Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:46 - Released 11/10/00

Space movies have been popular since the first sputtering of Sputnik, and in this golden age of computer wizardry, Hollywood filmmakers are having a field day, taking pains to create what appears to be authentic, believable effects with regard to space technology and planetary landscapes. Unfortunately, they keep forgetting about creating believable people. In Mission To Mars, which was released last March, and 1998's Species 2, which included a Mars mission, not to mention non-Mars- related features like Armageddon, Supernova, and Sphere, the common thread is the lack of a believable crew. Antony Hoffman's freshman effort, the ambitious Red Planet, is no different. Although Hoffman and his screenwriters, Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, show their respect for the greats by making obvious references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and have created a rather interesting story with beautiful outer space scenery, their astronauts act like actors, not like astronauts.

The first reference to 2001 is the name of the mission commander: Bowman. However, this time it's Kate Bowman, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. The film begins with Cmdr. Bowman introducing her crew and explaining the mission. The year is 2057, and Mars has been chosen for the relocation of us earthlings, who have finally poisoned our own planet beyond repair. Unmanned missions have planted algae to create an atmosphere, and Mars is now almost livable for oxygen-breathing life forms. There's no Wal-Mart yet, though.

The crew is being sent to investigate a change in the algae population, and includes the arrogant co-pilot Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt), the atheist science officer Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), the hunky and humble maintenance engineer Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer), the spiritual Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terence Stamp), and the dark and enigmatic Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker). Also along is Aimee, the robot that looks and acts like a very, very, very smart German shepherd, and is trained not only to navigate the Martian surface, but kill on command. Just in case H.G. Wells was right. Although all these people are supposed to be professionals, they bicker among themselves about God, their importance on the mission, or any other subject that comes up, and compete for the title of First One To Make It With The Commander, until they reach their destination.

No space movie is worth its salt if nothing goes wrong, and several things do. The ship is disabled by a solar flare, the escape pod is damaged forcing a crash landing, and the cyber-dog gets broken. This doesn't kill her but switches her to attack mode (second 2001 reference — the one-eyed robot gone bad). And to top it all off, the habitat that was supposed to be there for them to live in...isn't. So we have a bunch of guys stranded on an alien world with no air, no food, and a giant metal attack dog stalking them. And you thought you had problems.

While this film is visually pleasing and sprinkled with just enough science to seem intelligent but not annoying (there's even a special appearance by the good ol' Mars Pathfinder), its characters are right out of a comic book. Kilmer and Moss are perhaps the most believable; their low-key performances help keep the schlock to a minimum. But there's a simple lack of realism in the redneck-bar-style male posturing, there are more life-and-death struggles than should be allowed by law, and the bad dog scenario is more laughable than horrifying.

Incidentally, 2001 is scheduled for re-release on Dec. 31, just in time to ring in its namesake year. At least we know there's a sensible crew on that mission. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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