Science fiction fans who haven’t quite recovered from Battlefield: Earth may want to think twice before taking a trip to Red Planet.. While not quite the debacle of that already notorious dud, this latest voyage into space doesn’t exactly fill the soul with wonder. It has the crudely effective plot mechanics and ham-handed liberal-humanist message of an old Star Trek episode, but it doesn’t take the Hubble telescope to see that blowing it up to big budget, feature-length proportions only magnifies its flaws.
The story centers around the first manned mission to Mars, undertaken in the year 2025 because the Earth has been polluted beyond redemption and its inhabitants need a new place to drive their SUVs. Along for the ride are Bowman, the mission’s commander (Carrie Ann Moss), Gallagher, a techie known as "the janitor" (Val Kilmer), the biologist Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), and an assortment of crew members who would be designated "red shirts" on Star Trek – the guys who always get killed. Also aboard is AMEE, a fearsome-looking robot that is supposed to serve as the crew’s navigator once they reach the planet’s surface, but is for some reason also equipped with some killer kung-fu abilities. When a solar flare causes power blowouts on the spacecraft, the planetary launch is jettisoned with all the crew aboard, except for Bowman.
Once they’ve reached Mars, our heroes are subject to all manner of perils straight out of a 1940’s movie serial; everything from low air supplies to ice storms to an addled robot who suddenly sees them as the enemy. All of these elements could add up to a rousing, old-fashioned adventure, but they are all executed in such a perfunctory and protracted manner, it’s hard to get too excited. There are several occasions where the crew find themselves in a supposedly impossible situation only to escape at the last minute, but these events are drawn out so long, only the Martians in the audience won’t figure out the solutions long before the screen characters do.
Red Planet is the second big Mars movie of the year, following Brian De Palma’s much-maligned Mission to Mars. Both feature no shortage of bad acting, sorry-looking CGI, and embarassing screenwriting. Red Planet is particularly egregious in the way it regurgitates large chunks of exposition in the form of dialogue (early on, one of the characters is actually described in voice-over as "a bit of a hothead, but a fine co-pilot"). Both take cues from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Red Planet shares the name of 2001’s commander -Bowman – as well as its machine-gone-awry aspect and some key visuals). But Mission to Mars, though it could not accurately be described as "good", at least made a stab at achieving 2001‘s visual poetry. Red Planet is shot and edited so clumsily that pivotal moments of action are obscured – as if director Antony Hoffman is fudging his way through some untenable requirements of the script.
If nothing else, Red Planet at least gives us the satisfaction of watching the ever-unctuous Val Kilmer writhe in suffocating pain on the surface of Mars for a few minutes. And, to be fair, there are a few flashes of wit here and there (at one point, the notoriously useless 1997 NASA rover manages to redeem itself). Still, it’s a safe bet that if there is ever to be a satisfying movie about the fourth rock from the sun, it won’t happen anytime before 2001.