Believe it or else, our planet has finite space and resources. One of these days we’re going to have to take measures to make the most of what we have left or, more ideally, look to the other planets in our solar system for expansion. Our moon is closest but doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere. Mars is comparable in size but presents other challenges. Red Planet is a film that addresses those challenges… kind of… while being a character-driven tale of the unknown in space… sort of.
Heading to the crimson world of the title is a crew of six people: the no-nonsense female commander, the young and handsome co-pilot, a senior science officer who’s also a philosopher, two civilian scientists who cover the ‘agnostic’ and ‘naive’ portions of the crew and the ‘space janitor’, a mechanical maintenance expert. Together, they board the experimental craft Mars One and head to the distant sanguine rock to determine of human experiments with algae and habitation enclosures have succeeded. They don’t even get to the surface before things start going wrong.
In a cinematic environment where the likes of Greengrass and Bay have risen to superstardom despite shakey cameras and bewildering choices in special effects, I can’t help but praise a film like Red Planet for clean, sharp visuals. The construction of the vehicles and structures feels authentic, and it takes things into account like the time delay in communications and the low gravity on Mars. Little things like that endear me towards this movie, since there’s some science in the science fiction. It’s not like Pitch Black where the orientation of planets to stars makes no logical sense. So it earns points from me in that regard.
The wild space janitor in his natural habitat.
However, where Red Planet suffers is in the area of characters. We get… two, maybe three. Carrie-Anne Moss does a good job with her commander character, even if it feels a bit like Trinity with more emotion and snark. Tom Sizemore is always good, and I couldn’t help but like Val Kilmer’s space janitor even if he did pull the dull surprise face more often than he should. The big problem with the characters, other than Benjamin Bratt and Simon Baker being stock cardboard cutouts and Terence Stamp delivering all of his lines with the same amount of stoic gravitas, is that none of them have a sense of wonder about Mars. I mean, yeah, they’re in a bad situation there and they need to puzzle out what happened and why, but dammit, they’re on Mars. It’s pretty significant for them to be there. I mean, Bear Grylls can muster up wonder about the places he wanders around in Man vs. Wild, and that’s stuff here on Earth. These guys are on a different planet and very few eyelashes are batted.
This could be related to the other major problem with the movie, which is plotlines. There are simply too many of them. I’m all for complex stories built in layers with subplots tying into each other, but every plotline in Red Planet is given the full treatment. Every obstacle and mystery is given equal time which leads to too little character development and too much going on. Just one of the problems at hand – the damage to the ship, the destruction of the habitat module, the disappearance of the algae – could have dominated the plot with others being sub-plots. But Red Planet shoots itself in the foot in terms of pace and plotting by throwing all of this at us with a very minimal sense of timing and prudence. What begins as a plausible exploration of the first steps to colonizing Mars turns into a typical survival sci-fi/horror mix, and at points in the story when things look like they might become interesting, the writers go the lazy route every time.
The space suits and equipment feel mostly authentic, more Mass Effect than Star Trek.
After all of the big ideas that are part of its setup, Red Planet feels like its playing it safe. Instead of being challenging in its execution, developing complex characters or shining a light on the eventual need for humanity to do something about the state of the planet, it blows right past those interesting ideas to get our characters to an obstacle course about as interesting as one from an episode of Ninja Warrior or Wipeout! but without the hilarious commentary and trappings. It’s disheartening to start strong with an interesting premise and characters with potential only to see them dribble away one at a time as the movie lurches towards its false-tension climax and pat ending. Every time Red Planet should zig, it zags. It’s just kind of sad.
However, the good news is that while it disappoints in story and characters, the execution for the most part makes Red Planet relatively harmless. It’s not as brainy and full of itself as some other science fiction exploration films like 2001 or Mission to Mars, the characters we do get are decent enough, and there are a handful of moments that speak to the potential this movie, this story and these characters might have had. There’s a good time to be had with Red Planet, and you can probably develop a decent drinking game to go with it, so yeah, I’d put it in the recommendation column for at least one viewing if you’re a fan of sci-fi or any of the aforementioned actors. Just be aware that, about the time we see three men take the first piss on Mars, this movie’s also pissing away a lot of potential.
But hey, at least with the clean visuals and straightforward, non-obscure plot, we can understand what the hell is going on. I just wish the goings-on were more interesting. I mean, come on, people… it’s Mars. I guess we’ll have to wait for the screen adaptation of John Carter for things to really pick up on the red planet.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
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