By STEVE PERSAL
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
Red Planet is the latest trip to the fourth rock from the sun, and it's a predictably bumpy ride. Not as dreaded as Mission to Mars or My Favorite Martian, but nothing to get your boosters blasting, either. As usual, mankind got itself into this futuristic mess sometime around, oh, now.
The message comes straight from the Green Party: Take care of Mother Earth and she'll take care of us. By the year 2057, Earthlings have depleted their natural resources, facing extinction unless an experiment works to create a life-sustaining atmosphere on Mars. It does, but something is depleting those oxygen supplies.
A scout crew is sent to investigate, with their one-dimensional personalities quickly established. Gallagher (Val Kilmer) is a wise-cracking mechanic; Benjamin Bratt is Santen, the hothead; Tom Sizemore is the curious scientist; and Carrie-Anne Moss is Commander Bowman, walking around in a form-fitting spaghetti-strap shirt. Terence Stamp (The Limey) is Chantila, the "soul of the crew," presumably because he has gray hair and blathers about philosophy.
The real star of the show is the robotic assistant AMEE, sort of like HAL 9000 with legs and an equally bad attitude about humans trying to shut her down. AMEE slinks like an exoskeletal cat, with martial arts moves Jackie Chan would cherish. She's the reason this movie exists, an excellent exercise in cyber-effects upstaging every human around her.
AMEE is also the only genuine antagonist in the movie, and an underused one at that. The astronauts are constantly in danger of depleting their oxygen supplies, but everyone wastes it on petty grudges and expositional dialogue. Crew members die one by one, none in interesting fashion, until movie stars with the best billing settle an obscure score.
Toss in a few hundred exploding space roaches, much ado about algae, dubious changes in gravity and a slingshot rescue, and Red Planet has the makings of a decent hoot. No one except Kilmer and his droll mumble seem to realize that.
The movie does contain one impressive special effects sequence, a dual-crisis affair when Bowman endures a zero-gravity inferno while the other guys make a bounce landing on Mars. It's an imaginative bit of malarkey springing from the minds of hugely talented artists in models and computer graphics. The script, a hodgepodge of adolescent space fantasy and shallow theology, never rises to the level of the pretty pictures.
Even Mars comes off looking cheap, like the Australian outback filmed through a pink lens filter. Hoffman loses track of his film's title when the place turns wheat-gold, then bluish and finally someone forgets to tint the frame at all. The angry red planet of 1950s schlock appears just mildly perturbed. Perhaps filmmakers should pick on Venus for a while.
Director: Antony Hoffman
Cast: Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Terence Stamp
Screenplay: Chuck Pfarrer, Jonathan Lemkin
Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity, brief nudity
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