It’s 2050 and Commander Kate Bowman (Moss) has to lead a rag-tag bunch of soldiers and scientists to Mars to investigate whether the planet is inhabitable. The Earth, you see, has all but depleted its supply of oxygen and its occupants can hardly walk the eight feet from their front doors to their 10 miles-per-gallon Sports Utility Vehicles without getting breathless. So, NASA have been growing algae on Mars as a way of oxygenating the planet for human habitation. Well, it may not have been NASA, it might have been anyone: this is the sort of film which is short on explanation and long on lingering shots of how pretty Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne Moss are.
The crew all have appropriately astronaut-y names—Lieutenant Ted Santen (Bratt), Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Sizemore), Dr. Bud Chantilas (Stamp), Chip Pettengill (Baker)—except Kilmer’s character, Robby Gallagher. He’s a bit of a rebel, our Robby. He’s the sort of guy who could arrange a great frat party down at Delta House, but he’s certainly not hero material.
Robby modestly refers to himself as a ‘space janitor’ and is only interested in two things: getting his buddy Burchenal to make moonshine in the lab and charming his way into Commander Bowman’s space-pants. But, he’s very pretty and he does have the ability to stare into the middle distance to give the impression of hidden sensitive depth, so you can forgive him a lot.
Besides, you just know that he’s going to come through in the end once they’re down on the planet. Especially after there’s an unforeseen incident which endangers both the crew and the mission. Because there’s always an unforeseen incident which endangers both the crew and the mission in this type of film.
Red Planet is not badly made. The actors are well-cast and competent in their roles. Mars looks much like you would expect from other films set on Mars. The special effects are okay for the era. But it’s join-the-dots film making. Every sci-fi cliché you’re expecting is here. Every (un)expected twist is present and correct. The cowardly Pettengill does double cross the good guys, but he gets punished for it. One of the more noble, intellectual members does bite it early and tells the rest of the crew, “Go on without me. I’ll just hold you back.” And, just when you think our heroes have cracked it, there’s another set-back. It’s all just predictable and a bit dull.
When it comes down to it, the most memorable moment in the whole film is finding out that the Russian space program uses an animated on-screen bear in his own little space-man uniform to instruct cosmonauts in the use of multi-billion dollar interplanetary space-craft.