The year is 2056 and after decades of denial, pollution and climate change has grown so bad on planet Earth that a last ditch attempt to find somewhere else for the human race to live is undertaken. Already a set of probes has landed on Mars to grow algae on its surface, thereby creating oxygen for its atmosphere and rendering it fit for life, and the follow up manned mission there takes place under the command of Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss). But with the algae disappearing for no apparent reason, things do not go according to plan...
Well, they wouldn't, would they? Or else there wouldn't be much of a story, although to be honest there wasn't much of a story here anyway. This was the only film directed by Antony Hoffman, who would have been one of the industry's one hit wonders if this had in fact been a hit, but as it was it was best recalled as one of the two similar movies released in the year 2000, the other being Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars. They both had the distinction, should you care to call it that, of being two Martian films to do about as badly as one another, rather than being a case of two successes sharing the same concept.
While De Palma's effort was a quasi-mystical effort in the vein of, but a long way after, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Red Planet was a lot more about nuts and bolts sci-fi action, although there was an element of mystery here too as the narrative unfolded. On the way to their destination we find out Bowman is not quite afforded the level of respect she would want due to her gender, a promising line of tension pretty much discarded within about twenty minutes. Then there's crewmember Gallagher (top-billed Val Kilmer) who at first seems like a sexual harrassment lawsuit on legs, but ends up as the heroic type.
Not because he's redeemed exactly, but because there's not much else he can do thanks to being played by the star. Something interesting threatens to happen when they are in orbit around Mars and there's a great big explosion on their spaceship, leading the men to bail out and Bowman to get stuck where she is to conduct repairs and ensure there's a chance to return home. Another promising line not much capitalised on is the ambivalence about technology that informs much screen science fiction, so while it's the only thing keeping the characters alive, it could equally be threatening those lives, a theme most represented by their pet robot, AMEE.
But even that descends into running away from the monster shenanigans when the machine goes haywire, purely because some idiot thought it would be a good idea to have it switch between defensive military mode and science mode, so guess which a bump on the circuits leads it to sticking with for the rest of the movie? Another aspect that seems to be building up to something but doesn't is religious, as the oldest crewmember Terence Stamp appears to be there as ship's philiosopher and ruminates mildly over the clash between science and God before someone evidently decided he was too elderly to include on the rest of the mission and he is written out fairly swiftly. It's funny, Red Planet tries hard enough to be muscular and suspenseful, but every potentially exciting set up is undermined by a creeping blandness, so you can see why it would sound good on paper, but end up nothing-y on film. Music by Graeme Revell.