***/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras D
starring Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Terence Stamp
screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin
directed by Antony Hoffman
by Walter Chaw Watching Val Kilmer pretend to not have enough oxygen is very much like watching Val Kilmer at any other time, but there's something about him in a helmet that works for me. (Frankly, upon further consideration, the two states don't seem all that unrelated.) South African director Antony Hoffman's Red Planet, working from a clunky screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, is, despite its obvious shortcomings, an interesting contribution to the end-of-the-millennia sweepstakes. Counting most specifically among its contemporaries films like The Matrix and Dark City (and the same year's Pitch Black), it's an eco-terror flick at heart, positing that in 2056, with the Earth polluted beyond salvation, the last chance for mankind's survival is terraforming Mars using a biologically-engineered algae that for some reason hasn't taken, necessitating an investigative mission by Capt. (not Dave) Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her small crew of scientists. It's the set-up of course to everything from Aliens to Supernova, and originality isn't the strong suit of what boils down to one of those emergency-beacon-is-really-a-trap movies. (At least until it suddenly becomes one of those walking-on-a-soundstage-I-mean-strange-planet-with-an-animal-sidekick movies.) What works about Red Planet--and works extremely well--is that it confronts its problems with a bracing, earnest, seemingly honest attempt at resolving those problems, even though the biggest one ("Hey, I thought you said there wasn't life on this planet") is resolved with, "Yeah, how 'bout that."
The problem isn't that Red Planet isn't smart, but that it's smart enough to disappoint when it does things like introduce a strong, resourceful female leader in Bowman only to explain her ultimate motivation for getting mechanical engineer Gallagher (Kilmer) off the titular rock as infatuation. (I kind of wish that a woman could be tough and professional without a Vaseline-misted flashback indicating that she's doing it all for her boyfriend. On the other hand, who couldn't use a good helpmeet?) Conjecture here, but it stinks of post-production capitulation in a project that was probably seen somewhere along the line as being too cerebral--explanation in there, too, for a killer Cheetah-bot that does things that don't make a lot of sense before dutifully disappearing to make room for Jurassic Park discussions of the indomitable, unpredictable nature of nature. The nuts-and-bolts feeling of the picture compels, however, as does its focus on dispatching its alpha dogs in favour of the A/V club and a girl who, for all the equivocations visited on her character, is finally allowed to be the man in a launch/tether rescue into a metal womb that Freudians will love. It's Real Genius in space, sorta, with Kilmer reprising his space-cadet Chris Knight in Gallagher, who first fashions a radio from a derelict Mars Rover, then restarts a Russian capsule to launch himself into the void in a bracing bit of post-Glasnost Glasnost. Red Planet celebrates ingenuity and functionality--in the middle of so much whiz-bang, the mechanism used to detach its surface lander, for instance, is a lever that works like an eighteenth-century water pump, while a landing capsule deploys giant balloons that function as a shock buffer for rocky, unpredictable terrain.
Red Planet is good, too, as a showcase for Tom Sizemore's second-banana appeal. His Dr. Quinn calls grasshoppers "nematodes" and doesn't seem to know what nucleotides are (making him a terrible geneticist...and a fifth grader), but Sizemore's scruffiness, his red-eyed, perpetual near-madness, and his way around a death scene--particularly in films from this period--are hard to replace. Red Planet is ultimately about character actors--The Matrix without Keanu Reeves. A shame there wasn't more room for Terence Stamp's philosopher and Simon Baker's Raskalnikovian quiet-one-who-goes-insane Pettingill, but until 2005's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Kilmer won't have a better role or deliver a better performance. The peculiar allure of Red Planet is the same aura surrounding those '80s John Hughes flicks: a saga of the unlikely and the unusually-endowed, making bootleg moonshine in the science lab; the exhilaration of throwing the captain of the football team off a 10,000 ft. Martian cliff and walking in on the coolest girl you know getting out of the shower. It's a bit of nostalgia--like so many of the films appearing at the end of the last millennium, in other words, a sneaky tribute to guys of my generation who always wondered what it'd be like if John Cusack were stranded on a planet packing only his quirky delivery and native intelligence. Oh, oh, and he gets Molly Ringwald!
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Red Planet docks on Blu-ray from Warner in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that's considerably more dynamic than the standard-def alternative. The filtered Mars landscapes are suitably orange-red, the deeps of space are suitably black, and, best yet, the special effects hold up nicely, seldom betraying any focusing incongruities or other CGI giveaways. It's arguable that the Cheetah-bot looks like a phantom at times, but you'd really have to be picking nits to feel dissatisfied. Flesh tones are generally good, fine details (like the stitching on costumes) come alive, and though the skies behind the actors during daytime sequences sometimes show evidence of compression, I wonder if I would've noticed were I not monitoring for imperfections. It's good. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track has its highlights in a massive sandstorm that forces our heroes into a cave to be lit by those "plaque" lights dentists use to identify pockets of festering gingivitis. Surrounds reveal careful attention to offscreen space (mark the skittering of "nematodes" in all channels) while explosions rumble as much as you'd hope in the subwoofer. Rounding out the presentation: eight deleted scenes (14 mins., SD) that generally confirm the wisdom of the filmmakers having cut back on exposition; and a trailer (also SD) that oversells the Cheetah-bot's importance to the story. What I'd like is Hoffman on here defending his one and only foray onto the silver screen--it's better than you remember. Originally published: August 8, 2010.
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