According to the science that underpins Red Planet, it's time to break out the party hats: We've only got another 50 years to live it up before earth's atmosphere becomes too polluted to sustain life. The good news is that NASA scientists, forward-thinkers that they are, will have long since begun terraforming Mars by bombarding the planet with oxygen-generating algae. The bad news is that the algae will inexplicably disappear. The good news is that a spaceship packed with "the best scientific minds"--most of 'em are American, white and male, naturally--will be dispatched to investigate. The bad news is...well, this is science fiction. Let's just say it's not exactly a routine mission. Red Planet is the second movie this year to send American astronauts spinning to Mars, but unlike Brian De Palma's bombastic Mission to Mars, this one harks back to the halcyon days of sci-fi, when geniuses like Asimov and Heinlein cautioned against humanity's unquestioning faith in science and technology. Representing that philosophical viewpoint here is Chantilas (Terence Stamp), the ship's chief science officer, who meets what proves to be an ironic fate early in the proceedings. Other crew members include Commander Bowman (a no-nonsense Carrie-Anne Moss) and ship's "janitor" Gallagher (an unusually ego-free Val Kilmer). Antony Hoffman is the latest TV-commercial and music-video director to be granted a shot at the big screen. (His most recent cultural contribution is that Bud commercial featuring the football-playing horses). When a solar flare sends the systems off-line, Hoffman quickly shows that he knows his way around a spaceship. Bowman ends up stranded in orbit fighting an anti-grav firestorm, while the rest of the crew tumble down the side of a Martian cliff in one of the ugliest pod-crash scenes in recent memory. Red Planet seems eager to be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But instead of HAL, we're given AMEE (Autonomous Mapping Evaluation and Evasion), a sleek, doglike robot that transforms into a slice-'em-dice-'em killing machine intent on snuffing the crew when its circuits get scrambled in the crash landing. It's scary, yes, but also one example of what gradually becomes a bothersome lack of restraint. Given a bigger-than-TV canvas that includes light-years of space--and an entire friggin' planet--Hoffman succumbs to the need to fill it all with something, anything. As Gallagher and his team wade, Job-like, through the umpteenth plot twist that threatens their dwindling chances of survival, some of the tension that's been building evaporates into a significantly less frightening sense of oh-god-what-else-can-go-wrong. The fear of a red planet is actually more palpable when the crew faces down more pedestrian life-or-death challenges, like finding themselves stranded without shelter as their oxygen tanks run low.
The images of Mars are, at least briefly, awe-inspiring. Filmed through a red-tinged lens, the butte-and canyon-dotted deserts of Jordan and Australia stand in for the utterly unforgiving Martian terrain, as good a place to die as any you'll find.