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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Red Planet (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Antony Hoffman
Cast: Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt.
2000 – 110 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, profanity, and partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 11, 2000.

Since space movies have grown more than a little tiresome over the years, and with another film about Mars released this past March, there was more than a few reservations at the onset of "Red Planet." After all, what fresh material could director Antony Hoffman and screenwriters Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin possibly muster out of such a worn-out premise? Quite surprisingly, the answer turns out to be a lot, as "Red Planet" is not only infinitely superior to last spring's "Mission to Mars," but also one of the most involving and well-made space-set thrillers since Ridley Scott's 1979 opus, "Alien."

Set in 2050, when the Earth's polluted atmosphere has quickly made the planet nearly unlivable, a six-person crew set off on a six-month voyage to Mars to reconfirm that colonization may, in fact, be possible for humans. With Lt. Cmdr. Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) staying behind with the ship after a malfunctioning problem, the other five members--"hotshot" second-in-command Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt), veteran Chief Science Officer Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp), medical systems engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer), Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), and Dr. Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker)--make their way to the red planet to reach a previously-built station equipped with enough oxygen, food, and water to last 26 months.

Oddly enough, the algae that had been heavily spray upon Mars' surface twenty years before has mysteriously disappeared. And what they don't expect is that the station has been completely destroyed, leaving them with only seven hours until the oxygen in their helmets runs out. Making matters worse is AMEE (Autonomous Mapping Evaluation and Evasion), a robot that Kate sends to Mars to aid in finding the crew, but whose military instincts go haywire on the rough landing, leaving it a murderous force hell-bent on destroying the entire group.

Sumptuously photographed by Peter Suschitzky, with the desolate landscapes of Wadi Rum, Jordan, and Coober Pedy, Australia standing in for Mars, "Red Planet" is a suspense-filled, surprisingly thoughtful drama that plausibly tells what could happen if the Earth ever did grow too polluted to live on. Deliberately paced, yet never stalling for a minute, the film draws you into its setup as we meet and grow to understand the dynamics of the six characters, and then lets loose into an unpredictable thrill ride once they are unleashed upon the largely unexplored terrain of the foreign planet.

Despite including an excessive, unnecessary narration by Kate Bowman that bookends the main attraction, the film rarely steps wrong. One of the major pleasures is the way that, despite revealing its main plotline, it is always difficult to decipher where the film is going, and what the outcome will be. Furthermore, instead of turning into a monster-on-the-loose horror movie, director Hoffman wisely aims higher, and makes the dangerous AMEE only a subplot to a much larger story about a crew that find themselves fighting to survive the perilous planet itself, and using their brains and the expertise they hold in their profession to do so.

The actors fit snugly in their roles, with the standouts being lead Val Kilmer, who is so charismatic as a performer that he deserves more roles; Carrie-Anne Moss, who brings a tough poignancy to her character of Kate; and Terence Stamp, who, in the picture's most thought-provoking line, says, "I realized science couldn't answer the really interesting questions, so I turned to philosophy. I've been searching for God ever since." The dignity that Stamp brings to his supporting appearance as aging scientist Bud Chantilas is quite extraordinary, and even when he goes AWOL in the second hour, his lasting impression has long-since been made. Rounding out the cast is the bland Benjamin Bratt, rising Australian actor Simon Baker, and Tom Sizemore.

Ultimately, "Red Planet" is such a convincing motion picture because the talented actors and the mostly tightly-written script make you believe everything that is happening to them. With Mars giving off alternately reddish and bluish tints, with its rocky, mountainous vistas, and a violent ice storm the size of Montana sweeping through the area at one point, the visual effects are also startlingly believable. There is no reason why "Red Planet" should be such a successfully entertaining thriller, but almost everything falls into place and seems to effortlessly work. Maybe there's life yet in the gradually wearisome space genre. Movies like "Red Planet" can only help.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman