(director: Antony Hoffman; screenwriters: Chuck Pfarrer/Jonathan Lemkin, from a story by Pfarrer; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editors: Robert K. Lambert/Dallas S. Puett; cast: Val Kilmer (Gallagher), Carrie-Anne Moss (Bowman), Tom Sizemore (Burchenal), Benjamin Bratt (Santen), Simon Baker (Pettingil), Terence Stamp (Chantilas); Runtime: 106; Warner Bros.; 2000)

“This one’s a nuts-and-bolts sci-fier.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The third dull Hollywood film about Mars in a little over a year, after Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” and “Mission to Mars.” I would think that three strikes and you’re out should apply to any more of these space bombs thrown into theaters by producers with big budgets and small stories. This one’s a nuts-and-bolts sci-fier that looks good but its dialogue is just terrible, with the capable cast unable to overcome the poorly plotted story. They say things like: “Things happen on Mars that are extreme and otherworldly.”

An uninspiring formulaic story line of ‘the mission to save the world’ by finding missing algae needed to supply the world with oxygen. The characters are either undeveloped or predictable stock characters. They make the Mars-mission astronauts into a disharmonious team (which is unlikely of ever happening, especially, when this is known before the orbit; and, the fact that they would have to spend six months together to reach their destination).

South African director Anthony Hoffman directs without imagination, as the film seems to drag on at a lethargic pace. The “Red Planet” was also void of humor and the obstacles encountered by the astronauts seemed arbitrarily thrown into the film to purposefully give the film an excuse for the special effects to be the star. I think Hollywood should reevaluate its plans to make these special effect only films about Mars and see if they can go back to the drawing board and put some life into these stories about the Earth’s last frontier. Those B-movies made in the 1950s on a shoestring budget were more entertaining than this large-scale leaden sci-fi adventure story.

The film opens on the listless note it will maintain, unfortunately, throughout, as the serious Commander Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) will relate via her voiceover the purpose of the mission and introduce the crew as she takes the viewer on a tour of the sleek aircraft.

In 2050, the Earth is about to become unlivable from pollution. The most telling sign of this danger, is that all the frogs have died. The only way the human race can save itself is the Mars Terraforming Project, an attempt by scientists to create an habitable atmosphere based on the obtaining of oxygen-producing blue-green algae, which calls for colonizing Mars. An unmanned Mars project that was working has mysteriously malfunctioned, so an emergency mission commanded by Bowman is sent to get things straightened out.

The introduction of the crew is done in the same tired formula style seen in countless films. Each member is labeled and doesn’t move from that tag, except for the film’s designated hero, Gallagher (Val Kilmer), the ship’s mechanical engineer, considered the least important person on the mission — a ‘space janitor.’ He has designs on Bowman, especially after seeing her beautiful boobs when she comes out of the shower. Predictably he becomes the most important member of the crew, saves the world and gets the only girl aboard the ship who isn’t a mechanical robot.

The other crew members are so boring and one-dimensional that when they started getting picked off one by one, I was rooting for a more efficient way of getting rid of them; maybe, picking up the pace at two at a time killings. Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) is the head scientist, he writes code for genetics and doesn’t believe in God and jokes about becoming Mars’s new “king” and having Bowman be the “queen” to propagate the species. His counterpart, wouldn’t you know it, is a believer in God, the resident scientist-philosopher, Chantilas (Terence Stamp). He is an arrogant preacher of the truth, whose only purpose in the film is to rant on about the limitations of science, seemingly impressed by the sound of his own voice. Thankfully we got rid of him in the first wave of deaths.

The two most repulsive crew members are the co-pilot, Santen (Benjamin Bratt), who is a tormentor of the others and an egomaniac, and the other is the agricultural specialist, Pettingill (Simon Baker), the main villain. He is both a liar and a coward.

The voyage runs into trouble from a gamma ray storm, disabling some of its equipment. The Mars lander descends to the surface with Gallagher, Burchenal, Santen, Pettengil and Chantilas. We then get into the special effects part, as there’s a well-photographed crash landing scene. The five men become the first humans on Mars when their landing capsule roughly bounces upon the desert surface until finally rolling to a stop, as they are surrounded by airbag-like balloons.

The barren red desert of Mars is breathtakingly beautiful, as the men trudge through it unable to find the algae that had been growing there. When they reach the spot that was created to house them safely for a two year period, they find it in ruins. The source of that destruction is a mystery, which the film never tries to explain. Did God do it? Maybe, it was an alien! It’s an interesting theme, but this film was only able to grab onto its spectacular special effects (effectively showing Mars mysteriously moving).

There is one other passenger on their voyage, an all-utility tracking robot, AMEE, who is maintained by Gallagher. When AMEE goes mustang and can’t be repaired, she starts attacking the men, aiming to destroy all of the them by going into a war mode. This gives the story another contrived subplot.

Ideas are quickly jettisoned in favor of a standby formulaic device. There’s a rush against the clock to leave Mars in one piece, with Bowman alone returning to Earth with the knowledge to save humanity before it is too late.

I thought the film lacked suspense and the acting was only bearable, not giving this film too much of a chance to overcome its overall dullness. If you are the kind of viewer who goes bananas for technology, this film might seem better suited to you than what I thought of it. But if you are interested in a lively story, then I’m afraid you wouldn’t get that on this mission.

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