In the near future, Earth is dying. A new colony on Mars could be humanity's only hope. A team of American astronauts, each a specialist in a different field, is making the first manned expedition to the red planet and must struggle to overcome the differences in their personalities, backgrounds and ideologies for the overall good of the mission. When their equipment suffers life-threatening damage and the crew must depend on one another for survival on the hostile surface of Mars, their doubts, fears and questions about God, man's destiny and the nature of the universe become defining elements in their fates. In this alien environment they must come face to face with their most human selves.
Directed by: Antony Hoffman
. Starring: Val Kilmer
, Carrie-Anne Moss
, Tom Sizemore
, Benjamin Bratt
, Simon Baker
, Terence Stamp
, Jessica Morton
, Caroline Bossi
, Bob Neill
, Neil Ross
. Music by: Graeme Revell
The problem with Red Planet is that there is too much known about it before it begins, and this is not only because of previews, but also because of common sense. About halfway through the film, for example, there is a lengthy scene of completely false tension, where the three survivors are helplessly watching their oxygen timers count slowly down to zero, knowing that they have nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait to suffocate. Obviously, we know throughout this entire scene that all they have to do is take off their helmets and start breathing, because if they die like that the movie's over. I suppose some tension might be derived from the fact that THEY don't know they can breathe the air on Mars yet, but since we're a thinking audience, a scene like this falls flat because we already know they're going to survive.
I liked some of the things in the movie. It was pretty interesting when they finally arrived at the base on Mars and found that it had been completely destroyed, and the conflict was introduced very early as the ship begins to break apart as soon as they arrive into Mars' atmosphere, forcing the team to split up for the rest of the movie, but then you realize that every bit of power failed on the ship and yet they still have gravity.
Earth has become so polluted that humankind needs a new home, and nations around the world have combined their knowledge and money and space travel capabilities to launch this completely English speaking crew into space to test out the possibility of humans someday living on Mars. Algae has been launched there over a period of twenty years to try to build up an atmosphere of oxygen, but all the algae seems to have disappeared, and one of the mission's objectives is to find out why. I like that they came up with an interesting reason for the algae having disappeared, but I don't like the fact that the screenplay pretends that there can be breathable oxygen on Mars, while an entire Earthful of humans are sending up a manned spacecraft into the atmosphere and don't realize it. Missions like this are not cheap. No spacecraft, manned or not, is sent to another planet without extremely detailed knowledge of that planet's atmosphere.
(spoilers) That was a hell of an oversight, but I liked that the movie didn't just have them meet some hugely disappointing Martians for our heroes to escape, but the villain that IS presented, while creative in a sense, is even worse. The mission included an exploration robot named AMEE, which for some reason comes with a `Military Mode.' I guess this is done in case they should run into any Martian terrorists during the mission. And since AMEE comes equipped with detailed knowledge of the weaknesses of human anatomy, it seems that her designers were concerned about HUMAN Martian terrorists. Not a lot of thought put into this aspect of the movie. Obviously, not a SINGLE person on the crew sent to Mars read the sticker on the back of AMEE, which clearly read, `WARNING: SEVERE SHOCK OR JARRING OF THIS ROBOT WILL IMMEDIATELY TURN HER INTO A TERMINATRIX.'
On top of that, Red Planet contains probably the biggest loose end that I've seen left loose in a movie since Planet of the Oops in 2001. Evidently some multi-cellular organisms have evolved on the surface of Mars (feeding on massive fields of algae, yet another thing that the stupid humans on earth didn't notice), that eat just about anything digestible that they come into contact with. Two crew members are lost to them, but not before two of them (note, the number required for breeding) can be captured in a steel capsule to be taken back to earth and studied. Just before one crew member succumbs to the little critters, he tosses the capsule to the one member surviving(Gallagher, played by Val Kilmer), insisting that he bring it back to earth with him.
At this point, it's perfectly natural to expect that they would have one more uprising just before the end of the movie, or that they would stow away on the ship and create havoc on Earth, like that spider did in Arachnophobia, traveling back to America in that coffin. Instead, Gallagher takes the capsule and the creatures are gone from the story completely as though they were never even there. When the crew took off their helmets and found a breathable atmosphere that no one ever knew about until then, I thought THAT was an oversight, but this, THIS violates even the most basic rules of story writing.
One of the first things that you learn about writing stories is that every scene must have a reason for being in the story. If it doesn't, take it out. The fact that the creatures play no role in the outcome of the movie renders their existence in the movie meaningless beyond just having some fancy special effects showing some creative Martian creature. There is so much that could have been done with those animals, which is why it was so disappointing to see them just disappear like that. Things like that are only excusable in movies that promise sequels, or movies that show the creatures remaining as a way to signify an amusing false sense of security, like in Little Shop of Horrors. I just don't really foresee much chance of a sequel to Red Planet.
As a science fiction film, Red Planet is entertaining and fun, but there are oversights like the ones I've mentioned that just show that not much thought was put into the screenplay, and something like that alone can completely ruin an otherwise decent movie. The performances all around are more than satisfactory, there is a lot of focus on characterization and the interaction of the crew members and the problems that can arise from questions of trust and questions of faith in machinery that has never been properly tested before the mission (since it was never sent into space until the mission), but there's nothing worse than being impressed by some parts of a movie and slapping your forehead about other parts.
The movie provides a great Martian landscape, it contains a thrilling landing scene, in which the pod carrying all of the crew members sprouts huge air bags on all sides to provide for a relatively soft landing, only to roll right off a cliff, and there is even a question of God and religion to add to the complexity of the plot, but there are unfortunate shortcomings that really slow the movie down and prevent it from being as good as it should have been. The talent was there during the production, it just seems like both the script and the final film needed to spend a little more time in the editing room.
Review by Michael DeZubiria from the Internet Movie Database.