If the duelling asteroid films of 1998 were an inevitable consequence of the CGI-revived disaster genre and the same year’s battle between Bugs and Antz was most likely a result of studio executives shrugging and saying “kids love insects, right?” then perhaps the twin Martian movies of 2000 were brought about by the strange optimism of a new millennium. With all those zeroes in the date and the adrenaline rush that only escaping the Millennium Bug could offer, it was time to conquer the galaxy. The moon? Pfah, that’s old news. Everyone’s going to Mars!
Naturally though, that optimism only extends about as far as lift-off, because what would a space blockbuster be without a little conflict? And everyone may have been going to Mars, but apparently nobody was going to the cinema, because these movies were both wildly expensive flops. But despite the similarities in their locations, release dates and the complete disinterest of the viewing public, they’re surprisingly different films.
Red Planet is all about the action. It’s a big, dumb, overgrown B-movie about the hunt for a new solution by the inhabitants of a dying Earth, with a motley crew of astronauts sent into space to investigate why attempts to terraform Mars are failing. Every attempt to put the “science” into the “science fiction” here just consists of the cast repeating the word “algae” to each other until it barely sounds like a real word any more, and much of the dialogue in general feels bafflingly like it has been auto-translated into Martian and back again before any scripts were delivered, but the film does have a few strengths that stop it from becoming a total disaster.
Firstly, it has a cool robot, although not for the right reasons. The idea that a desperate team of scientists hoping to preserve human life would take a military-issue murder-robot with them on their survival mission is, frankly, a little far-fetched, and I’d offer good odds that AMEE – “Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion” – is only actually present in the film because some studio exec was worried that the film would struggle without an antagonist. But needless to say, whatever good intentions the crew had for their robot, within minutes of arrival it has flipped out and spends the rest of the movie hunting them relentlessly.
Secondly, there are a few cool ideas among the dumb ones. When the lander reaches Mars it uses a load of automatically inflating balloons to bounce across the rocky surface, which is a neat, unusual idea that also looks pretty great. There’s also a good moment of sci-fi wonder when the members of the team who make it to the surface – and survive longer than poor old Terence Stamp, who lends a little gravitas to the film before dying as soon as anything happens – start to run out of air.
Perhaps the most successful element of the film, though, is Carrie-Ann Moss – it initially seems like a shame that, as captain, she is forced to stay back on the ship while everyone else explores down below, but her performance is easily the best thing about the film and she gets some Gravity-esque zero-G survival exploits in extremely-well lit sci-fi surroundings that are largely more interesting than anything that happens on the planet itself.
The effects hold up fairly well and the direction is solid enough but the terrible dialogue and laughable plot never offer anything to suggest that 2000-era critics or audiences were in any way wrong about the movie as a whole. It’s too dumb to really hate but not memorable enough to recommend, and the fact that South African director Antony Hoffman – inexplicably handed an $80 million budget for this movie having only previously directed commercials – never got to make another movie is something I can’t imagine anyone in the world being particularly bothered by.
Mission to Mars is a different proposition entirely. The idea of Brian De Palma tackling big-budget sci-fi with Disney’s promotional clout behind him is a strange but fascinating one – you can almost imagine him being brought on board purely by the promise of zero-gravity camerawork – and the end result is indeed intriguing. The mean streak that generally runs through De Palma’s work is almost entirely abandoned in favour of a strangely optimistic bit of science-fiction that starts out as “what if Apollo 13, but… further?” and drifts gradually into more cosmic Close Encounters / 2001 territory.
The film starts with a long-take-laden astronaut’s barbecue, as NASA’s finest prepare to send Don Cheadle’s team off to Mars by holding long exposition-heavy conversations to not-so-subtly set up their character traits for the rest of the film. Eight months later, Cheadle & co. discover a strange rock formation on the surface and trigger a strange dust storm that destroys most of their gear and leaves the majority of the team dead.
Luckily the B-team, led by Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen (in a frankly sickeningly loved-up relationship) are watching from the World Space Station and can quickly launch a rescue mission for the possibly-space-crazy Cheadle, who survives Matt Damon-style in the experimental greenhouse and grows a full beard to indicate that he is now “space crazy”. But once everything is set up for a gloriously successful escape, they can’t resist one last exploration of the rock formation that caused the initial disaster… and that’s when things get weird.
Mission to Mars is absolutely an imperfect film, but – to me at least – it’s slightly harder to see why it was so derided on release (in the US, at least – curiously it was far better received by French critics). The dialogue is corny in places, but that feels accurate to the way actual astronauts talk; it’s only the world’s-greatest-romance-in-space elements of the Robbins / Nielsen story that really cross the line, and even that gives us a beautiful zero-gravity dance sequence (!) so I’m inclined to forgive and forget.
Ennio Morricone’s score is also a little underwhelming for such a great composer, and there’s a fair amount of frankly baffling product placement (if you’ve ever wanted to see a near-disaster solved using only Dr. Pepper then I have good news for you!) but outside of those fairly minor complaints there’s a huge amount to enjoy here. De Palma is in top form visually, with some really striking set-pieces, and the cast all do good work, especially the eternally charismatic Don Cheadle.
The survival-against-the-odds stuff is extremely compelling (many of this film’s best ideas recur in The Martian) and the shift into full-on “we are all full of stars” wonder in the film’s finale is great – without wanting to spoil too much of the surprise for anyone who has studiously ignored this film for the last eighteen years because of its mediocre reputation, there’s a holographic evolution sequence that genuinely rivals The Tree of Life.
I can see it disappointing anyone who goes into it expecting full on De Palma-in-space nastiness (and I’d love to see that movie too) but for me this film falls into a long and admirable line of sci-fi movies that are driven by the idea that there could be some truly amazing things out there in the vastness of space.