Have you ever heard about Hollywood's Mars curse? For a while, it seemed that every Mars-related film would either bomb at the box office or be shredded by critics (or both). Movies such as Mision to Mars (2000), Ghosts of Mars (2001) and John Carter (2012) are notorious examples. One other is Antony Hoffman's only feature film as director, Red Planet (2000). Despite an intriguing premise and some truly great scenes, the project badly failed both critically and commercially upon release, grossing $33,500,000 out of a $80,000,000 budget and pretty much ended Val Kilmer's career as an A-list star. It currently stands at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes.
However, I believe it remains a very underrated effort and definitely deserves a second look. I personally love it quite a bit and would even go as far as saying it is my second favorite Mars film after Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990)! Warning: spoilers ahead!
Despite what the poster above seems to indicate, the film is far from being scary. That silly tagline is quite misleading as it is a thrilling sci-fi adventure with some suspenseful moments. The plot goes like this:
"An effort to circumvent global catastrophe becomes a disaster in its own right in this science fiction thriller. In the year 2050, Earth is on the verge of ecological disaster, and the Mars Terraforming Project has been created in hopes of making our neighboring planet habitable so that a colony of Earthlings might begin a new civilization there. But the project goes awry, and Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) is put in charge of a rescue mission to set the system back on its feet. Bringing along astronaut Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer) and scientists Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) and Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terrence Stamp), Bowman and her crew set out for Mars, but disaster strikes and the landing craft crashes into the red planet. The crew is stranded without communications as Bowman struggles to find a way to get them home; to make matters worse, the robot that was designed to serve and protect them has gone haywire, and is now attempting to hunt them down as prey (Rotten Tomatoes)."
Sounds familiar? The left-behind astronauts who have to use their wits to get back to their ship might look like a cliché by now, being a central plot point in successful recent films like Gravity (2013) or The Martian (2015). Red Planet is no different and is actually quite thrilling in the process. Just don't expect it to break new grounds ! The way Gallagher eventually escapes Mars is ingenious if slightly impossible... There is also a killer robot on the loose (AMEE), which echoes HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While plenty of the plot's twists and turns can be seen as derivative from better films by today's standards, it remains fun to watch.
What Red Planet brings that is new is the idea that the algae planted on Mars eventually allowed life to evolve, giving birth to a species of alien-insects called "Nematodes", which creates oxygen when eating the plants. That explains why the crew can breathe on Mars without their helmets (the way they discover this is one of the best scenes in the film I think). I agree, that latter part requires some suspension of disbelief by the viewer and could've been completely ridiculous but I think it is well executed and actually works in the context of the film. The idea of terraforming Mars is actually very real and some think it might be humanity's salvation but here we are definitely in science-fiction territory. Beware : those seeking for scientific realism will likely want to throw their popcorn at the screen... Don't forget that this is a film in which one of the scientists says the genetic code is AGTP...
The casting is spot-on and I felt like each character had been developed sufficiently except one, Chantilas, played by veteran actor Terence Stamp. He brings a fascinating but sadly underused theme in the film ; the struggle between science and faith. One quote stayed with me long after the credits rolled :
"I realized science couldn't answer any of the really interesting questions. So, I turned to philosophy. I've been searching for God ever since. Who knows, I may pick up a rock and it'll say underneath, "Made by God." The universe is full of surprises."
Sadly, Stamp has only about 10 minutes of screen time before his character is wounded and left for dead... That is my only complaint regarding the characters. I especially love Kilmer's interpretation of Gallagher, the "space janitor". He is an engineer who enjoys making moonshine in space and looks like a rock star. How cool is that? The actor brings his usual charisma to the screen and steals every scene he is in. Back in 2000, he was still considered a bankable actor, having recently starred in Batman Forever (1995), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) and The Saint (1997). Kilmer could have easily overplayed the character but instead gives a calm and at times heartfelt performance. I consider him one of the most underrated actors out there. Tom Sizemore is Dr. Archenal and also gives a great performance as I genuinely cared about him and hoped that he wouldn't die. He brings much of the comic relief and reportedly didn't get along at all with Kilmer on set, eventually necessitating the use of body doubles to shoot scenes involving both actors... Looking at the film, I would have never guessed ; they actually make a great duo!
Carrie-Anne Moss, whom you might know from The Matrix (1999) and its sequels, is very effective as Commander Bowman, left alone in the ship over Mars. She is a great actress and she really seemed to care for her crew, which made the rescue mission even more thrilling to watch. Her romance with Val Kilmer's Gallagher might seem forced but I think it is played well and doesn't come across as gratuitous. She is the only woman in the crew and is nonetheless the leader, which obviously echoes Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979). The rest of the crew is composed of Benjamin Bratt and Simon Baker, who is now well known for his roles in The Mentalist and The Guardian TV series. The latter kills Bratt's character accidentally and is feeling guilty when he discovers that they can breathe on Mars (he thought they were going to die anyway). The relationship between these two is one of the most interesting aspects of the film but ultimately never pays off; Baker is conveniently killed by AMEE before the crew reaches the old russian ship. I would have loved to see the three survivors (Kilmer, Baker and Sizemore) fight to decide who will stay behind (the ship had room for two only).
One of the film's biggest flaw is its overuse of CGI. Some sequences are looking extremely fake by today's standards, such as the opening shots of the mother ship and the zero gravity fire which could be compared to PS3 animatics. The nematodes insects also look horrendous and will make some people cringe. I think it is quite distracting at times. Of course, we need not to forget that the film was made in 2000 but it only proves that miniatures and puppets never lose their old school charm while CGI rarely ages gracefully. I guess the film's special effects looked great at the time but now it mostly looks bad. There are some exceptions ; for instance, the crash landing on Mars is spectacular and I think a miniature was used. The robot AMEE is also looking quite good except in some silly fighting sequences where it uses kung-fu (!?).
The Tower That Ate People by Peter Gabriel
Composer Graeme Revell was hired to provide the music for the project. What he came up with is fabulous, a perfect blend of orchestra and electronica. He also brought in singers Emma Shapplin and Melissa Kaplan to provide vocals to a few gorgeous tracks that give the soundtrack a beauty of operatic proportions. My favorite piece created by Revell is The Fifth Heaven, to which you can listen to below. I consider the collaboration as effective as the more famous Lisa Gerrard-Hans Zimmer material from Gladiator (2000). The album released to promote the film is a must-own for film music aficionados, regardless of your opinion on the movie itself. It is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time and that's without doubt the music I would like to listen to if I ever go on a space mission ! Sadly, I think Revell's work was not used enough in the film, which might explain why some tracks on the CD were not at all present in the finished movie. Still, plenty of scenes benefit greatly from the music, such as the final rescue sequence. Also included in the film are pop/rock songs by Sting, Strange Cargo, The Police and Peter Gabriel. The latter provided the song called The Tower That Ate People, a noisy dance track which was featured during the crucial arrival on Mars. I love it and it never fails to give me an energy rush! You can feel the beat by clicking on the link at the right.
The Fifth Heaven by Graeme Revell feat. Emma Shapplin
Watch it !
After Red Planet's less-than-stellar reception, director Antony Hoffman would never again work in feature films (as I'm writing these lines) but would make a successful career directing television commercials. Val Kilmer gradually stopped starring in big budget Hollywood films in the next few years, eventually appearing in straight-to-dvd or pay-per-view movies and almost retiring from the business in order to work on a Mark Twain theater project. That's a shame, as I think he is one of the most talented actors of his generation and without doubt one of my personal favorites. His performances in The Salton Sea (2002) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) are worth checking out and prove that he could still do outstanding work even if his name alone was not enough anymore to guarantee box office gold. I hope a comeback is on the way!
The Hollywood Mars Curse seemed to end in 2015 with the release of Ridley Scott's The Martian, adapted from the bestseller by Andy Weir. It grossed over $600,000,000 and was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. While it is generally considered a far better film than Red Planet and is much more reality-based, I can't help but compare the two, as there are some surprising similarities... Perhaps Mr. Weir is, like me, a Red Planet fan ? Overall, I recommend the film if you can accept the most unrealitstic parts of the plot and the dated CGI. Great performances, a gorgeous soundtrack and some thrilling action sequences make this one a winner !