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Dread 'Planet'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2000


    'Red Planet' Carrie-Anne Moss and Val Kilmer talk too much in "Red Planet." (Warner Bros.)
"Red Planet" isn't meant to be funny. It's supposed to be a cool, nail-biting sci-fi thriller about the first manned expedition to Mars. So please quit your yukking at the bad dialogue and get into the mission.

I know it's hard. Right at the beginning, it doesn't help matters when Lt. Cmdr. Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss from "The Matrix") introduces us to her five crew members, reducing everyone to the space-movie cliches they are.

"Santen," she says, referring to her buffed second-in-command, Air Force Captain Ted Santen ("Law and Order's" Benjamin Bratt), "A hothead but a fine copilot."

Then there's the general chatter on board – not too stellar.

"I realized science couldn't answer the really interesting questions,' drones Chief Science Officer Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp). "So I turned to philosophy. I've been searching for God ever since."

Excellent mental evolution, dude.

The year is 2057 and the spaceship Mars-1 has just made the six-month voyage to Planet Red. Earth's atmosphere is going kaput, so colonization is vital. The crew – including medical systems engineer Gallagher (Val Kilmer), Dr. Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore) and Dr. Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker) – is trying to investigate what went wrong with the failed Mars Terraforming Project.

Also on board: a transformer-type mapping and exploration robot known as AMEE (her full name: Autonomous Mapping Evaluation and Evasion) that switches from nice mode to "military" when activated.

As Mars-1 prepares to land, a gamma burst flat-lines the ship, null-and-voiding most engine functions. The crew can't even eject by shuttle to the planet, unless someone remains on board to manually operate the launch. Bowman does the honors. She stays aboard, while the guys suit up and get ready for a rough ride.

After a bouncy landing on the mountainous terrain, the five men emerge with no radio contact and just enough oxygen to hoof it to the Mars habitat (HAB), a living center with 26 months of air, food and water. But they have to find it first. Plus, they've got to deal with the lethal fury of the malfunctioning AMEE, who doesn't take well to anyone trying to shut down her system for good.

Predictably, the best thing about "Red Planet" is the visual scheme. First-time director Antony Hoff man and production designer Owen Paterson (who also created the fabulous world of "The Matrix") have built one of the coolest space ships since the one in "Alien." Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun, sound effects supervisor Dane Davis and many others deserve mention for the masterful atmospherics, from the scary sounds of AMEE's airborne, helicopter-like tracking device, to the stunning Martian footage. Speaking of giving credit, a huge hand to the Supreme Being for creating the remote terrains of Wadi Rum, Jordan (also used for "Lawrence of Arabia"), and Coober Pedy, Australia, which double as the Martian landscape.

Unfortunately, Chuck ("Hard Target") Pfarrer's screenplay feels older than the Martian hills. Apart from the unctuously slick Holly wood jabber that we've heard in every space or undersea thriller in the last 20 years, we've got a no-nonsense female commander known by her last name, just like Ripley in "Alien," a computer that talks like HAL in "2001," a crazed robot straight out of "RoboCop" and a cast of characters whose tired attributes (philosopher, hot dog, cool rebel, etc.) are weightless when it comes to gravitas. As for those bad lines, it's too bad those space helmets weren't sound proofed, so we wouldn't chuckle our way through the suspense. And this movie would have fared better if the crew members had taken note of those words from Capt. Santen when they land on Mars: "All this talk is burning out oxygen, let's move on."

"Red Planet" (PG-13, 110 minutes) – Contains some violence and nudity. Area theaters.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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