To its credit, "Red Planet" orbits lazily around its story axis, foregoing the razzle-dazzle special effects common to sci-fi offerings from high-tech Hollywood studios.
No rampaging monsters, no cataclysmic explosions, no interplanetary dogfights, "Red Planet" relies mainly on scientific events and advanced technology that will seem believable to the audience.
Much of the dramatic tension in the film, for example, revolves around the mystery of disappearing algae, posing an interesting and understandable puzzle for the protagonists to solve.
The plot soon turns to other matters -- the crew's efforts to survive Mars' hostile environment -- which seems like a flaw in the film, albeit not a fatal one.
The answer to the mystery slowly emerges as a subtext to the larger issue of getting the crew safely back to earth, and the audience makes the transition without too much confusion.
Here's the story: It's mid-21st century and the Earth has been irreversibly poisoned by human activities. For several decades, unmanned Mars missions have pollinated the red planet with algae in an attempt to create a livable atmosphere where Earth's population can seek refuge.
The algae, however, has suddenly died -- or at least it so appears to Earth scientists -- so a crew is dispatched to find out why.
The first half hour of the film passes without event, giving director Antony Hoffman time to introduce the heroes, all cut from Hollywood's stereotypical cloth.
Val Kilmer plays a hot shot technical engineer while Tom Sizemore, Terence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt and Simon Baker fill out the scientific team that will explore Mars' surface.
The action heats up as the craft approaches orbit around the red planet -- a solar storm damages the electrical system aboard ship -- and the crew is forced to leave the commander behind to deal with the emergency.
The rest of the crew boards the landing craft for a bumpy ride to the surface -- offering the best scenes of the film as the craft bounces over hill and dale on giant balls that cushion the ride.
From there, the drama shifts to rescuing the crew members as they face the loss of oxygen, food, water and communication. A sideshow involves a robot that roams the planet in search of human prey.
"Red Planet" relies on subtle shadings and muted special effects for its entertainment value, which probably assures a rapid shift from theaters to video stores.
But compared with many others of its kind, the film offers a more mature version of the future, and that's not bad at all.
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