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"RED PLANET"
(2000) (Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: A small team of astronauts runs into various problems and difficulties after arriving at Mars on a mission designed to help save Earth from ecological disaster.
PLOT:
It's the 21st century, and as a result of overpopulation and unchecked pollution, mankind has ecologically laid waste to Earth. As a result, the decision to colonize Mars has been made and for the past twenty years, the unmanned Mars Terraforming Project has been in place with oxygen-producing algae generating what will become a breathable atmosphere capable of sustaining life.

Unfortunately, the oxygen levels have recently taken a downturn, so the first manned mission to Mars has been sent off to discover why. Led by Bowman (CARRIE-ANNE MOSS), the pilot and mission commander, the six-month journey takes her and her crew -- Chantilas (TERENCE STAMP), the chief science officer; Santen (BENJAMIN BRATT) the egotistical, hotheaded copilot; Burchenal (TOM SIZEMORE) one of the world's leading bioengineers; Pettengil (SIMON BAKER) a terraforming expert and a last minute replacement on the ship; and Gallagher (VAL KILMER) the mechanical systems engineer -- to the red planet.

When the remnants of a solar flare incapacitate their mother ship, Bowman sends the rest of the crew to the planet while she remains onboard, hoping to repair the ship and thus resurrect their only way home. Crashing on the planet, the landing crew then sets out to discover what's gone wrong on Mars. As they do so, they must contend with an inhospitable environment, unexpected discoveries, and AMEE, the multi-tasking Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion robot on loan from the Marines that's reverted to its self-preserving military mode and thus sees the crew as the enemy it must destroy.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Mankind has always had a seemingly insatiable desire to explore our world and universe, and that exploratory quest has obviously led to many great discoveries and advances in geographical, scientific and cultural knowledge. Unfortunately, it's also led to the demise of certain civilizations and cultures, but such ill effects are usually only seen in historical hindsight.

In today's world of the global Internet, live TV from around the world and even FedEx, it's hard to imagine what life must have been like back when few, if any people knew what lurked over the horizon. As such, and armed only with a smattering of fact and far more hearsay, explorers of old would head off into the great unknown, uncertain of what to expect except for peril, hardship and often death. If there ever was a historical basis for creating antacids and sedatives, such exploratory trips certainly come to mind.

Of course, as William Shatner told us every week at the beginning of "Star Trek," space is now the final frontier for exploration, and while we know far more about our universal environs than did our predecessors (who worried that they might sail off the flat world into the unknown abyss), space exploration is obviously far more dangerous and prone to problems and disaster than seagoing trips several centuries ago.

After all, if your ship sank in the middle of the ocean, there was always the possibility you could survive by floating on some debris and possibly wash up on some shore or maybe even be picked up by another ship. While remote, those possibilities offered greater chances of survival than if your spaceship "goes down" in outer space.

Thus, one can imagine the excitement, fear and apprehension related to traveling to another world sometime in the not so distant future. Unfortunately, none of those emotions are evident in "Red Planet," the umpteenth film about the "first" such manned trip to Mars. Dramatically inert, the film - written by Chuck Pfarrer ("The Jackal," "Virus") and Jonathan Lemkin ("The Devil's Advocate," "Lethal Weapon 4") and directed by first timer Antony Hoffman - is about as exciting and wondrous as taking the bus to the local supermarket.

While one would imagine that those fortunate enough to be chosen for such a trip would be busting at the seams with all sorts of overwrought and conflicting emotions, and that such feelings would then rub off on the viewer, that's certainly far from the case here.

Although the film's press kit proudly states that the film is the most scientifically realistic/accurate representation of outer space exploration and Mars - a point that can only be partially validated by the small number of people who've done the former - that certainly doesn't automatically ensure an exciting, enjoyable or entertaining ride for Earthbound moviegoers. In fact, the film is about as enthralling as watching real-life footage of astronauts doing their routine thing onboard their spacecraft sans the knowledge and sense of it being real.

Simply put, most everything about the film is far too staid and played without the proper kinds or levels of appropriate emotions. Yet another tale of mankind ruining Earth and wanting to colonize another planet, the film has all sorts of potential to be a thrilling picture. First, there's the overall point that human existence on Earth is threatened and all hope is riding on the success of this mission.

Then there's the fact that things go wrong and that the lives of the crewmembers are in danger from the lack of food, water and shelter in their inhospitable environs, a dwindling supply of oxygen in their spacesuits, and a robot that's gone into a homicidal military mode. Yet, for all of that, the characters in the film rarely seem too concerned and as a result, the viewer can't help but consequently feel apathetic toward them, the various predicaments they face, and the overall film.

For starters, the "crew is Earth's last hope of survival" plot element - down so much better in other films such as "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" - doesn't have much discernible basis since we're only told of the problem - in the opening scene's exposition heavy, voice over narration - and don't see it firsthand. As a result, we have no reason to become emotionally involved in that aspect of the story.

Moving on to the actual mission and the various challenges confronting the crew, the way in which the filmmakers have staged and executed such moments are so flat and less than engaging that they have little impact on the viewer. For one thing, and considering that they're the first humans to land on Mars, none of the crewmembers seem particularly apprehensive, excited, nervous or scared about that prospect.

Compared to the astronauts depicted in the fabulous "Apollo 13," the ones here act as if they commute to Mars everyday and we never sense their isolation from the rest of humanity as was the case in Ron Howard's film or even a picture like "Planet of the Apes." The overriding omission of such expected emotion robs the film of the capability of eliciting the same from the viewers, resulting in a rather boring cinematic experience.

The same holds true for scenes depicting the crew running out of oxygen in their spacesuits on the planet's surface or having several bad run-ins with a killer robot dog. Cool from a special effects standpoint, but otherwise ridiculous in story usage - especially with its martial arts stances and the surviving crewmembers seemingly not being too concerned that it's slowly but surely hunting, rather than immediately killing them - the whole notion of the homicidal metallic pooch is useless and obviously just a plot contrivance that's used too casually, sparingly and illogically to create the desired effect.

Hoffman also doesn't show the actual deaths of several crewmembers, thus creating the notion in many viewers' minds that they'll later return for some surprising moments and/or revelations. Unfortunately, that potential, like that found in the rest of the film, is completely wasted.

Beyond its "scientific accuracy" and decent, big budget special effects, the film has a great cast, but their efforts are mostly squandered due to the lackluster direction and often hackneyed plot and dialogue. Following up her breakout success in "The Matrix," Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Crew") appears as the team's resilient and resourceful commander. While she does the lone, Captain Kirk type thing onboard the mother ship, there's not a great deal else she can do with her underdeveloped character.

The same pretty much holds true for the rest of the performers. Val Kilmer ("The Saint," "Batman Forever") dons the hero bit but is mostly as emotionally flat as the rest of the film, while Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan," "Bringing out the Dead") and Terence Stamp ("The Limey," "Bowfinger") are wasted in their roles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Bratt ("The Next Best Thing," TV's "Law and Order") and Simon Baker ("Ride With the Devil," "L.A. Confidential") are essentially unremarkable in their respective parts and make little or no impression.

Simply put, that applies to most of the film that comes off as flat as how ancient explorers saw their world. Although the effects are decent and some humor is occasionally applied to keep thing from being too serious, the film is simply too lethargic and inert when it should and could have been exciting, engaging and thrilling. Despite its emotionally and visually symbolic title, "Red Planet" is too colorless to elicit much of any emotion - save for boredom and indifference - from viewers. As such, the film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed November 7, 2000 / Posted November 10, 2000


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