In Case You Missed It: Red Planet (2000)
One of my favorite books from the past few years is Andy Weir’s The Martian. To me, it was science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction. I was completely absorbed in Andy Weir’s best seller following the tumultuous journey of astronaut Mark Watney as he finds a way to survive after being stranded on Mars. Weir found a way to inject humor and break down super-duper techno jargon for the layman. And while Ridley Scott’s 2015 cinematic adaptation was an Oscar-nominated blockbuster, I was very disappointed. The movie, like many film translations, was a watered-down version of the original source material. What fans like me of Weir’s tale observed was Cliff Notes storytelling that sacrificed both scientific elucidation and character development accompanied by an overly-glib Matt Damon.
To me, a much more entertaining science fiction film is on display in 2000’s Red Planet. Yes, Red Planet, a film that has a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Call me crazy, as my wife often does, but this is a much more satisfying sci-fi adventure revolving around a Mars expedition that becomes a test of survival. Plus, it has Val Kilmer in full Kilmer Mode – charming, intelligent, heroic.
Over the opening narration, we learn the year is approximately 2045. Earth is approaching the point of no return in terms of sustaining the population (perhaps a real life omen) and Mars is seen as the only option. The crew charged with saving mankind includes the co-pilot, Santen (Benjamin Bratt), chief science officer, Chantilas (Terrance Stamp), bioengineer, Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), terraforming expert, Pettengil (Simon Baker), and mechanical systems engineer a.k.a space janitor, Gallagher (Val Kilmer) all under the watchful eye of chief pilot and mission commander, Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss). After a few scenes that establish the potential camaraderie and crew dynamics, the first of many crises erupt. The all-male crew is jettisoned to the surface while Bowman is tasked with keeping their craft in orbit. What ensues is test after test as the remaining crew members must deal with numerous obstacles – some organic, some of their own creation. I’d rather not spoil the many surprises.
Some of the highlights I would share include:
Terrance Stamp’s signature gravitas on display as a scientist who has embraced philosophy because “science couldn’t answer any of the really interesting questions.”
When trying to navigate the surface without GPS, Kilmer quips, “This is it. That moment they told us in high school where one day, algebra would save our lives.”
The “golden oldie” that Kilmer sings during a moment of needed morale
The conflict created between Bratt’s alpha male pilot and Baker’s bookish nerd, and what happens when one word too many is said
Essentially, Red Planet is a modern day version of a classic 1950’s sci-fi flick, but with better special effects. The performances are solid. I mentioned Kilmer earlier but I particularly enjoyed his buddy-buddy rapport with Tom Sizemore, a reminder of their earlier collaboration in 1995’s Heat. And Carrie-Anne Moss is particularly convincing as the no-nonsense pilot who uses every resource to stay afloat and unsurprisingly can handle her liquor.
Red Planet doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It’s an enjoyable lark of a film that’s worth a look and has earned its regular airings on the SyFy Network. And I am just fine standing with the 14% at Rotten Tomatoes that recognize the surprising entertainment that it is.