In the year 2050, a team of American astronauts, shipwrecked on the magnificent sandstone desert of Mars, is fast running out of oxygen. One of the crew members, a mechanic named Gallagher (Val Kilmer), gasps and chokes in his space suit, then slowly removes his helmet in order to die. Surprise — he can breathe. There is oxygen on Mars! To judge from Red Planet, however, it is mostly hot air.
When you go in to see a lavishly budgeted science-fiction movie about a journey to the most mythically sinister planet in the solar system, what you hope for is something that tickles you with awe but that does so without resorting to the ”religious” extraterrestrials-unto-the-void hokum that turned Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, after its promising first hour, into such a dippy-bizarro dud. Red Planet offers vast, craggy landscapes that are like a red-rock fusion of Monument Valley and the Sahara, as well as a treacherous, prancing NASA robot with whirligig limbs (it has the same relation to the beastie from the Alien films as Short Circuit‘s cutesy Number Five did to E.T.). Mostly, though, there are men, extremely solemn men, bravely trudging into the Unknown.
They’ve been stranded during a voyage meant to pave the way for colonization, and as they stand around mouthing dry-as-Martian-dust dialogue (”I still can’t figure out this algae-and-oxygen business!”), we feel stranded right along with them. The space-exploration movies of the 1950s may have had a similar potboiler ring, but the best of them, at least, were more innocent — and inventive — in their grandiose speculative cheesiness. Red Planet, a tale of the first manned mission to Mars, might just as well have been about the last manned mission. Watching the movie, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would dream of going back there. C