deadly chrome-plated super-warrior.

Nearly everything about Red Planet is overly familiar: as previously mentioned, Bowman (watching from the safety of the mothership) recalls Ripley in Alien and AMEE recalls the deadly cyborg from The Terminator. In addition, we also get a small (but crucial) dose of Pitch Black and Starship Troopers in the form of bug-like creatures on the planet Mars. The presence of Terence Stamp as a scientist-cum-philosopher suggests greater ambitions may have originally existed in Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin's screenplay; however, so little faith is placed in Stamp's contribution that he's promptly killed off.

Red Planet never completely drifts into tedium, but everything that happens is so familiar that the movie feels like a paint-by-numbers endeavor, cobbled from a litany of readily identifiable sources. I attended the movie screening with several enthusiastic but relatively undemanding sci-fi fans who love Hollywood-style mega-blockbusters, and as they left the theater they said things such as "It was okay" and "It wasn't bad." But they mostly sounded as if they were trying to convince themselves that they hadn't just wasted two hours of their lives. "I don't think I'll bother buying it on DVD," said one moviegoer. In the world of instant merchandising and video releases that take place barely four months after theatrical debuts, that's maybe the sharpest criticism of all.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: Red Planet



Photos: (© 2000 Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Films. All rights reserved.)