Red Planet, 2000. Directed by Anthony Hoffman. Val Kilmer, Carrie Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Terrence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker.

Synopsis: In the near future, it is discovered that humanity has so poisoned planet Earth that our lifespan is limited unless we can find a new place to live. Mars is the likeliest place and a terraforming project is begun. Algae is seeded on the red planet and things seem to be proceeding as planned until, suddenly, all of the algae vanishes without any explanation. A manned mission to Mars is dispatched to find out what happens. As the ship enters orbit, it is hit by a solar flare that knocks out most of it's systems. Five of the crew are dispatched to the planet while the captain of the ship remains aboard to effect repairs. Unfortunately, it's orbit is decaying. The ground team has other problems. It's landing goes awry and they have to find the habitat before their air runs out. And their robot has developed a deadly glitch. And why DID the algae vanish? The crew and their captain all race against time to solve the problems facing them....

Deja Vu All Over Again: Hmm...didn't I see this movie earlier this year? With Gary Sinise instead of Val Kilmer and Connie Nielsen instead of Carrie Anne Moss? Well...not really, but the comparison does Red Planet a world of good, since Mission to Mars really sucked and Red Planet doesn't suck as badly. But the echoes of other experiences don't end with Mission to Mars. Red Planet also reminded me--strongly--of a Larry Niven story called "How the Heroes Die." A faithful novelization of the movie wouldn't have been out of place in Astounding Science Fiction during the glory days of John W. Campbell. It's hard-core sci fi with all the nuts and bolts and with the characters saving their asses with technological know-how. Oh, it makes a concession of sorts to the speculative fiction New Wave by having a character with a philosophical bent--who became "interested in the questions that science couldn't answer"--but he doesn't have much impact on the movie and, significantly, he gets killed off early.

Hard Science: One of these days, filmmakers are going to clue themselves in to the fact that there is no sound in space. EVERYONE in the audience knows this, and filmmakers just keep on filling their Dolby-Stereo soundtracks with the sounds of rockets firing and impacts impacting and whatnot. Interestingly, though, there is a scene where a character in a vacuum has to butt heads with another character's helmet to speak to him--so even THE FILMMAKERS know the audience knows....But the science isn't noticeably bad, really, unless the audience is paying undo attention. If they ARE paying attention, then the whole thing unravels. There is an entertaining scene in the middle of this in which the effects of lower gravitation on the arc of urine spouting from a pissing man. It's actually pretty clever, I must say. The details of spaceflight are getting more and more realistic as time goes on, too. I suspect that this comes from the world's deepening acquaintance with spaceflight through the continuing missions of the space shuttle and the building of the international space station. The film even depends, somewhat, on its scientific puzzle for suspense. It depends even MORE on engineering rather than action to build tension. But I still have some gripes. The "artificial gravity" depicted in the film, for instance, shouldn't work the way it's depicted. Spinning a wheel doesn't create "gravity," it creates centripetal motion and angular momentum. If something isn't on the wheel, it isn't going to magically drop to the floor once it starts spinning, and moreover, the coriolis effect will cause it to come to ground in a curve rather than a straight line. Also: the biggest danger from the Martian atmosphere, even given the conceit of Red Planet's plot, isn't lack of oxygen--it's the lack of barometric pressure. If the characters removed their helmets in the manner depicted in the movie, they would fatally decompress (although NOT in the manner depicted in, say, Total Recall or Outland, but rather drowning in their own blood as every capillary in their lungs burst). But that aside, why the hell haven't these scientists been examining the atmosphere of Mars with a spectroscope as they approach? Surely, they can AFFORD a spectroscope--hell, even I can afford one from the Edmund Scientific Company. I find it hard to believe that the mission would have left home without such a basic scientific instrument. It's not as if the long voyage to Mars wouldn't give them plenty of time to take a look at the planet. Instead, one character uses the scientific equipment to build a still. Why do I care about all this nit-picky stuff? You haven't noticed me talking about characters and plot yet, have you? That's because the science is the star attraction here. The characters are cardboard cutouts. Carrie Anne Moss's narration sketches them in--CLUMSILY--at the outset of the movie.

Archetypes: I love killer robots. The robot in Red Planet is pretty good. It's marvelously designed, doesn't call attention to itself as a CGI effect, and it's scary in the context of the movie. I wonder why they didn't remove the military subroutines when they loaded the thing on the spaceship, but what the hell--it serves the plot. I like interesting aliens, too, and Red Planet doesn't make the same mistake that Mission to Mars made. There is a first contact with aliens here, but it's not the kind of first contact you find in E.T. The aliens are nasty flesh-boring beetle thingies. Not all aliens are intelligent, after all, and these are some interesting beasties. If we do find alien life, it's just as likely to be a creepy crawly as anything else. A LOT likelier than peaceful, intelligent aliens.

Effects: Red Planet has pretty good special effects. That's not much of a recommendation anymore, since EVERY movie seems to have pretty good special effects these days. But these are better than most. Spaceship effects seem to be the only types of effects that computers do exceptionally well.

Performances: These are all by rote. Val Kilmer, Benjamin Bratt, and Tom Sizemore all give standard, Roger Ramjet portrayals of astronaut/scientists, although they have all been provided with idiosyncrasies to distinguish them from one another. Simon Baker is the weakling. Terrence Stamp is the philosopher. Carrie Anne Moss seems to have been mistaken for Sigourney Weaver, right down to a shot of her erect nipples pressing against her white tee-shirt. I guess it's a truism in sci fi films these days that in space, no one needs a bra. I wonder how they got that shot. Did the director have her go into her dressing room and pinch them until they were properly perky? The film does itself no favors by naming her character "Bowman" (get it?), which reminds the more alert members of the audience that science fiction CAN be visionary and intellectually challenging. Fortunately for the audience, the story doesn't require the kind of histrionics that undid poor Connie Nielsen in Mission to Mars. Thank heaven for small favors. The best performance in the movie is given by the robot. Mind you, everyone here is competent, but, man, that robot is pretty damned cool!