A pale, patchy amalgam of the year’s two unfairly reviled interplanetary adventures, Supernova and Mission to Mars, the lunkheaded Red Planet distinguishes itself with a touching pretense of scientific veracity. New Age mysticism is kept to a minimum, and the life-on-Mars discovery is as absurdly mundane as De Palma’s was histrionically Spielbergian. Such committed understatement can only be counterproductive in the sci-fi realm (star Val Kilmer, for the record, proudly classifies Red Planet as “science fact”).
An ungainly voice-over spells out the boilerplate premise: Earthly eco-disaster prompts deep-space colonization, and scientists dispatch clumps of algae to oxygenate the Martian atmosphere. When the green stuff mysteriously vanishes in 2050, NASA sends a manned expedition: tank-top-clad commander Carrie-Anne Moss, smirky engineer Kilmer, chiseled blowhard Benjamin Bratt, wisecracking geneticist, um, Tom Sizemore, and chin-strokingly spiritual elder Terence Stamp (who delivers the token what-if-God-was-a-spaceman rumination).
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, a longtime Cronenberg collaborator, capably renders the mythologized dread of the pockmarked Martian surface—the Australian outback and Jordanian desert shot through blazing vermilion filters. But nothing here comes close to the Kubrick homages De Palma uncorked midway through Mission, and excepting a clamorous crash landing in which the male crew members are catapulted onto the planet in a giant pod, first-timer Antony Hoffman directs with a studious lack of imagination. The movie complies slavishly with the space-thriller model of cast attrition—the demises are, in predictable succession, quietly noble, accidental, karmic, and heroically gruesome. Kilmer complicates his line readings with a weirdly contemptuous Malkovich-affect; Moss remains in orbit for the duration, issuing panicky instructions to her shipwrecked crew (“Avoid pressing anything that says ‘Ignition’!”). As in The Matrix, her contained beatitude acquires a sudden auroral luminosity in the dying moments, crystallizing her role into a single, transcendent feat of hero resuscitation.
Based on the experiences of Navy man Carl Breshear, Men of Honor often seems less concerned with believability than Red Planet. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Breshear, a Kentucky sharecropper’s son who strives to become the first black deep-sea diver in American military history. “As a dramatist I sometimes took it up a level,” screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith explains in the press notes. Meaning he tells big honking lies—none more flagrant than the “composite” character of Master Chief Billy Sunday, Breshear’s racist-sadist nemesis (later repentant ally), played by an obliviously gung ho Robert De Niro. Smith and director George Tillman Jr. are less interested in credibly dramatizing a real-life story than in drawing belabored parallels and nurturing imagined bonds between Breshear and this preposterous caricature—in the process, the filmmakers at once coarsen and dilute a fascinating life into a lumpy puddle of punishing inspirational hokum.