Hollywood's recent visits to the planet Mars pale in comparison to the otherworldly visions portrayed in vintage sci-fi flicks, comic books and the writings of such genre gurus as Ray Bradbury. Following the lead of Brian De Palma's recent, New-Agey "Mission to Mars," "Red Planet" performs reputably in the hardware, special-effects and cinematography departments. But like DePalma's clunker, it's a star trek that goes nowhere fast.
As imagined by rookie filmmaker Antony Hoffman (formerly a director of commercials), the Earth of the year 2057 is a world out of balance. Sky and sea are polluted, and all the frogs are dying. It's too late to clean up the place, so earthlings do what comes naturally: decide to move on to fresher digs. The Mars Terraforming Project, an unmanned effort to grow algae, is sent to the forbidding planet, but apparently fails. Thus, the first manned expedition to Mars must be launched.
Not much happens on the six-month trip, which consumes about 20 minutes of screen time. But we are introduced to the mission's six participants, none of whom are fleshed out enough to demonstrate more than one or two personality traits.
Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss), the commander, is tough but sexy, somewhat reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the "Alien" trilogy. Gallagher (Val Kilmer), the mechanic, is quick with a smile and a joke. Egotistical co-pilot Santen (Benjamin Bratt) is given to cutting remarks.
Agricultural expert Pettengil (Simon Baker) is smart but reserved. The good-timer Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) puts his trust in science, but the token senior citizen, Chantilas (Terence Stamp), is more interested in the pursuit of God.
"I realized science could not answer any of the really interesting questions," Chantilas opines, "so I turned to philosophy."
When a solar flare sends the spaceship reeling, all of the crew members except Bowman escape in a shuttle. Their emergency landing on Mars is easily the most intriguing, adroitly photographed sequence in the movie. The vehicle, enclosed in protective, balloonlike bags, bounces again and again on the dry, rocky surface until it comes to a rest.
The red planet, we learn, is a place where the dawn is always spectacularly rosy. And its Grand Canyon-like formations (actually shot in Jordan and Australia) are fascinating to behold.
The air quality of the new environment is suspect, however. And the nights are freezing. There are also other dangers for the explorers to contend with, including the mutiny of AMEE -- a sort of robot dog, able to contort itself into a wild variety of positions -- that turns against its masters. Thousands of desert bugs (seen in brief, occasional close-ups) may eventually wreak havoc. To top it all off, the crew's oxygen supply is dwindling and their communications systems have crashed.
Hoffman's film, penned by experienced screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin ("The Devil's Advocate") and Chuck Pfarrer ("The Jackal"), rather quickly devolves into a life-and-death version of TV's "Survivor," as the members of the team are picked off one-by-one. This is what we've all come so far to endure? The lack of narrative drive or genuine surprises may make viewers wish that the Mars invaders had instead tried their luck on another planet.