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This year's dense odyssey
'Red Planet' a pretty film, stupid movie
(CNN) -- Boy, Mars can't catch a break. First, Brian DePalma's "Mission to Mars" (2000) stinks up life here on earth -- or, more precisely, at the cineplex -- and now we get Anthony Hoffman's "Red Planet," a hardware-based endurance test that looks spectacular and is only slightly more exciting than a nine-hour cricket match.
This one is based on the gospel according to "Alien" (1979), in which a diverse crew of space travelers is forced to confront a sophisticated killing machine that's impossible to stop ... except for right near the end of the movie, when it absolutely has to be.
This particular crew is made up of some pretty good actors, but they don't do anything but punch buttons and explain why they're punching them. After a while, the lucky ones die.
Val Kilmer stars as Robby Gallagher, the glorified janitor of a massive vessel that's hurtling through space. Our heroes have been sent on the first leg of a mission that's supposed to lead to the colonization of Mars.A spoken prologue informs us that this is the near-future, and the earth has finally been decimated by pollution. Scientists have released algae onto the Martian surface, in the hope that it'll generate enough oxygen to maintain human life. The crew needs to check things out before other earthlings will be allowed pack up the kids and head to the new frontier, where they can start polluting anew.
The research team consists of Gallagher, Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Ann Moss), Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), Ted Santon (Benjamin Bratt), Chip Pettengill (Simon Barker), and Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terrence Stamp.) Two of these people will bite it so quickly that they could just as easily have been billed as "Men in Spacesuits." It's really pretty goofy. Your popcorn will cool long after their bodies have.
Everybody on the ship, with the notable exception of Stamp's character, who's a philosopher, is sarcastic as all get-out. Most of them wear Hawaiian shirts that signify how wild and crazy they are. (Moss is also shown buck naked, because it's integral to the plot. Har har.)
Stamp, by the way, delivers the most pedestrian dialogue ever written about the possible existence of God. He sounds like he's been wading through fortune cookies rather than massive tomes by bearded German writers.
The characters and a lot of other things may be lacking, but this is one of the most gorgeously designed and photographed sci-fi films in recent memory. Hoffman scores a bonus point for refusing to fall into the by-now-obligatory three-shots-per-second mode of editing. You actually have time to look around a little bit, and there's a lot to see.
The ship is loaded with the usual array of space-age gadgets and blinking lights, but there' something invitingly mysterious about them, something truly beautiful. And, unlike the vessels in most of these movies, everything is kept in immaculate condition. That's another bonus point -- for neatness. Production designer Owen Patterson fully deserves an Oscar nomination. The same goes for Peter Suschitzky, whose vibrant cinematography is a consistent highlight. Mars itself is just as generously envisioned as the ship is.
Too bad, then, that the rest of the movie blows. Everything about the mission goes wrong, of course. There's a scientific research device onboard called AMEE that eventually comes to serve as the villain. It's sort of a piston-operated chromium cheetah that can roll into a ball, stand up on its hind legs like a grizzly bear, and fricassee a cowering human being in a number of horrendous ways. AMEE is impossible to properly describe, but rest assured: It's one nasty robot.
Not surprisingly, AMEE stalks and tries to kill the crew members once they crash land on the barren Mars surface. (No one knows where the algae has gone, a plot device that isn't likely to make you break out in a cold sweat.) The men all end up running for their lives for 90 minutes, while Moss remains in the space craft, desperately trying to rescue them.
There's an absurd lack of tension in all of this. Crew members are so stoic about their predicament, you'd think their car has broken down on the New Jersey Turnpike. And AMEE disappears for ridiculously long stretches of time. There's more genuine fear in that episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Bobby and Cindy get lost in the Grand Canyon.
Moss, by the way, is enormously shortchanged by being left behind in the ship. Aside from a useless 15-second flashback between her and Kilmer, there's not an ounce of character development.
Screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Channing Gibson don't seem to care very much about the astronauts, so it's only fitting that the audience shares their lack of enthusiasm. You know you're watching a bad movie when the most interesting performer is a robot that can't even talk.
"Red Planet" is somewhat violent, but not horribly so. There's also profanity, and Moss' sudden lack of clothing. Rent the video and marvel at the technical end of things. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.
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