SETI Institute's Seth Shostak Reviews "Red Planet"

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Nov. 13, 2000

Its 2052, and our descendants are choking on the wretched refuse of their own technology.In a last-ditch effort to forestall environmental Armageddon, Earth takes a cue from the playbook of countless fictional aliens and looks for salvation on another world, in this case Mars. Robotic craft have been sent to melt the polar caps and seed the planet with blue-green algae in a barely plausible bid to produce a warm, breathable atmosphere.But something has gone awry down in the Martian dust. The mission of the crew of MARS 1 (which looks suspiciously like the International Space Station fitted out with giant, rotating training wheels) is to find the glitch, and give Earthlings a second chance.Red Planet is yet another sci-fi film that pits a feisty cadre of space cadets against the real and improbable difficulties of planetary exploration. Apparently the success of Sigourney Weaver in fighting off carnivorous extraterrestrials has prompted a future space agency to put a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) in command.And she has her work cut out for her. Her underlings are a bunch of goofy guys who might be better suited for unauthorized raids against Mexican Federales. Theyre accompanied by a more serious crew member -- the dog-like robot AMEE, borrowed from the Marines and capable of brutal hand-to-paw combat, if you set the wrong flip-flop switch in his silicon brain.Red Planet is more plausible than a lot of Hollywood space opera, but dont drop out of Astronomy 101 just yet. Theres still enough bonkers science to make you moan.The films producers want you to know theyre aware of Mars lesser gravity (despite the fact that all the actors walk with a heavy step), so they arrange for the Mars-o-nauts to spout rainbow-like arcs of urine while relieving themselves on the landscape. In truth, all that would really happen in Martian gravity is that your piddle puddle would be 62 percent farther from your boots. An upward arc indicates a misplaced zipper.Other technical botches are less subtle.When a solar flare erupts in the direction of MARS 1, it does more than merely threaten the health of the crew members. The sudden particle storm manages to seriously churn up the electronics, causing relay racks of equipment to light up like short-circuited fireworks factories. This happens a lot in the movies, and is always a puzzle when you consider that modern digital electronics typically run at 5 volts. Try putting 5 volts across your temples or the nearest rack of electronics, and see if either blows up.Theres lots more. Shortly after a rough-and-tumble landing on Mars, the MARS 1 crew is surprised to discover that the atmosphere is chock-a-block with oxygen. They shouldnt be. Any earthbound astronomer with a telescope and a spectrograph could have spotted all that atmospheric oxygen and clued them in.A similarly questionable situation occurs later in the film when the principals manage to send a critical communication to Earth by resuscitating the long-dead transmitter of the 1997 NASA Pathfinder rover (conveniently situated within walking distance). Their success is rationalized by the fact that a "chance radio telescope" back on Earth has picked up the signal from this low-powered (0.1 watt) device. In reality, of course, radio astronomers dont spend a lot of time training their scopes at Mars. Just about none, in fact.Incongruities abound. During one particularly dramatic sequence, a nighttime storm (looking all the world like a hurricane bellowing out of the Caribbean) whips across the Martian landscape turning the temperatures to a nippy minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius). Crew member Gallagher (Val Kilmer) is so tough that he wont even bother to don his helmet. The National Science Foundation should send this guy to Antarctica.In another interesting development, some sophisticated life forms indigenous Martians! are suddenly seen scurrying across the ground. "Nematodes!" pronounces one of the surprised crew, in an attempt to be erudite. Small error here: nematodes are round worms, but these critters look like economy-size lice. They like to eat everything from spacesuits to spacemen, and frankly its a puzzle why they havent eaten Mars itself.With so many things going wrong on this venture, its gratifying to note that the movie tells you why, if not very explicitly. "There are a billion taxpayer dollars tied up in this mission," Ms. Moss pronounces while expansively gesturing to the MARS 1s commodious interior. Well, if inflation averages 3 percent between now and 2052, the cost of the MARS 1 works out to about $215 million in todays money. Only a few hundred million dollars for a manned mission to Mars? A mission designed to save our species? NASA has experience with cheap Martian space shots: they often fail. Something must have happened to salaries.Despite the bungles, Red Planet is still enjoyable. There are goose-bump moments when the crew shambles quietly across the rugged Martian topography (nicely subbed by Jordan and Australia). During these all-too-brief cinematic interludes, an imaginative viewer can sense what it might be like to walk on this truly alien world.On a final upbeat note, anyone in the audience with better than 20/200 eyesight will undoubtedly spot the ubiquitous presence of sedimentary rock in these scenes. Ah, if it were only so. Tall hills of sedimentary rock would bespeak long-lived oceans on the Martian surface.Such an enticement would lure us to the Red Planet a lot sooner than 2052. Maybe Val Kilmer should sign up.