Oct 9, 2020
Movie Duel: Mission to Mars vs. Red Planet
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
The first movie about Mars was released in 1910, when Thomas Edison, in response to the popular and artistically significant 1902 French movie A Trip to the Moon, bankrolled a movie called A Trip to Mars. Since then, Hollywood’s interest in the Red Planet as a setting has come and gone in cycles. We’re in just such a cycle right now. John Carter kicked off a wave of Marsmania that went on to give us The Martian and the TV series The Expanse, and will hopefully be wrapping up with this year’s dreadful The Space Between.
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The last time there was this much Mars in the spotlight, it was the late ‘90s and the Sojourner rover had just finished poking around the Martian surface like a nosey houseguest riffling through the magazines. No number of grainy pictures of rocks could satisfy our overclocked imaginations, and Hollywood was only too happy to fill the gap. The next few years saw the release of a spate of Mars flicks: Tim Burton’s campy Mars Attacks!, the slapstick kids’ comedy Rocketman, the Carpenter-directed horror flick Ghosts of Mars, and even an ill-advised movie adaptation of the ‘60s sitcom My Favorite Martian.
Two “serious” releases stood out from the pack: Mission to Mars (2000) and Red Planet (also 2000). Both of these films feature a team of astronauts going to Mars to investigate the mysterious failure of a previous mission, encountering deadly dangers, and discovering life. Both were also bloated, lifeless shit-buffets whose combined critical and commercial failure brought the Mars movie phenomenon to a graceless, clattering halt. What else do they have in common? We’ll find out in the latest edition of Movie Duel!
In Which Lieutenant Dan Gets His Space Legs
One of the things these two movies have in common, beyond their very similar premises, is that both mark the downward turning point in the career of a hot ‘90s actor. Mission to Mars has Gary Sinise playing Jim McConnell, a benched astronaut brought back onto the mission at the last minute (which you may recognize as the exact inverse of Gary Sinise’s character from Apollo 13). We’re told that he lost his spot on the original Mars mission because his wife (also an astronaut) got sick and died, because teh sadz apparently makes you lose your flight clearance. I posit that he got scrubbed because no one wanted to spend two years cooped up in a tin can with this bozo. Sinise plays the character as dry and unpleasant as a booger rolled too long between your fingers. For the entirety of his awesome space voyage, he’s alternately bored and peeved.
Contrast this with Val Kilmer’s character, Robby Gallagher, whose name we’d forget if it weren’t printed on the outside of his space suit. He’s distinguishable from the rest of the fratboynauts in Red Planet mainly by the shade of his hair (what we, in the ‘90s, used to call “Eminem yellow”). We’re given no backstory, no redeeming qualities, and no reason to root for him. Nothing he does moves the plot forward. He survives to the end by complete luck of the draw, and he’s rewarded with Retroactive Protagonist Status and a sudden mutually burning passion for the movie’s only woman. Nonetheless, Kilmer comes out on top because his slack-jawed, hey-I-thought-there-was-more-beer-in-the-crisper drawer bemusement is less offensive to watch than Gary Sinise’s perpetual distracted scowl.
One of the reasons Mars is so popular as a setting is that it supports any number of types of stories. You can do hard or soft sci-fi, horror, action, or fantasy; silly or serious, thrilling or serene. Which category do these movies fit into?
Mission to Mars doesn’t know any better than I do. It had four writers, back when that was not yet the norm for a Hollywood blockbuster, and boy, does it show. For most of its runtime, Mission to Mars tries to affect a sober, prosaic style that prefigures the scientifically accurate, true-to-life stylings of The Martian. There weren’t many movies like this in 2000, and it might have found success had they not unevenly jammed in clashing story elements like a horrible cook throwing every tasty-sounding ingredient they can think of into a pot. There’s corny human drama, goofy B-movie gruesomeness (including a man caught in a vortex and dismembered by centrifugal force), and a starry-eyed “it was aliens!” plot twist that plays out like 2001 had a baby with all the worst parts of Contact.
All these disparate devices result in a movie that’s tone-deaf, oblivious, and awe-inspiring in the homeostasis of mediocrity it achieves. A movie really has to try to be this unaffecting. Everything from the direction to the music to the editing seems designed to blunt any emotion you may be feeling. Scenes that should be tense are flat. Scenes that should be affecting are irritating. Expository conversations meander into irrelevant tangents. A scene where McDonnell steals a fellow astronaut’s candy, clearly written as comic relief, comes off instead as unaccountably menacing. You’re never sure how to feel or what to expect.
Red Planet doesn’t do that. It feints at all the same mistakes Mission to Mars made, but at its core it’s nothing but a trashy, violent thriller. The beginning of the movie pays lip service to themes of religious faith and paranoiac isolation, almost as if it felt obligated to at least give them a shot. But it’s not equipped to handle that serious stuff, and it knows so. What it can handle is Tom Sizemore being loathsome and getting eaten alive by bugs. And Carrie-Anne Moss lounging bralessly around the spaceship. And a murderous robot killed by a parachute. It’s a shame, then, that there was too much money invested in Red Planet ($90 million, to be precise) to afford it the breathing room to be as pulpy or as violent as it clearly wanted to be. It’s sad to watch a movie pull its punches like this. If Red Planet had fully committed to being tasteless and goofy, you might have known something about it before you started reading this.
It’s a foregone conclusion that both movies are going to discover life on Mars. And said life is probably going to kill a few members of the crew before the movie ends. Mission to Mars and Red Planet approach this plot point from opposite ends.
In Mission to Mars, the first mission gets destroyed by a huge space vortex that violently murders everyone except Don Cheadle, whom Gary Sinise’s team has to rescue. In the process of rescuing him, the team discovers that the vortex emanated from a giant crystalline face built by the Martians. These beings fled Mars after a meteor impact, but on the way to their new home, seeded Earth with life and left clues so their eventual descendants could join them.
This plotline is an old SF canard, and I really, really (really!) hate it. Not only is it overdone, but it’s scientifically and internally absurd. Life on Earth in the present is the result of innumerable unpredictable circumstances: changing environmental conditions, mass extinctions, genetic drift, population bottlenecks, what have you. Yet the writer who uses this plot device wants us to believe that an alien can seed a planet with life and know with certainty that it will, millions of years hence, produce not only intelligent life, but the exact variety of intelligent life that they want. Unless your alien is literally God, I’m calling bullshit.
And the way this device is used in Mission to Mars raises questions the movie won’t answer. If the Martians all made it off the planet, why did they need to spread their genome to Earth as well? Was that something they were going to do anyway? Why was it necessary to guard their big secret with a puzzle that springs a deadly booby trap if you can’t solve it? How are the astronauts going to tell anyone on Earth about this, when the only evidence that it happened is a spaceship that their crew leader left in without telling anyone where he was going? Which brings me to another reason I hate the “seeded Earth” plot device: it inevitably generates more questions than it can answer (see: Prometheus).
After that wet plop of a big reveal, it came as a relief to me that the aliens in Red Planet were nothing more than your garden-variety voracious insect. They’ve supposedly been lying dormant in Martian soil after eating all the other Martian life. When humans seeded the planet with algae as part of a terraforming effort, the bugs awakened and ate it all, prompting a Mars mission to find out where all the algae went.
The creature design is spooky, if disappointingly pedestrian. Like zombies, they’re easily killed on their own, but formidable in numbers. The main problem with them is that Red Planet wastes so much time trying to be a “serious” movie that the bugs only get, in total, a scene or two in the second act. There’s no time to build up dread; the bugs don’t get a chance to really tingle your spine the way they ought to. To close the monster gap, Red Planet has a robot malfunction and try to kill everybody. The robot is admittedly a gorgeous special effect for 2000, and menacing in a way the bugs just aren’t, but I can’t help feeling they should’ve just gone with one or the other.
Which One Needs to Exist?
Red Planet. For all its faults, it knows who it’s for. Mission to Mars is for nobody.