(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.