19 April 2011

Red Planet

Red Planet came out to ride the coattails of (or "compete with," if you want to be generous) Mission To Mars, and I remember both being fairly sloppy, disappointing, with pretty hokey dialogue and hokier plots, but this is by far the lazier of the two movies -- the story seems lazy, the science seems really lazy, and the themes feel more like they were added to the dialogue the day of the shoot. Clunky editing doesn't help either (like flashing back to deleted or extended scenes to let a couple of characters have superfluous character moments).

Plus, as a study in the Act One world-building exposition-delivery stuff, this was lazier and stiffer than The Angry Red Planet, which at least gave me characters talking for a reason. Here we get a big (mostly unnecessary, as it turns out) infodump from Captain Bowman, who is neither our main character nor our most important. Something interesting could have maybe been done with her as their eye-in-the-sky (kind of an inverse man-in-the-hole), an overseer to the heroes' adventures and struggles -- almost as if she was the Computer Voice in all those space operas and starship adventures, but of course Bowman has her own computer voice here, which sort of muddies up that analogy -- but they never really do. Instead, she's (I guess) more like Penelope to Gallagher's Odysseus, except a) the closest thing they have to a romance is he sees her naked and later we see a flashback to an earlier scene where they almost kiss (which apparently wasn't important enough to leave in the movie except as a flashback), and b) Gallagher is a far cry from Odysseus going on a voyage (again, that's a direction they might have taken things, were this a very different story).

Part of the problem with the story is that no time is spent building up the urgency or need of the characters. We're told Earth is overpopulated, running out of clean air and water, a dying crowded mess of a planet, and that all the international organizations have banded together to send five white Americans (well, one vaguely Latino guy and an old Brit among them, to be fair... plus isn't Val Kilmer Native American or something? I'm kidding) to find out why the long-distance terraforming efforts like algae-bombs and habitat-landers seem to be missing.

Along for the ride, the old Brit mentioned above, is a tragically, preposterously wasted Terence Stamp as a "former scientist" (?) named Ch'something, not worth looking up, whose clever little exposition-tag our narrator-captain offers us is "the soul of the mission." He hasn't found God, exactly, but apparently he's given up science because he is looking for God, and so he turned to... philosophy? It's all a little sloppy and confusing, but from a dramatic standpoint I guess he's there to suggest that some things can't be explained by your precious science. The movie then goes out of its way to make sure you see that, yes, everything can be explained by my precious science (even if that means all of the mysteries of the planet can be explained by secret Martian bugs ["nematodes," a fun word] that eat algae, and also metal, and also love human blood the most, and are extremely combustible, but when they aren't termiting you they produce breathable oxygen and are slowly terraforming Mars all on their very own).

Once they've explained to you in detail how it all makes perfectly logical scientific sense, within the confines of the fantastical story anyhow, Captain Bowman wraps things up with another bit of voiceover (or maybe it was a mission debrief to Houston? I forget, to be honest) in which she says "Ch'whatever always said there was more to the universe than science could account for, and I'm just the captain here who doesn't know what happened down below, but that sure seems to sum things up for me." Okay, it's a lousy and snarky paraphrase, but basically she suggests that hey, maybe it was all God's will after all, because of all the miracles we saw or something. The only miracle I can think of that we witnessed on Mars was the random upcropping of Martian life (about which we are assured "where there's air and water, there's life"); or maybe she meant the sudden self-awareness of the combat robot AMEE they decided to bring along (about which we are assured "her processor's been damaged"); or maybe it's the fact that no telemetry or telescope from Earth or Martian orbit could locate the glowing green or orange algae fields, or identify an oxygen-rich atmosphere (they couldn't even identify the oxygen-rich atmosphere when they were standing in it, until they almost died -- a fine moment for Gallagher to take a "leap of faith," but instead it was played as the grasping-at-straws backwards-thinking flailings of a desperate and dying man).

Anyway, it's silly and it's not very well thought out, nor very well executed, but it's a Martian Astronaut movie, so it's kind of fun. Actually, I wanted more astronautness here, more like Mission To Mars. Once they got there it played out more like a crashland-in-the-mountains kind of story than an astronauts-on-Mars kind of story. There's air, there's gravity, there's some kind of (robot) cougar stalking you, there's a horde of (alien) insects, and there's the same kind of mysteries and puzzles, obstacles and solutions that could have been told in some remote Antarctican or Andes Mountain story, with only a couple of tweaks.

Still, spacemen, am I right? And lessons in what not to do. Don't breeze over too much world-building set-up in verbal exposition. And don't bring Terence Stamp onboard to read a couple of embarrassingly hippie-ish lines and then give up and die without an ounce of gravity (heh) or punch. Lessons, noted and learned!

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