Red Planet (review)

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Are there mad producers lurking in dank, underground offices of Hollywood studio lots? Do they, fueled by their demented imaginings, concoct unholy amalgams of movies past and try to breath new life into them? Is it time for movie lovers who prefer clever, original films to warmed-over undead celluloid to form a torch-wielding mob to run them out of town?

Sewn together out of the scraps of far superior SF and action films, Red Planet is a frankenmovie, a soulless and charmless film that desperately hopes we won’t see the stitches that barely hold its disparate pieces together. Some mad producer somewhere saw the final cut and screamed “It’s alive! It’s alive!” But, alas, it isn’t.
Mars used to need women. Now it needs oxygen, because, in the first half of the 21st century, Earthlings have ruined their home planet so much that they’re desperate for a bolt hole, and Mars is it. Seeded with algae from Earth, Mars had been brewing quite a nice little human-breathable atmosphere, but suddenly oxygen levels are dropping. A mission is sent to find out why. Oh, and all the geniuses who understand this terraforming process are on the mission — which seems unlikely, but I’m just repeating what I’m told — so if anything goes wrong, humanity is well and truly screwed.

Something goes wrong. As I’m sure you’d guessed.

These could be the makings for a decent, thoughtful exploration of humankind’s responsibility to Earth and the universe at large, even if it were mixed with lots of action and stuff blowing up — all that’s needed are some characters we can care about, and who can make us care that Earth is dying, make us understand how desperately a new Mars is needed. But the people here are worse than cardboard, worse than stereotypes — they’re enough to make you wonder if humanity is worth saving.

Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss: The Matrix, The Crew) — in a horrendous storytelling ploy right out of a Roger Corman movie — narrates the beginning of the story, introducing us to the clichés that are her shipmates: Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terence Stamp: The Limey, Bowfinger) is “the soul of the crew”; Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt) is the “hothead”; Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer: The Prince of Egypt, The Ghost and the Darkness) is “the janitor” and Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore: Bringing Out the Dead, Saving Private Ryan) — or was it Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker: Ride with the Devil, L.A. Confidential)? — is “the last-minute replacement,” as if these were defining characteristics. Unfortunately, there’s no one else around to narrate on Bowman’s behalf, so we’re never even offered a scrap of faux characterization for her… But that’s besides the point. The story is never about these people, about who they are or what they want — except that Bowman and Gallagher wanna get down and dirty together — and this narration, I’d bet good money, was slapped on the last minute in an attempt to remedy that. It doesn’t work.

So all we’re left with is doing precisely what the movie should be distracting us from doing, which is pick apart those surgical stitches and tick off all the stolen bits from other films. There are healthy smatterings of Aliens and Apollo 13 to be found here. Bowman’s name is an obvious nod to 2001, and a nod would be fine if there were anything else to recommend her. But then there’s AMEE, which is kind of a foul crossing of Sony’s AIBO robot dog with Robocop’s ED209 — her baleful blue eye, so like HAL’s baleful red eye, is a sledgehammer reminder of the anti-technology theme of 2001 that Red Planet appropriates as well.

AMEE goes berserk, as machines tend to do in these kinds of movies, attacking her human keepers for reasons that have little to do with anything, except that she’s been conveniently programmed to play military wargames… a skill that isn’t likely to be needed on the barren Martian deserts. AMEE is one more obvious seam, where a message has been grafted on to a movie whose larger story contradicts it: Science and technology and knowledge about such things are ultimately what will save the day — for our characters in the short run and humanity in the long term — but the only one who comes to the defense of poor misunderstood science is Burchenal, who is positioned as the unsympathetic hardass.

The FX are nice; there are a few tense sequences, like the rough ride down to the Martian surface from orbit; and a journey to Mars is every geek’s dream. But without living, breathing people to follow on that journey, what’s the point? As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Red Planet, suffering through a miserable half-life for which it did not ask. Still, my torch is ready. Who’s with me?

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