Warner Bros. // 2000 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 29th, 2001
They didn't find life on Mars. It found them.
Coming on the heels of the disliked and disdained Mission to Mars came Red Planet, which in some ways has been unfairly tarred with the same brush. Though it isn't the greatest sci-fi film since 2001, it had enough going for it to appreciate in the same way I liked old, campy 1950s B-films. Yes, there are flaws in the film, but the good outweighs the bad, with great special effects, a somewhat more thoughtful story, and its emphasis on characters rather than melodrama. Warner has released the film on DVD with a spectacular anamorphic transfer, terrific soundtrack, and a couple extra features, which may well give this blast from the past a new life.
As told through narration during the opening credits, in the future mankind has polluted and abused the Earth to the point where finding a new planet to live on has become a necessity. For years unmanned probes have been planting algae on Mars in an effort to oxygenate the atmosphere enough to support human life, but for some reason the algae has suddenly disappeared. To understand and hopefully correct the problem, a team of scientists are being taken in a ship built in orbit to investigate. The interplanetary ship, led by Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix), arrives at Mars only to be disabled by a solar flare, and the crew has to abandon ship in a hurry, leaving Bowman behind. Their troubles are only beginning, as they find their habitat destroyed, no air, and their navigation robot AMEE has decided to go berserk and attack the crew. Now the men must work together, or against each other as their nature's dictate, and try to find the answers on Mars and within themselves.
I suppose one of the reasons I liked Red Planet more than Mission to Mars is that it is, in many ways, a smaller picture. Though the advertising for the film seemed to suggest we'd find monsters or other aliens, the answers are more reasonable. Most of the dangers, besides the hostile environment of the planet itself, are man-made. I also liked the man against man against environment theme, as it becomes apparent that all of the men planetside cannot survive. Rather than some huge drama, we are faced with the dilemma of disappearing algae, which requires an intelligent rather than a physical solution.
Red Planet features a great cast, though I can't say there were any standout performances. Carrie-Anne Moss does a fine job as the able ship commander, and Val Kilmer does a decent job as the equipment mechanic. Tom Sizemore does what he does best, and Terence Stamp gets to wax philosophical about the line between science and philosophy, and how religion takes up where science leaves off. No one overplays their role, and provide journeyman performances.
Though I felt the film is much like the old 1950s sci-fi pictures, it certainly doesn't look like one. The special effects are dazzling; far superior to those in Mission to Mars. I particularly liked the ship, which broke out of the mold of the intricate (and too often obvious) models we've become accustomed to. I thought the planet was done just right; it didn't take long to become immersed into the world in such a way I thought it really was Mars. Even the robot AMEE, whose part was the biggest flaw in the film, looked amazing in action. Kudos for the effects even if I hated its role in the story. The whole film had a seamless, realistic look to it, except for just a couple of the effects shots.
That great look is even further enhanced by the outstanding anamorphic transfer on the DVD. The transfer is free of artifacts, with great colors, deep, dark blacks, and gorgeous reds on the planet. Even small details are very sharp, and I detected very little if any edge enhancement. The film didn't look this fine in the theater, except for maybe its first day. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive; with a great deal of directional panning accurately placed, clear dialogue, and crystal clear sound effects. Absolutely first rate work. Less impressive is the extra content, though what is there is nice enough. Except for filmographies for the cast, the only extra is a collection of deleted scenes, which are mostly extensions of existing scenes. Some of them would have better developed the characters, and one minor subplot was erased. The absence of a trailer is a mystery.
Taken as a film in the tradition of the '50s, lapses in the story are forgivable, and mostly can be overlooked. That doesn't mean they aren't there. Somehow a solar flare catches the ship and crew completely by surprise, and nearly kills them all? I couldn't help asking myself why they wouldn't have been able to see it coming. The whole AMEE subplot upset me, and was the low point of the film for me. What scientific expedition would bring a military robot with weapons and a self defense mechanism to an uninhabited world? If they could build such a robot, they could have built one that couldn't try to kill them. Of course these two aspects provide much of the danger and drives the story, but I would have preferred they had been a bit more realistic about it all. It clashed with what otherwise seemed a very reasonable future story. Your enjoyment of the film depends on being able to overlook these things and just go with the flow.
Seeing intelligent people have to figure out how to survive using technology and their own minds against a hostile world makes for an entertaining film, and Red Planet succeeded despite it's lapses in judgment. Outstanding special effects and a great look at outer space add excitement and beauty, and makes for a fun and interesting movie. Don't take it too seriously, and you might enjoy it too. Give it a rental if the negative reviews put you off, but I'm glad to have it in my collection.
The writers are sentenced to adding one rewrite to their next script, but otherwise the film and all involved in it are acquitted. Warner is given a fine for the lack of a trailer, which I thought was now a standard rather than an extra feature.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site