"Red Planet" takes itself pretty seriously for a movie that asks the viewer, in the laborious voice-over prologue, to stow all notions of science and logic.
In the year 2057, we're told, mankind has overpopulated and pretty much trashed the Earth, so the government(s) want to move everybody to Mars (nevermind that Mars is only half the size of our home planet). So for the past decade or so, unmanned probes containing oxygen-producing algae have been rocketed to the red planet to help create a breathable atmosphere.
But satellite observations show the algae has somehow disappeared along with the terraformed environment, so the first manned mission to Mars is on its way to figure out what went wrong. (If you find it hard to believe we wouldn't have sent astronauts to visit at least once before deciding to settle down there, you're not alone.)
The compacted voice-over, by mission commander Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix"), also includes unwieldy introductions to her crew of photogenic clichés (Benjamin Bratt, for example, is "a hot head, but a fine co-pilot") and to the movie's reigning Plot Device, a sleek, ominous robot called AMEE, on loan from the military (uh oh!).
After a few playful getting-to-know-you scenes to pass the six-month rocket journey, Moss and crew arrive in orbit just in time to be smacked with an inexplicably random and contrived "burst of gamma radiation" which knocks out most of the ship's systems. Forced to launch their lander early, the five-man crew leaves Moss behind to affect repairs while they crash-land on Mars in one of the movie's many superb special effects sequences.
Much to their surprise, the astronauts discover an intact, breathable atmosphere on Mars. But soon everything else starts going wrong. The habitat that was supposed to be waiting for them has been destroyed, two of them are dead within five minutes of screen time, and the three remaining -- cocky hero Val Kilmer, egomaniac bioengineer Tom Sizemore and weasly civilian Simon Baker -- are being hunted by AMEE. It seems the robot has blown a fuse and gone into Michael Myers mode.
Rookie director Anthony Hoffman skillfully balances the movie's sometimes hackneyed absurdities with a convincingly other-worldish and semi-futuristic visual milieu, some genuine tension, agile pacing and awesome effects sequences (Moss fights a zero-gravity fire in one scene).
Burdened a little by its high suspension-of-disbelief factor and masquerading science, "Red Planet" at least keeps the audience enveloped in its story as the landing crew, stranded and without a working radio, desperately seeks a way to contact Moss in orbit.
Luckily the film takes place in a world where all electronic equipment is cross-platform compatible, so they find the now-dusty Rover we all watched rub up against Martian rocks in 1997, and MacGyver a radio from its innards. Later a Plan B is devised for getting back to the ship in the ore pod of another failed antique lander. If the effects sequence that follows wasn't so impressive, I think I would have laughed all the way through that part.
"Red Planet" thinks it's both more intelligent and more exciting than it really is. But taken as a popcorn-munching Saturday matinee, it's entertaining enough -- and it's so much better than "Mission to Mars," a similar big-budget sci-fi spectacular that stunk up theaters in March.
On the other hand, all the show pieces in "Red Planet" -- the crash landing, the eerie off-planet ambiance, the stranded crew being stalked by a non-human killer -- were exploited more believably and much more zestfully in yet another similar picture this year: February's guilty pleasure, B-movie, alien fright flick "Pitch Black" -- which came out on video just last month. Hint, hint.