Red Planet

On a cosmic fling, we will kiss in Mars’ ring
★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2000
Director: 
Antony Hoffman
Starring: 
Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Benjamin Bratt, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker
The Setup: 
Adventures that might befall one when traveling to Mars.
Discussion: 

I saw this at the movies when it came out, and rather liked it, but became re-energized to see it after watching Mission To Mars, which came out about the same time, and especially after seeing Sunshine, which reminded my of it with its loose, unrelated story.

It is 2025! Earth smells! Plus, there’s no oxygen. They’ve been sending algae to Mars to grow there and make oxygen, and then the entire human population is going to rent a giant intergalactic U-Haul and move there. Adventure in moving! In-Solar System moves only $25 Million!

I would like to watch an epic, four-hour Traffic-type movie about various families preparing to leave Earth forever, but instead we’re stuck with six unappealing characters, introduced in a very clumsy voice-over. There’s the captain, Carrie-Ann Moss as Bowman [surely a nod to Dave Bowman of 2001], Benjamin Bratt as the arrogant one, Simon Baker as the sneaky one, Tom Sizemore as the boisterous one, and Val Kilmer as Gallagher. That’s right, Gallagher the children’s entertainer! No, silly, he’s the space janitor, and Bowman makes it clear via voice-over that she doesn’t find him appealing AT. ALL.

Now the movie starts spewing exposition and character-building everywhere. Terence Stamp is on hand as the spiritual advisor, which as surely you know, means that he’s going to pompously spout bullshit about God every chance he gets. This proves to be the case. He’s the kind of character that, whenever anyone is wondering at the physics of something will start up with “Ah, but can we be sure there is not a guiding hand at work?” until you want to scream SHUT THE FUCK UP! I can only guess by how many of his pontificating scenes ended up in the deleted material that test audiences thought this same thing.

Anyway, Val lets us know that he was taught navigation by stars by his grandfather. This lets us know that he doesn’t entirely trust machines, and in the same conversation [with the space preacher] he hints that he may believe in a spiritual being, and this lets us all know that he is going to be the survivor. Atheists rarely live in movies, you know.

Anyway, he has a flirtation with Bowman as she emerges nude from the shower. Then we’re introduced to AMEE, their robot dog who will serve as navigator, but can also switch into ‘military mode’ to take out whoever. Then the guys are making moonshine while they listen to the Police’s “When the World Is Running Down,” [I assume this is supposed to be some clever reference to the whole thing about the Earth becoming uninhabitable], but—are we STILL going to be listening to The Police in 2025? Val’s pretty old school. This is not far from the fact that they still rock to early Van Halen in Mission To Mars. I guess music is going to continue to suck far into the future, and we’ll still be mining the 70s and 80s for jams. Anyway, this shows us that these guys aren’t just stuffy scientists—they ROCK!

SPOILERS > > >
After another astonishingly tedious talk about faith, the ship is hit by a burst of gamma radiation that disables everything. Okay, doesn’t NASA plan for anything? They spend all these untold millions on this mission that is critical to the survival of humanity and no one thought of gamma radiation bursts? And they make them seem like they’re not uncommon. Anyway, this necessitates all the guys landing on the planet while Bowman stays on the ship and tries to repair it. They have this really cool landing as all these balloons pop out all over their craft, making them look like a giant raspberry that rolls down the surface [of course damaging everything, la la la]. They have to jettison the landing gear with the robot dog in it. Intercut with this is Bowman having troubles of her own putting out a zero-G fire and almost getting sucked out into space. Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy.

So the guys have 7 ½ hours of air left, and they want to get to this lab that will have supplies. Space Preacher has been injured and tells everyone to leave him to die, to which they’re like “Bye! Whew—won’t have to hear that old geezer prattle on anymore!” Not really, and he and Val share a tender moment [revolving around a rock that represents God/faith/whatever], and they take off. Couldn’t get rid of him soon enough for me. Stamp is a good actor, I just can’t stand these kinds of characters. So they wander on and find the lab, which is destroyed. Then they’re all sitting around facing certain death. Bratt is out admiring the scenery when Baker comes up and they get in a pissing contest about who’s more man, Bratt slips and falls to his doom. In the deleted scenes you can see that they originally had a long fight and Baker knocked Bratt to his death in a momentary pique, which would have made this element a lot stronger, but then we wouldn’t LIKE Baker, and so it has to be changed to be just an accident. He goes back to camp and tells the other guys that Bratt killed himself.

So that night they’re sitting around the campfire. Val says he worries about Bowman, and the other guys indicate they only care that THEY’RE alive. This also calls Val out for survival status. I should mention that Sizemore for sure, and I’m pretty sure Bratt and Baker, have indicated that they would like to hook up with Bowman. This will be important later.

But first, robot dog. AMEE shows up, and the guys realize that they can cannibalize her for parts. “But that’ll mean killing her,” Val says, then agrees to do it. Well, AMEE is not on board with this plan, and switches into military mode. This means that AMEE has developed a survival instinct, which might be considered one of the themes of the movie, if the whole thing weren’t so scattered. By the way, AMEE’s blue eye is also a reference to HAL’s red eye from 2001.

So AMEE starts kicking some martial arts poses, does some fancy flipping, then steps over to Sizemore and snaps a rib. Why doesn’t she just kill them? Because, Val says, “She’s playing war games,” meaning she’s purposely wounded one f them to slow them all down, but “soon she’ll start playing ‘search and destroy.’” This also occurs, quite clearly, because if she were to kill them all outright, that would end the movie and generate no suspense. And it does come off as kind of a cheat. Nevertheless, the robot attack is fairly scary.

So Bowman gets the engines working and has enough fuel to break from Mars’ orbit and head back toward Earth, but she’s gonna try to wait for the guys. She is bathed in an angelic backlight as she talks to Val, and then remembers as time when he came close to kissing her. If it seems like this scene begins right in the middle, it’s because it does; the full flashback is in the deleted scenes. She tells Val she “doesn’t care about dying—I just can’t stand being alone.” Meanwhile Val has taken over the responsibilities of lecturing the crew on matters spiritual, beginning his adopting the role of “soul of the crew.”

So they all have to get to this Russian probe that can launch them into orbit. Thing is, there’s only room for two, and they are three. During a huge ice storm, depicted as a hurricane from space, they have a scene about who will live that I won’t even go into. But—how can there be an ice storm when there’s very limited water? When we see it from space, the storm is the ONLY clouds on the entire planet. A little suspect, to me. Anyway, Baker tries to get away with the radio and AMEE takes him out. Problem solved!

Okay, survival against the elements, check, difficult mission, check, killer robot dog, check, hmm, what haven’t we done yet? How about flesh-eating alien bugs? That’ll do it! For some entirely unexplained reason, Sizemore starts cutting open Baker’s suit and these nasty bugs light on fire and start shooting out of his body. We now click into “exposition mode:” The bugs are “nematodes,” and they eat the algae [oh yeah, there’s some algae left] and produce oxygen. Sizemore captures a few of them and gives them to Val to take back, then ignites all the oxygen on the surface in a massive firestorm that is visible from space. Val’s suit is perfectly insulated against massive firestorms, however, and he is completely unaffected. This means he’ll have to breathe the oxygen in his suit, however, the filmmakers apparently forgetting that we saw his suit run out of oxygen earlier.

Then Val’s about to give up when he gets an inspirational speech from Bowman, saying “do it for me.” He finds the Russian probe and Bowman downloads some stuff into it—decades old Russian equipment and current American technology—perfectly compatible! But then—the battery’s dead! It’s all for naught. He tells Bowman he can’t make it and they pass out of contact. But wait! If he can kill AMEE and take her battery—! He devises a complicated plan that will kill the machine but spare her battery, which goes off entirely without a hitch. I think, hey, you’ve got a cool killer robot dog, couldn’t we at least have some kind of struggle? But no, it all just goes fine. Val gets in and blasts off.

Now begins a nice visceral climax that I think is mostly responsible for my liking the movie when I first saw it. Val shoots up into space, the roof of his spaceship ripping away so it is just him in this framework. Then Bowman shoots out of her ship to intercept him—so it’s all about the two of them launching themselves into the abyss to meet each other amongst the heavens. She reels him back in, restarts his heart, and they head home.

She has a strange ending voice-over that says “Everything went wrong, but what’s important is that we accomplished the mission. WE triumphed.” IS that the important thing? And also, DID they accomplish the mission? I guess so, because they’re going to bring the two killer bugs back [oh, killer bugs, no problem!] and they’re going to restore the oxygen to Earth. Don’t throw away that dingy old planet just yet!
< < < SPOILERS END

So part of the reason this movie is regarded as so bad, and why it reminded me of Sunshine, is that it’s so scattered and episodic. Nothing emerges as the main challenge, so the whole thing has an and then-and then-and then structure. This wouldn’t seem so glaring if it didn’t seem like the threats—killer robot dog, flesh-eating alien bugs—weren’t too major to be dispatched with so easily. This makes the ending very unsatisfying, and leaves one with a feeling of “what was that all about?”

I think what it’s all about is true, celestial love. All of the guys, except space preacher, can be considered suitors for Bowman. They endure tests of their strength and fortitude. Bowman remains like an angel above in the sky, or one could see her as a princess in a tower above them. We can tell Val is going to win because he’s concerned about her, not just himself, and he believes in the spiritual. They don’t give up on each other, and in the big climactic image they shoot themselves out into the unknown [just like a marriage!] to unite in the abyss. It’s beautiful. Actually, it’s a pretty good ending. You could probably spin out some larger significance about how the robot dog is akin to slaying a dragon or whatever, but I’m not sure it all holds up that far.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t work. The large amount of scenes in the deleted section definitely suggest that somebody’s creative vision got mangled, but what made it to the screen may be amusing to some, but it doesn’t hang together at all. It’s sort of like “adventures that might befall one when journeying to Mars.” You have a renegade robot dog, that seems like it’s gonna be a big deal. But no. How about flesh-eating alien bugs, that’s gotta be a big deal for sure. Uh-uh. It all just comes up and then gets dropped again. Mission To Mars was a little bit this way, but it did have one overarching story and goal. Sunshine is very much this way, but that movie was unified by a cohesive theme and fantastic visual content. Maybe the whole idea about the romance here was supposed to be the theme, but the movie just got hacked up. We may never know.

You may like it. I kind of like it. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Should you watch it: 

If you like meandering sci-fi adventures that aren’t that good but are kind of fun.