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Red Planet

Starring Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker and Terence Stamp
Screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin
Directed by Antony Hoffman

IN SHORT: Slow and steady survival story. [Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, brief nudity and language. 107 minutes]

OK, we admit it. We're suckers for space movies -- as long as they get the basic science right. Which explains why Mission to Mars didn't piss us off but Space Cowboys did. Red Planet, the second stranded on Mars film of this year walks the fine line between science fact and science fantasy, leaning towards the latter. Kidlets at the screening we attended were moaning about a lack of "real" violence and sex in Red Planet -- which we take to mean they've been spoiled by movies which don't give a hoot about trying to keep the facts in line with reality (or at least the perceived reality of 2057, which is when this flick takes place). We, on the other hand, are so old and decrepit that a thirty second sight of Carrie-Anne Moss naked in a shower is more excitement than we can handle in any hundred or so minute period. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Fifty years after the earth of this universe realized it had polluted itself nearly into oblivion, the surviving Earthers are befuddled as to why their plan to terraform Mars, first by bombing the surface for twenty five years with oxygen producing algae, has failed. A crew of six, lead by mission commander Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) heads to the red planet to try to figure out wha'happened. All is copacetic on the six month flight out but, once achieving orbit around Mars, an unexpected solar flare bombards the Mars-1 spacecraft with killer levels of gamma radiation. No, no one hulks out but the five man crew is forced to leave the Commander behind on their burning ship, to try and salvage what she can.

That all six were to make the trek down to the surface opens up all sorts of questions that aren't addressed anywhere in the story that made it to the screen. That the Mission Commander is also the pilot -- the pilot stays behind in the command craft -- makes little sense, but we can ignore that given the way the "evacuation" occurs in the story. We'll assume a second mission was to follow two years on, this is based on information in the story, and not bitch too much about it. Onwards...

The expeditionary crew includes scientist Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), co-pilot and web-stud Captain Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt), terraforming expert Dr. Chip Pettengil (Simon Baker) and Chief Science Officer Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp), who also serves as mission philosopher. Oh, yeah, someone's got to be able to fix what gets broken. That would be "space janitor" Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer). These five men hurtle down towards the planet. Their only help, a navigational robot called AMEE, gets cut loose in the descent. The landing is not a smooth one and Mars, they discover, has been scrubbed clean of all that lovely green algae that's supposed to be there.

Rather than a mystery of "If the algae is gone, why can we breathe the atmosphere?" Red Planet is a survival story. Some will live. Some will die. A whole bunch will curse the day they borrowed AMEE from the Marine Corps, to whom Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are just words in a novel. SF-heads know what that means. For everybody else, the challenges are three: how to survive on an alien planet when a) the prefab habitat previously sent to the surface has been destroyed, leaving no food or water or protection from weather systems that have mysteriously developed on the planet; b) something may be alive on the planet that doesn't want 'em there and c) they are being hunted by one of their own.

More important than figuring out what went wrong is the task of getting off the planet before Houston decides that the landing crew has reached the euphemistic "end of mission" and brings the Mars-1 ship home. Assuming that the ship can get home. Potentially, there are lots of "edge of your seat" obstacles to be overcome in this story. Potentially.

We found Red Planet to be slow and not as emotionally gripping as it could have been, though the ship looks cool and the Mars "landscape" (shot in Australia) fits any image of the planet we've been carrying in our minds since reading Ray Bradbury stories thirty years ago. Keeping the facts in line with the story leads to a second problem -- astronauts, scientists in general, aren't all that exciting as characters. There's a half-hearted attempt to bring some character in and emotionally link the Bowman character with one of the male astronauts, but it's done clumsily in flashback. Some characters get a little bit of background, but not enough to make us emotionally lock in with them or care much when the inevitable occurs. We don't know if that's a script problem or a choice made by first time feature director Anthony Hoffman, but the problems are there, nonetheless.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Red Planet, he would have paid...


just under pay per view level, though if you can find it cheap enough we still think the ships and locations are cool enough to view on the big screen. Kidlets in the audience -- we grew up with the Mercury Program, so we've developed more tolerance for non Star Wars type stories -- weren't all that happy with the flick.

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