In 1996, it was alien invaders. In 1998, it was Earth-threatening objects from space and computer-animated insects. This year, for reasons beyond our control, brings two animated musicals set in pre-Columbian South America (the forgotten Road To El Dorado and the forthcoming, unfortunately titled The Emperor's New Groove) and two science-fiction adventure films set on Mars. If Brian De Palma's slack, derivative Mission To Mars whetted few appetites for another visit to our astronomical neighbor, Red Planet, the directorial debut of Antony Hoffman, could kill interest entirely. Set 25 to 50 years in the future—depending on whether you follow the dialogue or the opening narration, which introduces each character by name and single defining character trait—Red Planet concerns the first manned mission to Mars, one necessitated by the overpopulation and pollution of Earth. Captained by Carrie-Anne Moss, the crew breaks the tedium of the long voyage by brewing moonshine and talking about the big issues under the tutelage of philosopher/scientist Terence Stamp ("the soul of the crew"). But as the ship enters Mars' orbit, disaster strikes, forcing a crash landing and leading to the first of many scenes of intrepid astronauts walking across the arid Martian landscape toward or away from some sort of crisis. After lightening its character payload, Red Planet focuses on a handful of adventurers led by Val Kilmer, whose obstacles include a berserk robot named AMEE. Stalking Kilmer's crew like a panther, this ambulatory version of 2001's homicidal HAL (right down to the single glowing eye) injects Red Planet with a few fleeting bursts of energy. With Kilmer appearing bored beyond measure and a ship-bound Moss largely reduced to worrying while modeling a series of tight-fitting space fashions, AMEE also gives the film's most dynamic performance. As a great special effect in want of a better movie, it provokes more sympathy than any of Red Planet's ill-starred adventurers.

Advertisement