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There is some irony to be found in the fact that the year 2000, for so long a symbol of the future, has been witness to some of the worst science fiction movies ever made. Red Planet raises the overall quality of such movies made this year, but only because the average was so abysmally low. It does not stretch the boundaries of the scientifically implausible, as those boundaries were left in tatters by Mission to Mars. Standards of taste, coherence and basic decency were shredded by Battlefield Earth. There was, in short, nowhere for this movie to go but up. It manages to do so, but only because some combinations of the flashing lights, bulky suits, chrome furnishings, and technobabble manage to avoid spectacular failure.

Rules are meant to be broken, but the writers at work here manage to bend some of the basic principles of drama so badly they end up mangled. The first principle of storytelling -- "show, don't tell" -- is a victim of the opening monologue delivered by the captain of a spaceship known only as Mars-1. Bowman, the erstwhile commander played by Carrie-Anne Moss, introduces the rest of the crew with a sentence or two for each, thereby dispensing with the need for any of those pesky character-defining moments that require acting, or writing, ability. She establishes the basic premise with the same lack of subtlety, spouting a generic Earth-is-doomed-pollution-is-evil scenario, before setting a course for Mars, despite knowing that the attempt to grow algae and thereby create an atmosphere on Earth's sister planet has mysteriously failed.

Tragedy strikes at the most inopportune time for the crew but at the best possible time for maximum dramatic tension. Solar flares, naturally occurring phenomena that, presumably, are well-known to NASA, hit the ship as the crew is preparing to land. These solar flares, whose ability to wreak havoc on electronic equipment is, again, presumably well-known to NASA, all but destroy the ship. If NASA had as bad a track record in reality as it does onscreen, humanity would still be trying to get to the moon.

Once on Mars, the crew encounters, besides weird lighting that turns everything a sickly orange, a series of threats that seem designed to evoke the history of villains in science fiction movies. Primary among these is a robot that, with a simple malfunction, transforms from a highly versatile exploratory tool into a homicidal, psychopathic killing machine with a solid understanding of military strategy, a wicked sense of humor, and an uncanny ability to imitate Jackie Chan. The only thing it doesn't have is top billing in the movie, which it almost deserves. Credit is due to the special effects crew for generating a faceless chunk of CGI that has more memorable moments than any of the actors.

Not that the actors don't try to make the most of their moments. Moss engages in some witty banter with Lucille, the ship's onboard computer, fully equipped with an attitude problem. Val Kilmer, the most famous of the bunch, plays the "mechanical systems engineer," refers to himself as the "janitor," and almost has an interesting dialogue about science vs. religion with the eldest member of the crew, played by Terence Stamp. There isn't enough time for the other cliched relationships to develop fully, so the onboard romance and tensions amongst the crew members (played by Benjamin Bratt, Tom Sizemore, and Simon Baker) are only hinted at before they blossom onscreen, only to fade just as quickly.

Mars remains lifeless.


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John Halbert is a student in film at USC.

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