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Red Planet – film review

January 22, 2015

RED PLANET

Great looking Martian survival story lacks emotional investment.

red planet film 2000

A US-Australian co-production. Directed by Antony Hoffman. Screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, story by Chuck Pfarrer. Starring: Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker, Benjamin Bratt and Terence Stamp.     Year of release: 2000. Running time: 106 minutes.

Red Planet is a sci-fi survival tale set in the year 2056 when Earth has been ravaged by pollution and overpopulation and the biosphere is on the verge of collapse. The only hope for humanity to continue as a species is to get off-world and colonize the planet Mars. In order to do so, Mars first needs to be made habitable – which is why an automated terraforming project has been underway for the past fifty years. Nuclear detonations have melted the planet’s polar ice caps; releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere; allowing oxygen-producing algae introduced from Earth to flourish. Just recently however there has been a mysterious and alarming drop in the production of oxygen and so a manned mission is sent to Mars in order to ascertain why this has happened. Upon arrival in Mars orbit, the spacecraft is severely disabled during a solar storm; forcing mission commander Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) to launch the rest of her crew in the lander vehicle to the planet’s surface while she remains behind to manually ensure successful separation. While Bowman battles zero gravity fires aboard the ship, her five compatriates: Gallagher, Burchenal, Chantilas, Santen and Pettengil crash land on the surface of Mars and find themselves marooned with no apparent means of return. Making matters worse, head scientist Chantilas (Terence Stamp) reveals he has sustained severe internal injuries during the crash and will most likely not survive. Once the solar storm has passed and Bowman has restored power to the ship, she re-establishes contact with Houston and is told she only has enough fuel to remain in Mars orbit for a further thirty-one hours before she will be forced to make the return journey back to Earth, leaving her crew behind. Meanwhile, the remaining four members of the landing party make their way to an abandoned terraforming shelter (known as HAB 1) which reportedly has enough supplies of air, food and water to last 26 months. Arriving at HAB 1, and with their oxygen supplies almost exhausted, the four men discover to their horror – the shelter has been completely destroyed.

SPOILER WARNING – the following paragraph contains major plot details of the film’s second half. So if you haven’t seen Red Planet and do not wish to have it spoiled for you – skip over the next paragraph.

All seems lost until Gallagher (Val Kilmer) removes his helmet, only to discover –     he can breathe! It appears Mars does indeed have a thin oxygen atmosphere after     all. But with the oxygen-producing algae noticeably absent – how is this possible? The landing party re-establish contact with Bowman by jerry-rigging a transmitter aboard an old NASA probe located nearby and a plan is formulated to get them off Mars. Gallagher and the others only have a limited time to trek a distance across the Martian terrain to reach an abandoned Russian lander (which may still be operational) hot-wire it and use it to launch themselves into orbit in order to rendezvous with the spacecraft, before Bowman leaves for Earth. Along the way, however, the landing party find themselves stalked by a rogue military robot (thought to be lost in the crash) – which begins to pick them off one by one.

Red Planet was one of two Mars themed films released in the summer of 2000 – the other being Brian De Palma’s (more financially successful) Mission to Mars. In comparing the two, and despite its flaws, Red Planet definitely has a lot more going for it than De Palma’s ludicrous and annoying mess. In terms of treating its subject matter with a degree of scientific accuracy and respect, comparisons can also be drawn between two other examples of Hollywood’s poles-apart approach to science with Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998 and Dante’s Peak and Volcano in ‘97. Sadly, it seems, serious-minded scientific accuracy is no match for deliberately dumbed-down spectacle when it comes to popularity.

While the screenplay by ex-special forces Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer (Navy Seals, Virus) is commendable in endevoring to adhere to scientific principals; the thin characterizations do little to make us care much about the fate of most of the characters (aside from Carrie-Anne Moss). And this really is the crux of the problem with Red Planet: the fact that the characters’ apathetic acceptance of their own demise never rings true – when any real person caught in these circumstances would be freaking out when staring death in the face. These guys don’t appear to be all that concerned or even miffed about it (like it’s a mild inconvenience). Perhaps this pragmatic stoicism in the face of adversity is something Pfarrer drew from his own experiences as a Navy SEAL – but it does little to instill any sense of tension in the viewer. If these characters seem so blissfully unconcerned about their own fates; then why should we as an audience become emotionally engaged? Even the score by the always effective Graeme Revell (The Crow, Dead Calm) can’t compensate for the feeling of disengagement and general lack of vigor which oddly permeates the film.

I’ve never been particularly enamored by Val Kilmer as an actor and he does little here to change this view. Terence Stamp on the other hand has always been enjoyable to watch; particularly when given good material to work with. But here       he is pretty much wasted as the first character to be bumped off. Carrie-Anne Moss though is really very good here as Commander Bowman and it’s nice to see a female in a leadership role for a change.

Perhaps due to its poor box office performance upon release, Red Planet remains     the only feature helmed by South African-born commercials director Antony Hoffman. Which is something of a shame as – despite the film’s flaws – he does demonstrate   a certain degree of visual flare. On the positive side, the cinematography by David Cronenberg’s resident DP Peter Suschitzky (who also lensed The Empire Strikes Back) gives Red Planet a gorgeous look and may well be reason enough to see this film. And the South Australian outback locations (located not far from those seen in that other South Australian-lensed sci-fi from 2000, Pitch Black) are well utilized       in conveying the otherworldly desolation of Mars. The production design by Owen Paterson (The Matrix, V for Vendetta) gives the film’s future tech a distinctive look which seems inspired by the pulp aesthetic of 50s sci-fi (particularly with the retro design of the space suits; one of which seen later in the film appears to have been     an obvious precursor to the suits seen in Prometheus). And I see Adelaide VFX company Rising Sun Pictures (Gravity) are listed in the credits among a slew of companies who provided visual effects for the film. Although I’m unsure exactly what Rising Sun contributed. But the CG effects overall are servicable for the most part.

While there isn’t anything offensively awful to make Red Planet unwatchable, sadly (aside from the cinematography) – there isn’t all that much here to recommend it as essential sci-fi viewing either.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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6 Comments
  1. Ficus permalink

    Nice review, Greg. I remember being put off by Tom Sizemore’s hack job at portraying a biologist, his misstating the letters for the DNA base pairs and the inaccurate description of the ‘insects’ (which really lies at the feet of the screenwriter, I guess). And you’re spot on about the emotional investment being low. Another opportunity lost.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Mark! Nice to have you comment. 🙂 Yeah, it’s sad we still haven’t had a compelling and authentic Mars exploration movie – with involving characters and an attention to detail. I understand James Cameron developed a screenplay for one some years ago. So until he completes work on the AVATAR sequels – I guess we’ll just have to wait for that one. I’m not holding out much for Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN this year (based on his recent standard of work).

  2. Ficus permalink

    Keep ’em coming, Greg. I love reading your reviews.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks man! I really enjoy putting ’em out there – so it’s a good match. 🙂

  3. There is so much to enjoy in RED PLANET -I’m thinking of the Graeme Revell music score and the pulpish production design, and some very good visual effects- that it is such a damn shame so much else is bloody awful, particularly the mediocre script and some awful casting. Its really not a very good film, and poor Terence Stamp, clearly he turned up for the money and regretted it wasn’t enough, as he doesn’t show much interest in a very under-written part. The film occasionally turns up on tv and I always find myself watching some of it, it always seems a bad film that might actually have been pretty good under better circumstances. The script really needed a lot more work prior to shooting it. How many films get ruined by that mistake! Its bizarre, you’d think the studio or the producers would know to put the brakes on but they tend to rush on hoping for the best. Guess its a case of ‘take the money now and run with it’ rather than wait and get it dropped forever into development limbo.

    As for Ridley’s THE MARTIAN, I have high hopes. Ridley will have the production side sorted, and the novel itself is near-damn it a perfect movie script. It’ll take some messing up, put it that way. At least it keeps him busy, away from that BLADE RUNNER 2 project….

    • gregory moss permalink

      I’d say Stamp most likely accepted the role in RED PLANET for the opportunity to work in Australia again after having such a great time working on THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA: QUEEN OF THE DESERT in 94. As for THE MARTIAN – I notice Drew Goddard is credited with writing the screenplay – and as I thought CABIN IN THE WOODS (which Goddard also wrote) was fundamentally flawed in the script department – I don’t hold out much for THE MARTIAN at all.

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