WARNING: The following review contains plot spoilers.
Red Planet is freshman director Antony Hoffman’s entry into the most recent spate of films that have turned our attentions to the cosmos. The film’s major disappointment is that it lacks any sense of urgency. Its formulaic premise a small, intrepid crew is mankind’s last, best hope to save its own collective ass comes to maddening end. Of course, Hoffman isn’t helped any by Chuck Pfarrer’s glacially paced script (his previous work includes such gems as Barb Wire and Hard Target): while self-indulgent in pondering the interconnected minutiae of philosophy, science, and faith, the screenplay is nevertheless entirely solipsistic. On the (relatively) bright side, no one does the solipsist better than Val Kilmer (see: Top Gun and The Doors), and the film offers a few moments of pleasure or frustration, depending on how you feel about Val derived from his trademark narcissism.
Alas, even though Kilmer’s Robby Gallagher might be able to save mankind, Val himself can’t save Red Planet. Robby’s dilemma is this: by 2050, spoiled-rotten humans have so depleted the earth’s ozone and so poisoned its environment that soon it will be unable to support life. And so, the United States and NASA (and of course, it’s always the Americans who must save the planet) are trying to “terraform” Mars, to make it suitable for human habitation by introducing various algae that will produce oxygen aplenty. But, following some initial success, suddenly the algae have disappeared and oxygen levels have dropped off the scales. Such a predicament.
In order to solve this mystery, NASA dispatches a rag-tag team of astronauts and scientists, led by Commander Kate Bowman (The Matrix‘s Carrie-Anne Moss), a no-nonsense type who seems to have a fire in her, um, heart for both Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt), her brass-balls, macho military second-in-command, and Robby Gallagher, the ship’s engineer. Inexplicably, also along for the ride are civilian Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker) whose central function appears to be to whine about how unlucky he is to be stuck on this adventure (was there some sort of national lottery?) and two scientists, Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) and Dr. Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp). Dr. Bud? Tom Sizemore as a doctor by any name? We are never told precisely what kinds of scientists these men are, although Burchenal might be some sort of evolutionary biologist, as he repeatedly brings us back to the story’s central mystery, the case of the missing algae. What they represent are the opposite poles of science and faith. Burchenal scoffs at questions of belief and the spiritual life, avowing he will only “trust [his] PhDs” to explain the “truth” of life and existence. Chantilas, on the other hand, has long since decided that science can’t answer the “really interesting” questions and has been “searching for God ever since.” So what is he doing on this outer space mission? Mostly, waxing poetic on “the mysteries of life.”
Existential questions of science versus faith are peppered throughout Red Planet, and are its most underdeveloped and inconsistent element. Really, there are holes in this plotline that you could fly a space shuttle through. On a planet that has no oxygen and no water, how is it that the astronauts must brave an ice storm once they reach the surface? Or, how was NASA producing the water necessary for the algae’s survival in the first place? And since it appears Mars is definitively not uninhabited, what are those voracious little beastly bugs living off the algae, and where did they come from? Did God create them in order to maintain the newly formed Martian lawn? Or did they burst forth through spontaneous generation, such that Martian nature produced them to control its creeping algae problem? Finally, how could these bugs possibly be the answer to all of earth’s problems, as Dr. Burchenal declares at some point? Sure, they appear to produce copious amounts of oxygen and so might replenish earth’s atmosphere, but they are voracious plant eaters, so wouldn’t they decimate what little is left of the earth’s green environment? So many questions, so little coherence.
Some of these questions have to do with Red Planet‘s only charismatic, vaguely interesting characters: there are two. First is “Lucille,” the space ship’s central computer, who speaks in that digitized telephone operator’s voice that is de rigeur for computers in movies. Second is AMEE, the robot assigned to scout out the Martian terrain upon their arrival. The special effects that produce AMEE are pretty cool, and the film spends plenty of time demonstrating its technical wizardry via this robot. But as soon as we meet AMEE and learn she has two modes, “scientific” and “military,” we if not the crew know she will be nothing but trouble. And she is. After the crew’s crash landing on Mars, her wiring is frazzled, so she is stuck in “military” mode, essentially reduced to a “search and destroy” mission, during which she picks off the crew members one by one to ensure her own survival (shades of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey).
This man-against-machine subplot is one place the film could have furthered its own commentary on scientific hubris, because science doesn’t serve to make human life any better or easier, but destroys it. But Red Planet can’t even see that far, and offers AMEE only as a red herring to keep us off the trail of the “real” mystery of Mars, even though the film makes the answer to that riddle repeatedly plain to see. In the end, if “humanity” is as stupid as Red Planet presumes (could the filmmakers possibly believe audiences wouldn’t pick up on the boring cliches and narrative inconsistencies?) and demonstrates in its hapless crew, then perhaps it’s not worth saving after all.