Okay, so in this film gravity on Mars turns out to be the same as on earth, with everybody in space suits clunking around like Frankenstein's monsters. And okay, so the biology of the planet is ass-backwards from reality, with plants taking up oxygen and animals generating it. And -- oh, hell, let's just enjoy what we can of this film and not be such pickypies. Okay?
And it's not such a bad film, really. For one thing, there's no interminable plot setup on earth to wade through before the brave ones even get into their spaceship. We pick up the story right on board, halfway to Mars, without any wasted motion. Here's the deal: The year is 2050. We on earth are starting to gasp for breath because we've terminally polluted the planet. So a couple of years ago we sent an unmanned probe to Mars with algae on board, to live there, spread out all over, and generate oxygen to enrich the Martian atmosphere, so that all of us remaining humans could be transported there to survive. The problem is that our instruments now show that the oxygen levels are now declining, and our crew's mission is to find out why. They are there to test the waters, so to speak. That's a figure of speech, as you know, since there isn't any free water on Mars.
In any case, did the writers give this movie's crew a little switch? Of course; the commander is a woman, Carrie-Anne Moss. And is there a weak link on board? Of course. It's -- oh, never mind. And will the ship's lowly systems engineer (read janitor), played by Val Kilmer, save the day? There's even an onboard computer voiced by what you might think of as the niece of '2001's' HAL. But forget that for the moment. Enjoy the scenery and the shots. And the scenery is perfect. Shooting in Australia and Jordan, with red filters and the kind of underexposed low-contrast look appropriate to a planet getting less than half earth's sunlight, director Antony Hoffman has given us a very believable Mars.
There's barely a plot to worry about. The crew's mission is to find out why the algae haven't bloomed as expected, and in the course of the film they do in fact find out. There you are; I've given the whole thing away. What impact that will have for earthlings is being saved for the sequel, we assume, because by the end we and the surviving crew are just happy to get out of there. The film tries, though not too hard, to pretend that these are human beings, but frankly they're much better as stick figures. "Red Planet" is a perfect example of year 2000 technology in the service of a 1950s television serial. But bad as it is, it's still enormously more fun than George Lucas's "Star Wars: Episode 1."