Why must going to Mars always be such a dreary prospect?
Earlier this year, we had “Mission to Mars,” which was slow and miserable, not to mention full of itself. Now there’s “Red Planet,” a film that is at least as bad (albeit in a different way), and every bit as dull.
It’s the 2050s, and, wouldn’t you know it, we’ve really screwed up Earth. Planning ahead, we’ve already sent robots and stuff to Mars to build a habitat and grow some algae, which produces oxygen, which will hopefully someday be enough for humans to go there and live. Before the place could become habitable, though, we’ve suddenly lost contact with Mars, so a crew of six is sent on the six-month journey to see what’s up.
We learn all this in the opening narration by Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss, from “The Matrix”), who is leading this first manned mission to Mars. The journey takes only about 20 minutes of the movie, in which time we’re shown brief, unenlightening scenes that are meant to establish the characters.
Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer) is the bland, soft-spoken space janitor (or maintenance technician, or something) who has a thing for Bowman, and who is not alone in those sentiments. Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt) is a cocky, self-centered jerk who either has a relationship with Bowman, or who is just on very friendly terms with her, the movie is unclear which.
Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) is a doughy scientist who makes his own moonshine in a back room of the ship; Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terence Stamp) is a former scientist who is now a philosopher; and Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker) is a friendly, enthusiastic young guy who got to go on the trip as a last-minute replacement.
As they approach Mars’ surface, a solar flare forces them to hop into the landing pod early. Only Bowman stays onboard the ship, trying to figure out what’s wrong and keeping the thing from crashing, which would pretty much ruin their chances of a trip home.
The botched landing-pod excursion critically wounds a crew member and leaves the other four with only a few hours’ oxygen in which to find the habitat. They find it, but it’s been wrecked, leaving them with nothing. Another crew member dies. (We’ve now lost the most classy and the least classy, if you’re scoring along.) The other three are about to die, what with their oxygen running out, and while it’s felt like a couple hours, it’s actually been 40 minutes since the movie started, so you know they’re not all going to asphyxiate.
Turns out the algae they sent — which is mysteriously missing, too, along with their food and shelter — DID produce enough oxygen to breathe. Now the only problem facing the three survivors is how to get back up to the ship, not to mention the questions about what happened to all their stuff, and how there got to be breathable oxygen on Mars.
The main problem with the film, directed by first-timer Antony Hoffman, is that for a long time, the conflicts and obstacles are unclear. The movie’s nearly half-over before it settles in on a primary objective and lets its characters go at it.
It doesn’t help any that, with the exception of Stamp and Moss, everyone mumbles around as if just going through the motions. You can almost hear the director saying, “OK, let’s just get this thing over with,” rushing through even the major plot turns without stopping to build a climax. The pace is the same throughout: slow and plodding. The acting is flat and unenthusiastic. The only element of science that makes any sense is when Bowman pounds on someone’s chest to bring him out of cardiac arrest.
The special effects are good. There are some lines that are unintentionally funny. Carrie-Anne Moss takes a shower. Beyond that, there’s no life out there.
D+ (; )