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Laramie Movie Scope:
Red Planet

Real science fiction strikes a mission to Mars

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 12, 2000 -- Science Fiction stories are like murder mystery stories. The puzzle to be solved in Science Fiction is not usually who killed someone, but how to find a scientific or technological solution to a problem. This is a modernistic approach, a mind set that went out of style in the mid-1900s, replaced by a fatalistic view that science is the problem, not a means of solving puzzles, particularly the problem of environmental degradation.

"Red Planet" is throwback to the old "can do" attitude toward science, so it probably won't do well at the box office. It flies in the face of everything students have been taught for the last 25 years. There aren't many people who now believe that Mars can be terraformed to be a new home for the billions of people overpopulating the earth. The post modern view of the environmental problem is that it can't be solved, short of wiping out the human race.

While this may seem an overly philosophical approach to film criticism, I think it is justified in this case in that two of the main characters in this movie are philosophers of a sort. Robby Gallagher (played by the charismatic Val Kilmer of "At First Sight") is a sort of disciple of the older, wiser crewman Dr. Bud Chantillas (Terence Stamp of "Bowfinger"), a man who searches for evidence of God through science. An intelligent man who believes in God? This movie really is a throwback!

The crew of the first manned Mars mission, headed up by the pretty Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss of "The Matrix") is headed to the planet to solve a scientific mystery. Why are oxygen levels on Mars decreasing? The planet is being terraformed, being made more like earth, by evaporating the polar ice caps to increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to increase global warming, and by seeding the planet with lichens to convert some of that CO2 into oxygen. Geneticist Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore of "Bringing Out the Dead") and the other mission scientists are hoping to get the terraforming back on track.

Naturally, something goes wrong and after the crew survives a crash landing, they find the lichen has vanished, which explains the drop in oxygen levels, or does it? The real answer to why the lichen is disappearing and what's going on with the oxygen is pretty strange, but the approach to solving this mystery is scientific. There is also a problem with the mission robot called Amee. It seems that in addition to useful programs, such as surveying, Amee was also programmed with military tactical information, including how to kill people. Does this strike anyone as a good idea, considering the only people on the planet are the mission crew? The programming is stupid, but it does provide for some added excitement.

The story, by Chuck Pfarrer, has another interesting twist on artificial intelligence in machines with a Hal-like computer which runs the main spacecraft. There is some interesting byplay between the computer and Commander Bowman as they deal with their own crisis together. The acting is solid throughout the cast. It is an absorbing story, fairly well put together following a slow start. First-time director Antony Hoffman does a pretty good job maintaining the suspense to the end. The characters are also developed better than they are in most action movies. The special effects are excellent. The location shots, some filmed in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, are a convincing substitute for Mars. This film rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)