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.