Cinematically, the planet named after the Roman god of war appears to be jinxed. Earlier this year Disney lost a bundle on Brian De Palma’s solemnly stupid “Mission to Mars,” and now Warner Bros. is poised to do likewise with this completely idiotic, excruciatingly dull potboiler about the woes that befall the first manned expedition there. (Their purpose is to investigate why earlier unmanned efforts to prepare the orb for colonization by earthlings fleeing their environmentally-poisoned home have apparently failed.)
At least De Palma’s picture, misguided as it was, had a distinguished model–Kubrick’s transcendent “2001” (though it missed all the earlier film’s mystery and majesty). The debut feature of Antony Hoffman, yet another transplant from the world of commercials, is, on the other hand, reminiscent of such previous clunkers as Stanley Donen’s 1980 megabomb “Saturn 3.” “Red Planet” is a limp, dramatically otiose series of episodes presumably designed to build tension but instead growing increasingly tedious as the picture grinds tiresomely on. After the usual introduction of the cardboard crew members, there’s an elaborate scene depicting the mother ship’s incapacitation by some sort of power surge while orbiting Mars; commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) stays aboard to try to save the ship, but all five others–maintenance guy (and Bowman squeeze) Gallagher (Val Kilmer), geneticist Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), cocky co-pilot Santen (Benjamin Bratt), terraformist Chip Pettengil (Simon Baker) and philosopher-scientist Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp)–escape to the surface. There they face a chain of threats: a crash landing, a paucity of oxygen, an ice storm, a military robot gone berserk, and maybe even some pesky Martian critters. The luckier members of the cast meet their maker fairly early on, but the less fortunate must soldier on far longer while the script futilely attempts to build much interest in who–if any–will survive, and if so how. The acting is terrible across the board–about the level of what one encounters in an old “Flash Gordon” serial–but even the most superb thespians would find it difficult to elevate a script composed of tired cliches, pathetic jokes and ponderous philosophizing. And there are none to be found here.
To be fair, one should mention that the cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is fairly good, using some impressive locations in Jordan and Australia as stand-ins for the Martian landscape. But that’s about the only element that seems even vaguely authentic. The advertising campaign is mostly wrong, too. “Not a Sound. Not a Warning. Not a Chance. Not Alone,” it reads. But the picture is distinctly noisy, and reviews like this one should provide sufficient warning. On the other hand, there’s no chance it will attract many viewers, so after the first few days one could very well be the only person in an auditorium screening it. One out of four isn’t a terribly good average.
As a historical postscript, one should note two earlier pictures with titles very similar to this one. The first was “Red Planet Mars,” a hysterical anti-communist screed of 1952, in which Peter Graves, of all people, plays a young American scientist who captures radio transmissions from the planet disclosing that Mars is governed by none other than God! The movie is sheer lunacy, but fun in the vein of “Plan Nine from Outer Space.” Then there’s 1959’s gonzo classic “The Angry Red Planet,” wherein four astronauts are confronted by a variety of monsters set upon them by the local residents. Presumably the makers of this new effort felt no need to add “Mars” to their title on the grounds that the descriptive moniker is now common knowledge even among those who might not be able to find the Red Sea on a map of earth. And as for the “Angry,” in the current case it’s likely to be the unfortunate members of the audience, rather than the planet, to whom the adjective will more appropriately apply.