In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in this month’s double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Studios love to play chicken with cloned concepts. Planet-killing asteroids, city-leveling volcanos, POTUS siege films, POTUS-daughter romcoms, complicated fuck buddies, basket-case bugs, Snow White, Hercules, boorish mall-security guards. Even dance crazes play the imitation game; Lambada and The Forbidden Dance opened on the same day in 1990.
Yes, the Lambada movies fall under column parameters. They are 30 years old. One barely cracked its opening-weekend top 10 at the box office, let alone the year-ending chart. And of course, both scripts just missed the cutoff for the Oscars’ Best Original Screenplay category. Fortunately for all of us, I don’t hate myself that much. Instead, this year’s double-feature column dives into a different dustbin of duplicative duds — 2000’s Mission to Mars and Red Planet.
To watch Touchstone’s Mars (from March) and Warner Brothers’ Planet (from November) today is partially to chuckle nervously at their narrative proximities to the here and now. We’re five years away from cataclysmic overpopulation that eventually prompts Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss and, uh *checks notes* Tom Sizemore as the world’s leading biomedical engineer to save our skins in Red Planet. Meanwhile, Mission to Mars begins in 2020, as Gary Sinise rolls up to Tim Robbins’ backyard BBQ sporting a rather dubious Isuzu concept car and sporting hair and makeup that resembles an out-of-work Chris Gaines impersonator.
So much faux profundity abounds in both that it’s easy to focus on such superficial things as Sinise’s heinous lewk as stupendous “stick jockey” Jim McConnell. Or, in Red Planet, an all-star level of disengagement from Terence Stamp as — AHEM — Dr. Bud Chantilas, the “soul of the crew.” The latter is like watching Laurence Olivier play Garland Greene in Con Air, and when Dr. Bud bares his soul to Kilmer’s character about why he traded science for philosophy, Kilmer’s reaction shot looks like Stamp spent the last 90 seconds farting into his open mouth. (There are no fart jokes on Planet, but there is a high-arc, low-gravity pissing scene on which some low-level rendering tech actually derived his or her livelihood all these years ago.)
Neither film is particularly good nor entirely without merit. Planet establishes an amusingly nasty pecking order once it reaches the surface (even if Stamp’s exit feels like a contractual escape clause) and even morphs into Predator for a hot minute. And although Mission swerves into irreversible stupidity down the stretch, legendary craftsman Brian De Palma places his steady directorial hand all over a sequence of sustained tension in open space.
He was Disney’s Plan B for Mission to Mars, initially conceived as a vehicle for up-and-comer Gore Verbinski (who probably felt OK swapping this for the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut three years on). As vigorously atypical as a project like this might seem for De Palma, there is a wisecrack in its by-committee script about the 3% genetic differentiation between man and apes that expertly distills the director’s obsessions. “That 3% gave us Einstein, Mozart,” one character says. “Jack the Ripper,” another pipes in skeptically — and yep, it’s the curiosity, beauty and sexual violence inherent to De Palma’s work all rolled into one.
Of course, Mission to Mars is a PG-rated movie paid for by Disney, albeit a sometimes surprisingly graphic one with people literally ripped into pieces by sandstorms or frozen in the chill of space. So De Palma leaves the last of those fascinations at home, botches the curiosity bit for a story that ultimately feels like a prequel to Ancient Aliens and at least remembers to bring the beauty. The BBQ beginning is De Palma’s most boring and banal one-shot, but a zero-gravity scene set to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” offers a lovely interlude to the idiotic plot. A set piece involving a micrometeoroid field and a subsequent escape from a failing spacecraft ratchets up nerves in textbook De Palma fashion, applying Occam’s Razor to the throats of his characters as he often does: Something is going to go wrong and people will die. And as parodic as master Ennio Morricone’s score sometimes sounds, you hear hints of what Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer musically mounted 14 years later in Interstellar — church organs worshiping at the altar of celestial wonder. (The Golden Raspberry nomination for De Palma, which he lost to Battlefield Earth’s Roger Christian, was an unnecessary pile-on.)
Mars certainly offers the more impressive Martian milieu of the two, combining a two-million square-foot sandpit set with computerized effects. At the same time, there’s an alienating antiseptic look around its edges, and that’s before Sinise learns truths about humankind from a sad-boi extraterrestrial inside a sort of intergalactic clean room. After a while, the film’s planetary segments glaze into a cross of 1950s sci-fi paperback pulp and a moving-waterfall painting in a restaurant. Plus, the plot developments here derive from dead-wife divinations about deeper levels of consciousness and civilization on the titular planet. The movie wants to be some sort of slam poetry for the stars, a “we are all made of Mars” sort of thing. But the meter and rhythm are all wrong, with too little of the fearful, trembling humility we’d really feel when facing such existential disruption. Mars so desperately wants to play like Contact. Instead, Sinise’s eventual Dave Bowman moment plays like the Disney ride version of Ad Astra. Fittingly, the only cultural remnant of Mars 20 years on? Its props adorn the queue for the “Mission: SPACE” attraction at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park.
For all of its unintentionally hilarious hokum, Mission to Mars feels like a flesh-and-blood effort from a notable craftsman. Red Planet generally bears the anonymous aesthetics of an assembly-line product. It’s the only feature credit for South African filmmaker Antony Hoffman, who got his start documenting anti-apartheid uprisings near Cape Town, later studied at the American Film Institute school in Los Angeles, and then won awards making ads for Budweiser. It’s sort of like if Neill Blomkamp had flamed out on freshman effort with District 9. Then again, Blomkamp never had to contend with legendarily monstrous egos like Kilmer and Sizemore, whose disputes about appropriate studio pampering allegedly led to Sizemore throwing a 50-pound weight from his exercise machine at Kilmer. (The usual codes of silence and stand-ins took hold for the rest of the shoot, although the Heat co-stars apparently reconciled later.) Red Planet also was definitely the less-prestigious of these two, ping-ponging release dates (its first one three weeks after Mission to Mars) before settling on a November berth.
There’s no imminent extinction on Mars. But here, Earth is dying and unmanned probes have been sent to Mars to bloom oxygen levels through algae. All is going according to plan, but then the algae begins to inexplicably disappear. So begins the greatest undertaking mankind has ever known” as Moss calls it in the most bored captain’s-log voiceover you can imagine.
If you think about this clearly written-in-later VO as a jab at all the toxicity and insecurity on set, it’s vastly more amusing. Moss is the mission’s captain and Kilmer its mechanical engineer (“not my first choice”). Sizemore is described as “his own greatest hero” and introduced making moonshine while jamming out to a remix of a Police song. Also along for the ride are Benjamin Bratt (as a hotheaded copilot) and Simon Baker (as a terraforming expert). There’s also AMEE, which stands for Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion — a cross between ED-209 and HAL-9000 with a Chekhov’s-gun military mode just waiting to rear its ugly head.
As in Mission, unforeseen complications affect the Mars landing in Planet. After a rough emergency descent, the aforementioned Dr. Bud ruptured his spleen. Baker pushes Bratt off a cliff for … well, no apparent reason other than generic space madness. AMEE begins stalking its surviving human caretakers. Meanwhile, in orbit, Moss floats around wormy-looking zero-gravity CGI to put out fires and bark out lines like “Houston, we have … experienced a massive proton upset equivalent to a solar flare.” At least Planet picks up momentum and menace as it moves along. The scientifically satisfying reason for the algae’s disappearance is preferable to Mission’s low-grade Abyss fever and also pushes some shopworn sci-fi buttons. And although some day-saving eureka moments lack sense in the moment, Red Planet’s characters at least use stated smarts to get out of jams rather than die staring at sandstorms.
It’s always a risk to revisit films and review them as they could be rather than what they are. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to ponder whether 10 years of genre maturation might have saved either title from a legacy of mediocrity. Could a playwright for hire salvage the exploration of human purpose in Mission to Mars and make it feel more deep than dippy? Would Hoffman have more latitude for Red Planet’s faintest hint at commentary that Mars is just another planet for mankind to ruin? Made today, they’d likely just wind up on Disney+ and HBOMax. Then again, only The Martian seems to have broken out of this very niche Mars sci-fi ghetto over the last 20 years (although the undervalued John Carter could wind up in this space in 2032.) And that movie wasn’t about getting our asses to Mars, it was about saving Matt Damon’s so he could return to Earth. Perhaps it’s just as simple as this: For all of the automated-systems gobbledygook in Mars and Planet that translates to “bad shit is happening”: the most enduring and appropriate thing you hear is “failure to engage.”