What do you get when you cross the plot of The Martian (2015) with another cliched tale of technology gone off the rails? You end up with a marginally entertaining film fated to become one of Val Kilmer’s resume footnotes. It’s not a terrible movie, but it isn’t a perfect one either. It takes a hodgepodge of ideas, wings it, and hopes for the best. This film is a cinematic swing and a miss.
Red Planet is a 2000 attempt at a science fiction thriller directed by Antony Hoffman, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Tom Sizemore. Released on November 10, 2000, it was a critical and commercial failure. Although the film had some great special effects and visuals, it failed to favor critics and fans. The movie was Hoffman’s only feature film; he primarily directed television commercials, which may have been the problem. The story had some interesting ideas, but they failed to translate well to the screen. The problem may have also been a plot overstuffed with ideas leading to the film lacking in focus.
The story revolves around the idea that in 2056 A.D., Earth is in an ecological crisis due to pollution and overpopulation. Automated interplanetary missions have been seeding Mars with atmosphere-producing algae as the first stage of terraforming the planet. When the oxygen quantity produced by the algae inexplicably and suddenly diminishes, the crew of Mars-1 investigates. The team consists of Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), an agnostic geneticist. It also includes Bud Chantillas (Terrance Stamp), an aging philosophical scientist and surgeon; systems engineer Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer); Commander Kate Bowman (Carie-Anne Moss); pilot Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt); and terraforming scientist Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker).
This story may have some basis. In fact, Do you think all the interest in colonizing Mars is a science with nothing better to do? Do you think the wealthy and privileged would hesitate for a moment to migrate to Mars and leave the rest of us behind if the situation here on Earth becomes critical? (it has)
Like another film released around the same time, Mission To Mars (2000), things start to go wrong almost immediately, putting the all-star cast into deep trouble. The narrative follows one mishap after another while attempting to juggle many ideas that do not contribute to the story in a meaningful way. Mars 1 acquires damaged upon arrival; Bowman remains aboard for repair while the others land to locate an automated habitat (HAB 1) established earlier to manufacture food and oxygen. During insertion, the team’s landing craft is damaged and lands off-course. In the aftermath, “AMEE” (Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion)—a military robot programmed to guide them—is lost. Chantilly suffers a ruptured spleen and internal bleeding and tells the others to leave him behind. Santen refuses, but Chantillas tells them that they have limited oxygen left to make it to HAB 1. Chantilly tells Gallagher that it is all right, as he got to see Mars for the first time. The crew leaves to allow Chantillas to die in peace. In orbit around Mars, Bowman contacts Houston, which informs her that Mars-1 is in a decaying orbit but offers hope of restoring engine function in departing Mars.
There is an accidental death designed to add tension to an already cluttered story. Add to that AMEE goes nuts and gets stuck in a terminator mode and is hunting the survivors down and picking them off one by one. The robot ends up being the best part of the movie but has very little actual screen time. The discovery of an insect species stores oxygen in its body, thus making it highly flammable. There is also a subplot of a budding romance between Kilmer and Moss.
As the lone survivor, Kilmer and like Matt Damon in The Martian, ‘sciences the hell’ out of the situation. He not only outwits the now deadly AMEE but manages to find a way to launch a lander leftover from an earlier mission and barely manages to rendezvous with the ship in orbit so he and Moss can smooch all the way home. The end. Swing and a miss for a film with a lot of ambition ended up joining the majority of science fiction films as another B movie.