Skip to main content

We’re eating dinner on Mars.

Red Planet 

(SPOILERS) At the time, out of 2000’s pair of unloved, duelling Martian meanders, Red Planet found my greater favour, striving less for unreachable philosophical weight and focussing its attention more on the nuts and bolts of action/survival dramatics. Revisiting both successively, while there still isn’t a great deal between them – I don’t think either is remotely a disaster, but neither is much of what you’d call a great success either – it’s Mission to Mars that inches ahead, with ad man turned first time feature director Antony Hoffman unable to elevate the rather functional screenplay from Chuck Pfarrer (Navy SEALs, The Jackal, Virus) and Jonathan Lemkin (The Devil’s Advocate).

Like Mission to Mars, Red Planet plays the game of dulling you into treating NASA’s Mars gospel credulously, by virtue of the supporting science-fiction elements being so slapdash and mix-and-match. In markedly less creative fashion than De Palma’s movie, Red Planet opts for the Star Trek: The Motion Picture approach of plundering the official science narrative as a key reference point for its plotting. There, it was the Voyager probe. Here, it’s the 1997 Mars mission and rover (naturally, NASA’s “genuine” footage is a ringer for Red Planet’s, give or take a Jordan substituted for a Devon Island).

Part and parcel of this is underpinning the universe with standard tropes. So like Mission to Mars, things go wrong with the plan, reflecting that this is a flawed universe. Like Mission to Mars, there is life on Mars, albeit in the form of David Bellamy’s nematodes, rather than a super-advanced race. Engineering goes wrong. AIs go wrong (2001: A Space Odyssey).

There is explicit undermining of the value of science in its joust with philosophy (courtesy of Terence Stamp), and the best scientific minds have been brought to the surface to work out why the algae introduced to terraform Mars has begun disappearing. Although, only two of the crew seem sufficiently qualified for this task; Tom Sizemore as the highly unlikely geneticist Burchenal and Simon Baker’s terraforming specialist Pettengill. Stamp is science officer Chantilas, but he’s hardly cutting edge if the extent of his philosophical enquiry is anything to go by.

In other words, science is a bit useless. Nuts and bolts – tangible, practical problem solving –engineering “underdog” Gallagher (Kilmer) is the one we’re supposed to identify with. But as noted before, you can diminish science all you like, just as long as you don’t question the fact of the universal order – and with it, Mars – as the same science presents it. And, of course, you do not.

Bowman: By 2025, we knew we were in trouble, and began to desperately search for a new home.

In amongst the unquestionables is that we’re ruining the world. This isn’t a Mission to Mars riff (although, disasters do happen there), but humanity is explicitly attempting to transform Mars as a consequence of “Pollution, poison, overpopulation”. This seems to be remarkably easy, utilising algae for the purposes of terraforming (until oxygen levels began to drop). Such capacity for self-destruction (of the environment and ourselves) is, of course, one of the major SF tropes, remembered and regurgitated wholesale.

Hoffman has assembled a decent cast, but the elements are against him, and he also shows a tendency to get in the way of himself. Stamp is the old wise guy, set up as a mentor for Gallagher in about one scene, one scene that is then used as a flashback only – it seems like – fifteen minutes later. There’s similar clumsiness with Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) introducing the team via a voiceover and flashbacks to her flashing Val when she gets out of the shower; it’s inevitably revealed that she has a thing for the janitor, despite having inevitably expressed doubts about him (whereas her squeeze, Benjamin Bratt’s pilot, turns out to be a bit of a prat.

Val and Tom may have fallen out making the movie, but they muster a decent rapport. Generally, however, there’s very little to empathise with in these characters or make them even vaguely believable. Doubtless you could say the same about Ridders’ Alien prequels, but the playing here is too big for a “realistic” take and the characterisation too underserved for anything approaching The Andromeda Strain’s applied science (I’m not sure Baker does anything worthwhile, aside from pushing Bratt off a cliff).

Where Hoffman does earn a few points is in keeping Red Planet moving along. Bowman must repair the ship topside while those on the surface attempt to find a means back to her, also whilst encountering hostile indigenous life and hostile AI AMEE. The FX are noticeably less proficient than those of Mission to Mars, but they’re generally quite serviceable. But then, if you treat Red Planet as little more than a B-movie, they’re entirely in keeping. The whittle-them-down, planeteers-in-peril structure bears some similarities to genuine cult fave Pitch Black, released earlier the same year; perhaps, if it had been less slavish to “realism”, Val et al could have been menaced by a Predator on Mars. That would have been more fun.

No one came out of this smelling of roses. Stamp maybe, but not really. Moss was looking to consolidate her Matrix success but had to make do with Chocolat and Memento; she wouldn’t manage to etch herself out a significant big screen presence (and The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t count). Big success still awaited Baker (but on the small screen). Big(ger) trouble awaited Sizemore, who is to some degree cast against type here, but that doesn’t mean the decision works. Val, besides allegedly bragging he netted $10m for the movie, was pretty much over as a leading man from this point, and you’d only find him in supporting roles in big movies.

Hoffman retreated from whence he came and hasn’t made a feature since. On this evidence, it’s impossible to say whether he’d have established himself, but the way ad men tend to, I wouldn’t have rule it out. I wouldn’t be surprised if some injudicious editing were involved post-the-fact that he didn’t wholly get on board with, but Red Planet isn’t a picture anyone is rediscovering, less still writing making-of retrospectives on. I’ll say this for, it, I’d much rather sit through Red Planet any day of the week than insufferably can-do Matt Damon in The Martian. If only the nematodes had got him on Day One.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was