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Red Planet   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Antony Hoffman
Writers: Chuck Pfarrer, Jonathan Lemkin
Cast: Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp.

Review by Rob Vaux

Hollywood moves in waves and it always keeps two or three movies with uncomfortably similar themes swirling around at the same time. Once, it was Wyatt Earp biopics. Another time, it was undersea thrillers. This year's batch involves trips to Mars, and the predictable mayhem that ensues when those trips go wrong. We had to endure the awful Mission to Mars earlier this spring, and now comes Red Planet, an otherwise run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller that scores big brownie points off of its predecessor's incompetence.

Like Mission to Mars, Red Planet owes a certain amount to previous and better science fiction films. Like Mission to Mars, it uses a lot of special effects to the detriment of character and story. If you're not careful, you could find yourself swapping movie titles easily. But there's a lightness to Red Planet that Mission to Mars lacks: a more playful atmosphere that avoids the deadening earnestness that brought the earlier film screeching to a halt. It embraces its pulp nature more fully, using its high-tech scenario for roller coaster thrills instead of trying to convince us how plausible the scenario can be. Its modest pleasures come mainly from the nifty gadgets on display, and a standard allocation of suspense.

Red Planet is at its weakest when attempting to justify its journey to Mars. In the film's future of 2057, an overpolluted Earth is on the verge of environmental catastrophe. Humanity looks to Mars as a potentially new home, utilizing a suspiciously vague terraforming process to turn the red planet green. When something goes wrong, it's up to the usual rag-tag band of space cadets, led by Commander Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss, her enigmatic Matrix smile intact) and including "space janitor" Gallagher (Val Kilmer), resident genius Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), and philosopher scientist Chantilas (Terence Stamp) to see what happened.

The set-up is fairly dry and does nothing beyond making quiet noises about pollution. The film tends to drag when dwelling on the mission, and director Antony Hoffman wisely limits the exposition to a few brief voice-overs. The meaty parts come when a series of catastrophes strands the team on Mars, leaving Bowman trapped in orbit and some fairly nasty subplots running around trying to kill them. The mission's pre-made habitat has been destroyed by Forces Unknown, the harsh Martian landscape threatens to snuff them out at any minute, and the mission's navigational robot -- a gecko-like automaton called AMEE -- has reverted to its military roots and gone on a killing spree. What's left to do but sit back and enjoy the chaos? Red Planet really resonates with its pulp roots when dealing with these various crises. Watching the astronauts clamber around the stunning landscapes or dodge AMEE's relentless attacks evokes a sort of Thrilling Wonder Stories atmosphere, augmented by some nice special effects -- especially the robot.

Naturally, the scenario contains many nagging questions, which often undermine the better moments. Why did they leave AMEE's nastier traits online? Wouldn't their high-tech shelter tell them when it was being torn apart? There's a particularly troublesome bit involving some sort of space bug, which serves no purpose other than to give the cast a reason to take their space helmets off. The thrills themselves are competent, but nothing special, and even the best parts of Red Planet spring from a relentless adherence to stereotype. It's never bad, but it certainly isn't new or noteworthy. Kilmer helps out with a solid performance (he delivers amusing quips quite well) and the cast as a whole has good chemistry, but those expecting anything more than a pat, sausage-factory product should probably look somewhere else.

Under other circumstances, all of that might make Red Planet unpalatable, but thanks to Mission to Mars, we now know how truly bad this material can get. Though formulaic and forgettable, Red Planet never becomes embarrassing, and its junk food consistency still goes down smooth. In a choice of lesser evils, you could do a whole lot worse. Hollywood's tradition of dueling projects has granted this particular specimen a reprieve, for which it should be grateful. While it never climbs very high, it survives because we know how much further it could fall.

Review published 11.24.2000.

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