From Christopher Columbus to Wyatt Earp to Steve Prefontaine to the lambada (!), the track record for dueling Hollywood projects on the same subject has been less than stellar. With Warner Bros.' release of the second--and worst--of the year's Mars movies, Red Planet, Tinseltown has once again completed a tandem non-event.
The latter half of Mission to Mars, directed by Brian DePalma and released by Disney earlier this year, justifiably left viewers with a bad taste with its high-minded but lame-brained artistic pretensions. But an unfortunate side effect was that the decent first half of the film, capped by a suspenseful domino-effect disaster sequence, was completely forgotten. In the case of Red Planet, however, there's nothing of merit to forget--or, at least, the film's only redeeming quality, its perfectly solid visual effects, show up onscreen constantly enough to remind us of the wasted effort turned in by the FX crews.
The year is 2050, and we are told through voiceover by one Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) that the earth has become so polluted that it will soon no longer be able to sustain life. All sights have been set on Mars, where algae has been planted by unmanned probes to generate oxygen. But something has gone wrong, and a crew led by Bowman has been sent to the red planet to figure out what. After a shuttle landing mishap strands Gallagher (Val Kilmer), Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), Pettengill (Simon Baker), Santen (Benjamin Bratt), and Chantilas (Terence Stamp) on the Mars surface and leaves Bowman aboard the main orbiting spacecraft, the crew is given even more problems to solve.
Their problems, however, are none compared to the ones faced by director Antony Hoffman, who is given the arduous task of making Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin's script into a watchable film. Simply put, nothing really happens, and the whole "earth in danger" framework becomes moot as Gallagher and company simply search for a way to get back aboard the mothership and go home. The only real conflict in the script are the weak attempts the writers make at creating "villains": a crew member who accidentally causes a problem early-on, then is retroactively made out to have evil intent later in the film; and, more prominently, AMEE, a scouting robot who turns from gentle to killer with the flip of a switch. Guess which setting she ends up on when the shuttle crashes?
Hoffman, a commercial director making his feature debut, simply throws his hands in the air and instead focuses on what he knows best: the look. As mentioned before, the visual effects are impressive, particularly the completely CGI AMEE; and the ship sets and desert locations convince. But looks can't count for everything, and Hoffman appears to completely bank on the attractive appearances of stars Moss and Kilmer to make the romance between their characters work for the audience. Needless to say, it takes more than Ultra-Brite smiles to conceal the fact that this undercooked subplot was sloppily grafted on to give the film more appeal to females--who are instead likely to be insulted by the love story's completely arbitrary nature (as will all other demographics).
As ludicrous as Red Planet is, the copy writers at the WB publicity department actually one-up the makers of the film by pasting on a loud disclaimer at the top of the press notes that urges the media to not reveal the film's ending. This blurb would lead one to believe there's some big surprise in store, but perhaps the only shock up the film's sleeve is how closely it hews to everyone's formulaic expectations.
RATING: * 1/2 (out of *****)
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