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Red Planet (PG-13)
Warner Bros.

Does everyone in Hollywood really believe that in the relatively near future we will colonize Mars? Hell, we can't even count or validate election results, either manually or by machine. How do we expect to take on Mars?

It's a persistent space fantasy that man will eventually conquer and inhabit the red planet. In this take on a familiar theme -- the space mission where everything imaginable goes wrong -- man has ruined Earth's atmosphere by 2025 so badly that missions have been sent to Mars to spread oxygen-producing algae which will eventually support human life. In the year 2050, a manned mission is dispatched to see if those earlier efforts have succeeded.

Red Planet is very much a 1950s science fiction throwback, choosing not to rely on spectacle and expensive effects so much as human foibles, character flaws and the trajectory of what feels like a doomed mission. What obstacle lies around the next corner? What unknown evil lurks on the surface of Mars?

It's a mildly enjoyable excursion, though not particularly mind stretching or dramatically compelling. Basically the four guys in the crew are catapulted onto Mars' surface while the female commander (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix) stays with the crippled ship, trying to figure out how to get them all back to Earth. The single best footage in the film shows their small transport vessel, encircled by giant, inflated rubber balls, bouncing across the planet's rocky surface and falling off a huge cliff into a deep canyon like a Superball run amok.

Val Kilmer brings his trademark low-key humor to the role of Mechanical Systems Engineer Robby Gallagher, the crew's non-intellectual fix-it man whose practical skills come in mighty handy once on Mars. He's supported by Benjamin Bratt, the ship's snotty co-pilot; Air Force Captain Ted Santen; scientist-philosopher-wise man Dr. Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp); Simon Baker as Dr. Chip Pettengill, an unequipped and very nervous last minute replacement on the mission; and veteran sidekick Dr. Quinn Burchenal played with sleepwalking ease by Tom Sizemore.

The only other inhabitant of Mars is a robot named AMEE whose gears get jammed when she hits the planet's surface turning her into a killing machine on the loose.

The guys, who quickly discover that the algae has disappeared, trudge around in their ultra-heavy spacesuits trying to figure out how they will be able to breathe when the oxygen supply runs out, and how they will get back to the mother ship. Needless to say, not eveyone makes it, but I'll let you guess who does.

Raised on such sterling science fiction classics as Donovan's Brain, I found myself sufficiently entertained by Red Planet. My tech-savvy kids, however, were so bored that they rolled their eyes when I finally caught on to what the ultimate solution would be. Like I said, there's nothing new here besides the barely camouflaged notion that once we wreck this planet we can just move on to another one -- the ultimate Mars fantasy.

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