2000, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Antony Hoffman. Starring Simon Baker, Benjamin Bratt, Terence Stamp, Tom Sizemore, Carrie-Anne Moss, Val Kilmer.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 17, 2000
If names like Blish, Simak, and Asimov mean more to you in a science fiction context than that of Keanu Reeves, this unabashedly retro, hard sci-fi adventure may be just your speed. No CGI animation programs were abused in the making of this film. No philosophy majors will be kept up late, over Thai stick and Gallo Hearty Burgundy, pondering its metaphysical import. Instead, Red Planet harks back to the genre's pre-lysergic days as empirically grounded Guys' Lit that trafficked mainly in speculative thought exercises about alternative physics, alien cultures, and the interrelation of man and machine. I loved this movie. Or perhaps I should say the 15-year-old boy in me -- the dreamy, disaffected misfit with his head in the stars and a stack of Bantam sci-fi paperbacks as his sole defense against small-town boredom -- loved it. Red Planet's plot could've been lifted wholesale from one of those books. In the early 21st century, Earth has become one massive Bayonne, NJ, stewing in its own toxic effluvium. Having thoroughly fouled his own nest, man is now seeding Mars with oxygen-making algae in preparation for a mass human exodus. Then, inexplicably, the algae vanishes and a crew of six astronauts led by Capt. Kate Bowman (Moss) is dispatched to find out why. It's a spartan, meat-and-potatoes adventure tale built upon a framework of no-frills narrative, primary-color characterization, and only desultory nods at cosmic (in the non-astronomical sense) significance. Hoffman's film has taken some flak for its utilitarian approach. I found its lack of trippy pseudo-profundity (c.f. The Sphere, Contact) refreshing. This is one for folks who are well-disposed toward old-school SF fare such as Theodore Sturgeon's Killdozer!, in which futuristic situations are basically just window dressing for stories that transcend time and place. Kilmer, as the spaceship's science officer, plays within Hoffman's basic game plan and delivers some of his least histrionic -- and therefore most appealing -- work ever. Moss (The Matrix), with her no-bullshit demeanor and a serene, knowing face lifted straight from a Byzantine fresco, is surprisingly perfect as the mission leader. Even without one of the more egregious nude scenes in recent memory, she's a striking presence and a major contributor to a film that neither promises more than it can deliver nor fails to reward viewers who are open to its unpretentious allure.