Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Red Planet

by Chuck Pfarrer

reviewed by Don Harlow

I liked Mars. Mostly, it looked like the Mars you could see via an SGI web page and courtesy of NASA a few years ago. There were lots of rocks. In this movie, there were also a few people. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish them from the rocks.

The year is 2057 and Earth's resources (food, air, parking space) are just about depleted. For some twenty years Earth has been seeding Mars with algae -- you know, the kind that grows on bare rock and pumps out oxygen by the megaliter -- in the hope of producing a second home for humanity, one with more parking space. But the algae has begun to disappear, and with it, mankind's -- and Detroit's -- hopes. So, some five decades late, a manned mission is sent to Mars, with six astronauts and a nasty-looking little mapping robot, all sharp edges and propellers and really bad attitude, that you just know is going to go insane and try to turn everybody into purée; no R2D2, this.

The astronauts are ho-hum characters. The commander is Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss), who has two great qualifications for the job that apparently impress nobody except Gallagher (Val Kilmer), who at one point in this six-month mission almost kisses her, after seeing her come out of the ship's only shower with no clothes on (even in space, very few people shower with their clothes on, it seems). The other astronauts pay her no attention; they were apparently recruited from a monastery somewhere. These include Dr. Chantilas (Terence Stamp), who has no reason to be on this mission because he has long since given up science in favor of philosophy; but he does provide a sort of British accent, and in any case he disappears from the action, so-called, before it becomes too embarassing for him, sort of like Bela Lugosi dying in the middle of the making of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Santen, the co-pilot (Benjamin Bratt), falls off a cliff not much later, but nobody will miss him. Pettengill (Simon Baker), who does something esoteric, pushed him, but nobody much cares about that either. Finally, we have Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), a biologist, who, aside from pilot Bowman, is the only person with any good reason to be there in the first place. It is Burchenal who discovers Mars' native life, which he refers to as "nematodes," though they look more like high-tech, and very flammable, cockroaches than like flatworms. The only other actors, so-called, in this film are two ladies who send Santen virtual letters through his web page, and the voice of mission control, which is still stuck in Houston, Texas, and which also plays little role in the film, for which viewers can thank the earth-to-Mars speed-of-light time lag.

Scenery is nice, for those who like desert terrain. Special effects, especially in space, are not bad at all. Plot is so stupid that it's hardly worth mentioning. Science leaves much to be desired; e.g., the astronauts are caught in a Martian ice storm whose central pressure is way down there at 824 millibars, comparable to that at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park; 8.24 millibars would be more typical of Mars as we know it. A 20-year-old Russian Mars lander fortunately has a very nice GUI (with labels in Russian, unfortunately, though the dancing bear is nice); why a remote-controlled Mars lander would include any kind of GUI in its software is not totally clear -- perhaps for the benefit of marooned American astronauts two decades in the future?

An appropriate movie for the Thanksgiving season, given its turkey-like nature.

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