Thursday, October 01, 2015

Mars on Film: Red Planet (2000)


The years 2000 – 2001 brought movie audiences a handful of films about the (angry) red planet, including Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, and Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet. 

Of all those titles, Red Planet is likely the least satisfying work of art. A big-budgeted film featuring a great cast that includes Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Terence Stamp, the film suffers from poor execution, and, finally, a lack of coherence.

It would be tempting to write that the movie’s heart is in the right place because Red Planet expresses the idea that man will survive by exploring and settling the final frontier, by pursuing new horizons.

But Red Planet also boasts a contradictory anti-science message, one that suggests faith and belief are actually the answers to solving man’s problem. It isn’t my job -- or my place -- to tell anyone what to believe in this regard, only to state that, thematically-speaking, it would have been better for Red Planet to pick one idea and stick with it. Instead, the film raises a debate about science vs. spirituality that is handled superficially at best. The whole approach is…scattershot.

This thematic schizophrenia would be more tolerable and easily reconciled if Red Planet were better paced and the narrative details more compelling. I’ve watched several Mars films of late, and Red Planet, like The Angry Red Planet (1959) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) boasts some scientific errors too.  But both of those (older) films knew clearly what they wanted to be about, and what they had to say about human life and nature.

By contrast, Red Planet is muddled and sadly anti-climactic, unable to enunciate any clear philosophical through-line or point. Much of the film looks great, particularly a dangerous landing on the Mars surface, but other than that, the film possesses very few memorable virtues.


“Maybe life is more mysterious than you think it is.”

In the near-future, Earth can no longer sustain the rapidly-expanding human population. Realizing that the planet will soon die, mankind sends algae to Mars which will produce oxygen and commence the terraforming process prior to colonization.

A ship, Mars-1, heads to the red planet, however, when the air on the planet begins to diminish rather than expand. The mission is captained by Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Ann Moss). Others in the crew include engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer), scientists Chantillas (Terence Stamp) and Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), co-pilot Santen (Benjamin Pratt) and a terraforming expert, Pettengill (Simon Baker).

En route to Mars, the ship is damaged, and Bowman remains on board to conduct repairs while the others attempt a dangerous landing on the Martian rock. 

After making ground-fall, the crew finds that it is being hunted by AMEE, a military robot who has been set to “war” mode inadvertently. Soon, the crew also learns that their habitat -- equipped with food and oxygen -- has been mysteriously destroyed.

With precious little air remaining in their suits, Gallagher and the others must solve the mystery of the algae, evade AMEE, and repair an old Russian launcher that may be the only key to returning to orbit.



“Short time to live. Long time to wait.”

First things first: the makers of Red Planet should be commended for creating a strong, and central female character Kate Bowman. This mission commander is likely named after Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), of the ill-fated Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Moss is very good in the role.


It’s no exaggeration to note that Red Planet seems to work exponentially better whenever Bowman is on-screen making tough calls, and fighting for her team’s survival, and the success of the mission. Bowman faces some of the same challenges that Sandra Bullock’s character endured in last year’s Gravity (2013), but Red Planet doesn’t saddle the character with a trite personal tragedy to overcome, or one that contextualizes Bowman in terms of a traditional or conventional female role, like being a Mommy instead of being an astronaut.  One of the few things Red Planet gets right, finally, is its depiction of a competent, resourceful commander figure.

Red Planet evidences a strong environmental undercurrent too. The Earth is dying and a terraformed Mars may be the only option for survival if man is to endure into the twenty-second century. I admire the film for noting that man will not last forever if he remains solely on Earth -- whether for reasons of over-population, pollution, or even an asteroid strike -- and that the logical alternative is to seek new homes on neighboring worlds, or in deep space.

In the film, Chantillas (Stamp) puts a fine point on human short-sightedness about the environment. “If we fail,” he says, “everything” (including the works of Shakespeare and the Constitution) was for nothing.

How true.

If humans don’t take better care of the Earth, or make arrangements for the future, then every great artistic achievement is lost to history, and, finally, unimportant. And that, of course, would be a terrible tragedy.


Yet, in the very same scene, Chantillas -- the scientist, and a character described as “the soul” of the crew -- notes that “science can’t answer any of the real interesting questions.”

Since he is a scientist, I wonder how he can make such a claim with a straight face.

Science has brought the team to Mars.

Science has made space travel possible.

Science has seeded Mars with algae, which should (according to the film) make the air breathable.

Science has thus made it possible for man to have a second chance to escape extinction.

Without science, I hasten to add, there would be no chance whatsoever.  Believe in God or not, you simply can’t pray your way to Mars. I don’t mean that facetiously, I mean it in practical, real-life terms. To get to Mars you require specific things, like rocket fuel, computers, trained astronauts, and a competent support net.  All those things arrive from the auspices of knowledge and science.

I suppose it comes down to what, precisely, are Chantillas’s “interesting questions.” 

If by that phrase he is talking about the existence of the human soul, or of the afterlife, he may have a point worth debating, absolutely.

But those topics aren’t under discussion.

What is being discussed in the film is a mission to determine why some algae on Mars is dying, and whether or not the planet will soon be ready to sustain human life. I don’t see how anything other than science can answer those particular questions. Again, you can’t analyze the properties of algae (or alien “nematodes”) through prayer or worship.  You do it with education, with science.

While Red Planet struggles to be profound by musing over “interesting questions” vis-à-vis science and religion, the time would be better spent sharpening the characters. Many suffer from a severe lack of definition. Benjamin Bratt’s character, Santen, for example turns into a complete asshole once on the Martian surface, and his death is depicted so poorly and so suddenly that you wait for the rest of the film for him to re-appear. But he doesn’t.

By the same token, Pettengill is woefully ill-defined. Why does he go nuts? Why does he kill Bratt’s character? Why does he attack the others? 

There is no rhyme or reason for his behavior or paranoia beyond personal mental instability, and though he is a last-minute crew addition, it certainly seems someone would have detected, on the long journey to Mars, that he is a bit off. 

Instead, Pettengill is just a useful -- but baffling -- cog in the screenplay, one that must make certain things (like a murder) happen in a certain order, thus throwing up second and third act obstacles for the landing team.

But if you examine Pettengill’s behavior, there is no reason for him to go bonkers when he does. Why kill the very people who are going to repair the spaceship you need to get home? Or who will solve the mystery of the atmosphere that you need to can breathe?  The human survival instinct would preclude Pettengill’s behavior, even if he is unhinged. Only Gallagher can re-tool the Russian lander. Only Burchenal can understand the mystery of Mars, etc.  Kill them, and you’re killing yourself, essentially.


Unfortunately, much the same argument can be made regarding AMEE, the robot that conveniently gets stuck on “war” mode and attempts to kill Gallagher and co. The robot begins hunting and killing the crew-members, but there is no real rhyme or reason for this plot strand, unless the movie is attempting to note that man, by creating such technology, is actually endangering only himself. 

And again, a movie about man landing on and taming the Red Planet can’t be anti-technology or anti-science to such a degree, can it?  There would be no hope for mankind in the film’s central scenario if he didn’t build spaceships, terra-forming devices, or robots like AMEE. 

And again, Gallagher explicitly survives by re-purposing old (Russian) technology and getting back into orbit.  Bowman survives by knowing how to purge a fire from the belly of Mars-1. 

Science saves them both.

Once more, Red Planet doesn’t seem to know what point it wants to convey. It wants to suggest that life is more mysterious than humans can reckon with (and thus hint at profound or deeply philosophical religious truths), but similarly tries to make the case that man must tame -- via science, knowledge, and technology --other planets to survive.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Angry Red Planet certainly had their share of scientific errors, but in fairness to those films, these errors were made before much our fund of knowledge about Mars was complete.  By the time of Red Planet’s release, we had a rover on Mars (which features in the film) and a decent sense of the planet’s qualities.

But Red Planet keeps getting things wrong that we already know. For example, it gets wrong the four letters that describe DNA sequences -- G T A and C -- and wrongly suggests that nematodes are insects rather than worms.  Errors like these may be small, but can take one right out of the film’s reality.

Forget the errors, and forget, even, the muddled message about science vs. religion. Red Planet simply never works up any real sense of tension or momentum. The final battle between AMEE and Gallagher is completely lacking in suspense, or even a true sense of danger. Like every other aspect of the film, the denouement just falls completely flat.

I wanted to love Red Planet when I first saw it. I had high hopes for it. But the film, like poor Mars-1, ultimately, is “dead in the water.”

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