Killer Robot Week: “Red Planet”

Red Planet

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Today, we’re kicking off Killer Robot Week with a bit of a forgotten sci-fi feature: 2000’s much maligned “Red Planet,” which features the killer military tracking robot AMEE.

“Red Planet” was directed by South African Antony Hoffman, and is to date the director’s only feature. He did a short in 2014, but has no other planned credits listed on IMDb. The best information that I could find indicated that he apparently does commercials these days, which I suppose is better than nothing.

A fellow named Chuck Pfarrer is listed as both the writer and a producer on “Red Planet,” and it has been his only credit in the new millennium. Previously, he had an assortment of writing credits on movies like “Hard Target,” “Darkman,” and “The Jackal.” However, his most telling credit is on the film “Virus,” just one year prior to “Red Planet.” Back to back high-profile, high-budget failures in consecutive years is just about what it takes to sink a career.

Another writer credited on “Red Planet” is Jonathan Lemkin, who is still around today. He went on to write the action movie “Shooter” starring Mark Wahlberg, and is listed as working on “G.I. Joe 3” at the moment. Before “Red Planet,” he mostly did television writing (“Hill Street Blues,” “21 Jump Street”), but did do screenplay work for “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Lethal Weapon 4.”

One other notable name in the crew is one Peter Suschitzky, who has most recently been the go-to cinematographer for David Cronenberg (“Crash,” “Eastern Promises,” “History of Violence,” “eXistenZ,” “Maps to the Stars”). However, his earlier credits go back a good ways, and include “The Man In The Iron Mask,” “Krull,” and a stand-out director of photography credit on “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The Art Department and Production Design team feature a couple of names still quite active today. Owen Paterson, who is credited with the production design, is currently attached to “Captain America: Civil War,” and has recently worked on “Godzilla (2014).” He also had a lengthy connection with the Wachowskis, doing the production design for all three “Matrix” movies, “V For Vendetta,” and “Speed Racer.” Hugh Bateup, who is credited as one of the Art Directors on “Red Planet,” took over Paterson’s Production Design role for the later Wachowski movies “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending” after serving as an art director for the siblings on the “Matrix” trilogy and “Speed Racer.”

“Red Planet” boasts a pretty interesting cast: Simon Baker (“The Mentalist”), Val Kilmer, Terrence Stamp, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Tom Sizemore lead the way in a minimal cast of astronauts who are sent to investigate a Mars terraforming project. Apparently, a lot of creative shooting had to be done with stand-ins and body doubles due to a major feud between Kilmer and Sizemore on set, which led to numerous instances where they refused to be present together for filming.

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“Red Planet” was thoroughly loathed by critics and audiences upon release in 2000: Rotten Tomatoes has it at an abysmal 14% for critics, and an only slightly higher 28% for audiences. The box office didn’t fair much better: in total, the movie failed to rake in even half of its estimated 80 million dollar budget, making it a massive financial flop. However, opinion on the movie may be softening with time: its IMDb rating is up to a 5.6, and I’ve heard from a number of people who feel that it was unappreciated. Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” offers one of the few positive reviews out there:

“I was expecting a really bad movie, both plot-wise and astronomy-wise. What I got was an enjoyable movie. It is not very fast paced, which may be why the critics didn’t like it. The plot was not great, but good, and I thought the pacing was just fine. I expected Val Kilmer to chew up the scenery, but his character was actually a rather modest, likable fellow, and Kilmer played him very well. The special effects were also really good.”

First off: I definitely agree on (most of) the effects. AMEE, the killer robot of the story, is primarily done with CGI, but looks absolutely fantastic for being from 2000. Some other things in the story look less impressive (the oxygen bugs), but AMEE is undoubtedly the centerpiece.

Speaking of which, the design of AMEE is damn cool. The monoeye design of the infamous HAL is incorporated into a complex, impressively thought-out convertible robot that functions in both bipedal and quadrupedal modes.  I’m not a big fan of the kung-fu bipedal mode, but the quadropedal mode is really unsettling: AMEE’s motions are modeled after those of large, predatory cats, and the sense of cat-and-mouse in the plot is really punched home with that detail. It is also worth pointing out that some of the most recent robotics developments at Boston Dynamics bear some resemblances to AMEE’s quadropedal mode, which is interesting to see. Another bit of sci-fi technological foresight here is the inclusion of a helicopter drone on AMEE, a solid year or so before the recognized inception of the modern UAV program in the United States military and CIA.

Staying on the topic of science and technology, Phil Plait of the “Bad Astronomy” blog, who typically tears movies asunder for technical inaccuracies, actually had some good things to say about “Red Planet”:

…they used spinning wheels on the ship to simulate gravity, which would work. I was amazed to see two wheels, spinning in opposite directions. This is exactly what you want to do!

I did like this movie. While not action packed, I liked the pacing and the thoughtfulness of it. There were a few plot devices: (1) the gamma flare (2) why didn’t the military disable AMEE’s military mode before giving it to civilians? and (3) the bugs making oxygen. However, this is a factor of ten fewer plot devices than in most movies.

…it is my great pleasure to say that “Red Planet” is vastly better than “Mission to Mars”. Of course, the stomach flu is better than “Mission to Mars”.

That is pretty high praise coming from Plait, who is quite the stickler in the realm of depicting science accurately on screen.

So, why was “Red Planet” such a huge failure? One of the most common criticisms I saw of the film over a cursory glance of the Rotten Tomatoes critics blurbs was a perceived lack of originality, a  complaint that I think justifies some context.

“Red Planet” released in November of 2000, placing it 8 months after another Hollywood Mars expedition Sci-Fi flick: “Mission to Mars.” The two movies are rarely discussed separately, and are often a go-to example of similar movies racing to the box office, right next to “Armageddon”/”Deep Impact” and “Volcano”/”Dante’s Peak.” I can understand critics feeling over-saturated on the premise, and not giving “Red Planet” a fair shake on its own merits on the heels of “Mission to Mars.”

Another criticism of the film I have seen is the perceived lesson of “faith > science”, arguing that the movie has some concealed Luddite tendencies. I mean, there is a killer robot and a lot of wayward technology, so I can definitely see where that criticism comes from. There are also some painfully cringe-inducing lines of dialogue about faith that just feel strange and out of place: I have to wonder if this popped out of a rewrite or something, because the moments seem to pop out of nowhere, and don’t really contribute anything to the story. Val Kilmer’s extreme Christian Scientist beliefs have popped up recently in the news, proving that he is almost certainly devout to a fault as far as his personal health is concerned. I’m a little curious if he had any sway on the inclusion of these lines, which isn’t something that would be unheard of. In any case, they are a distraction and a weakness to the movie if you ask me. There isn’t anything strictly wrong with “science gone too far” stories, but it didn’t quite work here. I thought the more interesting line to follow would have been the “Jurassic Park” ‘life finds a way’ route, given that life manages to pop up despite all of the odds against it on Mars. Oh well.

Another frequent comment that I saw about “Red Planet,” which was treated as a positive or a negative depending on the critic, was how much the movie felt like a 1950s B-picture. Check out this excerpt from Roger Ebert’s positive take on the film:

“Red Planet” would have been a great 1950s science fiction film. It embodies the kind of nuts-and-bolts sci-fi championed by John W. Campbell Jr. in his Astounding magazine–right down to the notion that a space mission would be staffed by research scientists, and although there would be a woman on board, she would not be the kind of woman depicted in an aluminum brassiere on the covers of his competitors. This is a film where much of the suspense involves the disappearance of algae.

In contrast, here is the summary of a negative review from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Feels a lot like a B-movie from the 1950s.

I actually think the biggest problems with this movie were external. The release of “Mission to Mars” and its negative reception was beyond the “Red Planet” team’s control, as was the apparent public disinterest in the style of movie they made. “Red Planet” doesn’t feel like a movie that went wrong at any point in its creation, but rather like a movie that became exactly what it was meant to be, only to find that no one wanted it. I think that “Red Planet” is a 1950s B movie that was trying to compete in a field of early 2000s techno-action, and it was not what people wanted or expected. It isn’t sophisticated enough to be “Contact,” but also not entertaining enough to cut it as a summer blockbuster. It may just be a project that was doomed from inception. That’s really a shame, because I don’t think this is a particularly bad movie: it isn’t great, but I think it is worth a solid “C.”

As far as the plot goes, I appreciated the bit of mystery element included around the terraforming. It reminded me of the similar mechanic used recently in “Interstellar,” which I think served well in that film as well. I wish that the oxygen bugs made a little more sense and some more time was spent on it, but the tension wasn’t ultimately built on that mystery when it comes down to it, so that might have been the right decision. “Interstellar” put weight on saving Earth, whereas there isn’t the same urgency with “Red Planet”: these astronauts are just trying to survive.

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I mentioned a few members of the art and production design team earlier. I specifically read into them, because the work on this movie is nothing short of fantastic. I love all of the gadgets, the equipment, the ship, the set: all of the trim in this film is top notch without a doubt. Everything seemed vaguely futuristic, but not so far that it was beyond belief: that can be hard to pull off in sci-fi, which I think any creative futurist could tell you. The near future is tricky business, because you are never quite sure when/where the big technological jumps are going to come in.

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As I mentioned before, I think “Red Planet” merits a pretty solid “C,” but I’m still going to recommend it, if only because this deserves a second, retroactive look by more people, unpolluted by the context that surrounded its release. Also, the visuals of the robot and the production design are just cool, and are worth giving it a watch alone.

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