It hasn't been a good few years for movies about Mars. When Mission to Mars turned out to be more about the long, boring mission than anything else, science fiction fans stayed away in droves. A couple of years before that, when Tim Burton released the total misfire of Mars Attacks!, his fans had to sit back, forget about that one, and hope that he gets next year's Planet of the Apes remake right. Even going back to the late '50s, when the makers of The Angry Red Planet hoped to pop a few eyes, no one really bought it. The only two successes that come to mind when thinking of Mars and Martians on film are both coincidentally from 1953 -- the creepy Invaders from Mars (not to be confused with the campy 1986 remake) and the still terrifying The War of the Worlds.
And nothing is going to be changed with the release of Red Planet, a film that rivals Mission to Mars in areas of boredom, and even outdoes it when it comes to a film being dragged down by its own weight.
We're 50 years in the future. Earth is in much worse shape than anyone could have imagined because Republicans eventually did run America in the year 2000 (just joking -- but not by much). Because our world is pretty much dying, scientists have sent experiments involving algae up to Mars and have managed to make some sort of atmosphere that might help. But suddenly the newly created oxygen levels have gone down. So a group of six astronauts have been shipped off to find out what happened.
Not a bad start. Interesting idea. Five supposedly tough guys, none of whom appear to like each other very much, under the charge of an even tougher woman, all on a voyage that might save humankind. But right away, there's something wrong. Not the fact that the characters have tension between them, but that the actors playing them -- Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp, Carrie-Anne Moss -- just don't seem the least bit excited about being the first people to hurtle through space with plans of landing on Mars. To say that their initial appearances are wooden is being very kind. Unfortunately, things don't get any more lively among them as the film goes on.
There are some moments where the action picks up, and the film becomes fun -- and even a little breathtaking -- to watch. Some big hassles upon touchdown on Mars turn into big time excitement, with the crew's landing pod crashing to and rolling along the ground until enough hills and craters have slowed it to a stop. But that is the point where most of the film's action rolls to a halt as well.
Some of the plot elements try to jumpstart things, such as the dog-like robot AMEE, from which there are hints of danger early on, and which, like a bad dog, eventually turns on its masters. But AMEE, as well as a side plot about an accidental murder, is thrown to the wayside as the film gets down to attempting to be about the relationships between the men struggling to survive on the supposedly hostile surface and the woman who's still trying to run the show while orbiting above them.
But as dissension among the ranks keeps growing, acting among the characters never gets off the ground. Their performances are as unconvincing as the plot. And it's not too much of a stretch to believe the rumors that Kilmer and Sizemore were not exactly getting along -- for real -- on the set.
But at least the men in the cast have someone else to work with on camera. Poor Moss, fresh from looking terrific in The Matrix, spends most of the film alone, in the midst of communication breakdowns, talking across space to the folks back at home and waiting almost an hour to hear a reply. Her performance, too, though a tougher challenge than anyone else's here, becomes less than interesting.
First time feature director Antony Hoffman, who has a TV commercial career behind him, fails at creating a pace that will keep viewers attentive, and doesn't seem to know where or how to insert a flashback -- in this case one of Kilmer and Moss on the ship -- for best effect. Nor do he and his screenwriters bother to explain why there can be a furious snowstorm on Mars even though there's only enough oxygen to allow the astronauts to breathe as if they were at a high altitude. And after a few minutes of trouble catching their breath, they all, with no explanation, suddenly share a remarkable recovery and breathe as if they've just woken up from a relaxing nap. Come to think of it, maybe it's a waste of time to look for all the problems in this film. Maybe a nice nap would be the way to go instead.