[Written for Film.com]
Carrie-Anne Moss may be playing the captain of a mission to Mars, but she’s still subject to that ancient sci-fi convention: the non-essential shower scene. You’ve come a long way, baby, sort of. Actually, the shower scene in Red Planet tries to turn the tables, by having commander Moss unashamedly naked in front of the mission’s “maintenance man,” Val Kilmer, and thus dictating the sexual dynamics of the moment. But it’s still a shower scene.
That aside, Moss—in her first big role since The Matrix—is the main reason to see Red Planet, a badly written and visually scenic space opus. Her mission heads to Mars to check out why a terraforming project has sputtered; the green algae that’s been dropped on the Martian surface hasn’t proliferated according to plan. Moss stays aboard an orbiting ship while Kilmer and four others plummet to the planet: wise grayhead Terence Stamp, atheist science genius Tom Sizemore, studly space jockey Benjamin Bratt, and spare part Simon Baker. The picture displays its action chops with a lively sequence of the landing: encased in air bags, the capsule bounces through a series of stomach-dropping Martian canyons.
Unfortunately, the sequence is preceded by twenty minutes of the clumsiest exposition seen in a Hollywood movie this year. (Choppiness and some godawful narration suggest post-production distress.) Once the men are on the planet, the plot requirements click in, and we can at least enjoy some race-against-time issues with space suits and air supplies. This is possible if you ignore the philosophical argument between Kilmer and Sizemore, two worthwhile actors who do not immediately come to mind as vessels for Socratic dialogue.
Red Planet was shot by the excellent Peter Suschitzky, in Wadi Rum, Jordan (a location for Lawrence of Arabia) and Australia. A sepia filter renders everything reddish, an effect pretty close to the photos from the Mars Rover. Despite the persuasive scenery, director Antony Hoffman (whose résumé proudly claims TV commercials for Nike and Budweiser) can’t figure out a way to build scenes, or momentum, or much of anything. It’s only the absurd mechanics of the story that save him, as we grow understandably curious about how the stranded astronauts are going to get off the planet.
Val Kilmer plays his role as a beach bum, too flaky to really be excited about the action. He and the film seem to forget about the possibilities of interesting class differences between the intelligent female captain and the hunky make technician. This leaves the film for Carrie-Anne Moss. She is stunning. A warrior woman with a face sculpted like Joan of Arc, Moss exudes competence and NASA-like simplicity of purpose. Since she spends most of the movie alone in her spaceship, director Hoffman frequently sticks his camera in her face and leaves it there. This is an understandable choice.