Red Planet fail

I tried rewatching Red Planet last night. It was one of two films released in 2000 about a trip to Mars. Red Planet stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss and Terence Stamp, and was directed by Antony Hoffman. The other Mars film was Mission to Mars, starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle, and directed by Brian De Palma.

But, Red Planet. I lasted half an hour before I gave up in disgust. At the time of release, Red Planet was considered the inferior of the two movies, and I remember thinking it not very good at the time… What I had forgotten was quite how bad it was. It takes place in 2056, and details a mission to Mars to investigate why the algae which they had been using to terraform the planet had failed. Their spacecraft is called Mars-1, which somehow possesses internal gravity. In fact, the spacecraft’s interior more resembles a spaceship from Star Trek or Star Wars than it does a spacecraft from fifty years hence.

The crew are no more plausible. They appear to have been cobbled together at the last minute – when it’s usual practice to train for years together for such a mission. At several points, Val Kilmer, the “mechanical systems engineer” (there’s no “electronic systems engineer” aboard, incidentally), leers creepily at his captain, Carrie-Ann Moss, which is disturbing and unprofessional. The crew’s geneticist, Tom Sizemore, uses his lab to build a still, and then they all sit around getting drunk on his moonshine. True, John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3 against orders; but that’s not quite the same as getting pissed in an environment in which the slightest mistake could prove fatal.

But, still – magical technology spaceship rather than mid-twenty-first century spacecraft, unprofessional crew, even the brainless conversation in which Terence Stamp declares that “science can’t answer the interesting questions”… it’s Hollywood. You accept it for the sake of drama.

Except… On arrival in orbit about Mars, a solar flare strikes. According to Wikipedia, a solar flare “ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space”. You can’t see “electrons, ions and atoms”. They do not sparkle and provide a pretty light show, as they do in the film. And if the systems aboard your spacecraft explode as a result of the huge input of energy from these “electrons, ions and atoms”… Gah. It’s completely stupid. A solar flare is a known form of event. Any spacecraft would be built to weather one – the most fragile elements aboard are the crew. (See ‘A Ray of Sunshine’ by Bill Patterson in Rocket Science for more information.)

So I gave up on the film. Maybe I’ll watch the rest of it another day. Instead, I watched the first episode of Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, a BBC mockumentary about a Grand Tour mission. It’s much, much better. The scenes set aboard the spacecraft Pegasus look to have been filmed on the “Vomit Comet”, so they’re in real “zero gravity”. There’ s a real scientific basis to everything visible on-screen, and the writers manage to evoke drama and tension out of something as seemingly simple as a one-hour mission to the surface of Venus. The scenes set on Mars are also more convincing than those of the Hollywood film.

So if you’re going to watch something realistic and authentic about humanity exploring the Solar System, watch Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets. Not Red Planet.



Filed under space travel

4 responses to “Red Planet fail

  1. Ian,
    Thank you very much for mentioning my essay in Rocket Science. A solar flare is a complex phenomenon with several causes. The most common is the sudden energy release from collapsing and reconnecting solar magnetic field lines. This heats and accelerates solar plasma in the neighborhood, usually hurling the plasma into space, accompanied by large electromagnetic energy releases, from the radio, through optical, and even into the X-Ray portion of the spectrum. This energy is the ‘flare’, the plasma front, being matter, follows much later. The flare is seen eight minutes after the event, the plasma can arrive at Earth as fast as eighteen hours, but is more typically thirty to fifty hours in transit.

    I do not recall seeing Red Planet, although I may have in the past. (How’s that for a glowing review?) If I am reading your review correctly, a solar flare suddenly knocks out some vital system on the spacecraft. The most energetic flare measured in the modern era was an X28 on 4 November 2003. At Earth, the X-ray flux was .0028 watts per square meter. Compare this to the Wikipedia figure of 1361 watts per square meter for all solar radiation at 1AU, and you will see that they could not have been knocked out by the X-ray portion of the flare.

    That leaves the Solar Particle Event (or Coronal Mass Ejection). Satellites have been knocked out by SPEs before, as I noted in my essay. Unlike the flare itself, the astronauts should have known the event was coming! Warned by the X-Ray flare, they would have been able to infer that a wave of heavy ion bombardment was coming and take countermeasures. Bad plotting.
    Now, there _have_ been times when ‘pretty lights’ have been seen by astronauts – when cosmic rays have impacted their eyes. Several astronauts have reported seeing ‘sparkles’ or ‘flashes’ during their time in orbit. The most likely cause is galactic cosmic rays, which would cause the flashes via either Cherenkov radiation in the aqueaous humor of the eye, or through some spurrious signal activation of the retinal/optic nerve/signal processing part of the brain. But these have been isolated flashes, not The Lights of Zetar.

    Again, Ian, thank you for mentioning my essay, and let us know when you need another printing of Rocket Science!

    Bill Patterson

    • “…a solar flare suddenly knocks out some vital system on the spacecraft.”

      Er, no. It made equipment explode. All over the spacecraft.

      “Several astronauts have reported seeing ‘sparkles’ or ‘flashes’ during their time in orbit.”

      In the film, this is a regular light show which fills the heavens. It’s not something happening inside the astronauts’ eyeballs, it’s more like an aurora.

      As I said, a rubbish film 🙂

  2. Agree with you about Stamp’s “science can’t answer…” line. It sounded stupid then, and it’s worse now… what with creationism in USA. However, I’m more forgiving about sci-fi content of those Mars movies. Even bad SF is better than none at all, I think. Have you seen Defying Gravity? – US remake of TV Space Odyssey effort. I can’t say DG is really great as hard-SF but it’s often fairly good entertainment.

    • I caught one episode of Defying Gravity, IIRC. I wasn’t much impressed, but perhaps it was a bad episode. All I remember is it being set in the near-future, but featuring a giant spacecraft with onboard gravity.

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